The J. E. Church Fine Arts Building, designed by world-famous modernist architect Richard Neutra, first opened in the fall of 1960. It was constructed to unite the departments of Speech Communications and Theater, Art, and Music under one modern roof. The entire art department originally occupied battered war-surplus Quonset huts in a corner of campus known as “Skunk Hollow.” At the recommendation of tireless department chair Craig J. Sheppard, the new fine arts building was named in honor of accomplished Professor James Edward Church.
Dr. Church was a pioneer of snow science, a professor of classical languages, and the first professor of art appreciation at the University. He joined the University faculty in 1892 and served as a faculty member for 47 years. He remained an active part of the university community even after his retirement and was an avid supporter of the arts. When his efforts to establish an art museum on campus were denied, he co-founded the Nevada Art Gallery on Ralston Street in 1931. That institution later evolved into the renowned Nevada Museum of Art. Church passed away shortly after construction began on the fine arts building, and his and his wife’s ashes were interred in its cornerstone. In 1977, the building was rededicated to Dr. Church. The short ceremony recognized the many contributions of the late professor and sought to address the misnomer Church “of” Fine Arts.
The first exhibition in Church Fine Arts was called “70 by 50”, and featured 70 modern works by 50 popular artists. Among those featured were Picasso, Degas, and Matisse, and the artwork was largely sourced from the private collection of Reno businessman Wilbur D. May. The first theater performance in the building, Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” took place in October of 1960. The building was appropriately called the finest of its kind on modern campuses of the day.
Additions in the mid-1980s created more classroom and gallery space, as well as the Nightingale Concert Hall and the Redfield Studio Theatre. Further renovations in 2012 saw the construction of the atrium entrance on Virginia Street, as well as updates to the Redfield Proscenium Theatre and the Front Door Gallery. As part of the School of the Arts Building Initiative, and to keep up with the ever-constant demand for a well-equipped arts education, even more modern updates and additions are planned for the near future.