Widely considered Reno’s birthplace, the site now occupied by the Riverside Hotel has offered some form of lodging for more than 150 years. It was vacant land fronting an obscure ford of the Truckee River until late 1859, when a bankrupt California storekeeper and muleskinner named Charles William Fuller built a bridge across the ford, claiming the land on both sides. He opened a primitive log and dugout “hotel” on the south bank, hoping to capture business from overland travelers and aspiring miners bound for the Comstock.
In mid-1861, Fuller traded the whole operation for a Honey Lake ranch owned by Myron Lake, who, within five years, turned the river crossing into a lucrative enterprise, complete with a new inn he dubbed the Lake House. Lake also bought up land along the river in anticipation of the arrival of the transcontinental railroad.
The inn burned down on December 4, 1868, just a few months after the Central Pacific Railroad began selling lots in the new Reno town site, just north of the river. Lake quickly constructed a new wood-frame hotel that became one of Reno’s finest. In 1888, four years after Myron Lake’s death, his son-in-law took over the Lake House, renaming it the Riverside Hotel.
A new era of luxury dawned in 1906, when Harry Gosse of Virginia City, having purchased the old hotel a decade earlier, replaced it with a four-story brick Chateau-style Riverside Hotel—just in time for Reno’s entrance into the divorce trade. For years, the national media raved about its long-distance telephones, elevator, and stylish patrons. Disaster struck in 1922, when a fire destroyed the entire structure.
Unable to rebuild, Gosse sold the vacant lot for $70,000 to Reno’s most powerful citizen, George Wingfield. The wealthy banker hired prominent architect Frederic DeLongchamps to design a luxury hotel deliberately courting well-to-do divorce-seekers and other travelers. Gothic in style and fully appointed throughout, the stately new six-story Riverside Hotel opened on May 14, 1927.
As the Reno divorce trade gained notoriety, so did the Riverside. Together with the neighboring courthouse and Virginia Street Bridge, the hotel appeared on countless postcards and in articles, novels, and films. The legalization of gambling in 1931 introduced a roulette wheel and 21 game, while a 1950 expansion added 84 rooms along with a swimming pool, a theater-restaurant, casino, and dance floor. The Riverside stage featured some of the top acts in show business, from Frank Sinatra to Jimmy Durante.
In 1955, Wingfield sold the hotel to Mert and Lou Wertheimer, and the next few decades brought multiple changes in ownership and periodic closures. The casino folded for good in 1986, and the hotel and restaurants followed in 1987.
The building faced demolition in 1997, until the local Sierra Arts Foundation partnered with Artspace, a Minneapolis-based developer of historic properties, to convert the original hotel rooms into 35 low-income artist lofts. The west addition was demolished, and the renovated Riverside re-opened in 2000 with the offices of Sierra Arts and other retail ventures occupying the ground floor.