The Park Wedding Chapel, and the Sullivan Apartments next to it, were replaced by a modern commercial building in 2009, but the little chapel’s distinction comes from being Reno’s first wedding chapel. Joseph Melcher, a local advertising executive, and his wife Venila, opened their wedding business on May 15, 1956, converting what was formerly a private home into a charming chapel. The location was ideal; not only did it face Powning Park, but the marriage license bureau, located in the County Courthouse, was just across the street.
The Melcher’s facilities included a chapel, a waiting room, a powder room, and a registration room. The bride and groom were responsible for finding an official authorized to conduct the service, although there were a number of Reno clergy who would not perform marriages in the chapel. The Justice of the Peace was available at all hours, however, and could perform marriages at any location within his jurisdiction.
Long known as the Divorce Mecca, Reno’s quick wedding trade caught on as the result of Nevada’s lenient requirements for obtaining a marriage license, and got a boost in 1927 when the California legislature passed the so-called “anti-gin” law, which required a three-day waiting period between the issuance of a marriage license and the ceremony, later adding a blood test and medical exam to its requirements. Though Reno remained famous for divorces, it wasn’t long before the Washoe County Courthouse turned out more marriage licenses than it did divorce decrees.
When the Park Chapel opened at 136 South Virginia Street, owner Joe Melcher declared that his goal was to have a place where marriages could be performed in a dignified manner, citing the coldness of a judge’s chambers or the office of the Justice of the Peace. In this regard, the Park Wedding Chapel paved the way for other wedding chapels in Reno, and an expansion of the already lucrative marriage business. For a relatively nominal fee, a visiting bride and groom could have a quick yet respectable wedding. Reno’s casinos and beautiful natural setting made it an ideal place to honeymoon as well. Fans of the 1961 film The Misfits, starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, will want to be on the lookout for a brief shot of a Park Wedding Chapel bus bench advertisement that appears over Marilyn Monroe’s left shoulder in one of the downtown scenes.