Filed Under Religion

First Church of Christ, Scientist

Widely known as the Lear Theater, the riverfront church designed by Paul Revere Williams has been a Reno landmark since 1939.

This site is part of the Architecture of Paul Revere Williams tour. Visit the Tours page for the tour introduction and a complete list of sites.

In a town traditionally known for “sinful” institutions, it should not go unnoticed that between 1870 and 1950, downtown Reno had a total of 24 churches. The First Church of Christ, Scientist, which began with a congregation of just four members, was one of them.

In the late 1930s, as its congregation continued to grow, the First Church of Christ, Scientist sought to construct a new building. Luella Garvey, a wealthy widow from Southern California who had moved to Reno a few years earlier, donated funds to help them purchase a new site on the north bank of the Truckee River, at the corner of Ralston Street and tree-lined Riverside Drive.

The building committee, chaired by Anna Frandsen Loomis, interviewed several architects, and selected African American architect Paul Revere Williams for the project. Also known as "the architect to the stars," Williams had first achieved fame in Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and had designed Luella Garvey's Reno residence on California Avenue in 1934.

The church was designed in the Neoclassical Revival architectural style and constructed with great attention to detail. Some of the architectural details include columns and pilasters, a double-curved portico, and side-window pediments. The main auditorium could hold up to 600 individuals. Side rooms included a nursery and a caretaker’s apartment. The entire construction including furnishings cost $140,000.

The building was used to hold church services from its completion on October 22, 1939, until the congregation built a new church and moved its services to that location in 1998. For fear of losing such a valuable piece of history, Moya Lear, a devout member of the church and widow of aviation developer Bill Lear, purchased the building and donated it to the nonprofit Reno-Sparks Theater Coalition in 1998. She hoped that the coalition would preserve the history and integrity of the building while promoting arts and education within the community. In Lear's honor, the building was renamed the Lear Theater, and in 2005 the coalition that owned it was renamed Lear Theater, Inc.

The cause received numerous major grants and donations, but still failed to achieve its goal of renovating and opening the theater. In 2011, the non-profit corporation gave the Lear Theater and two other adjacent properties to Artown, a non-profit organization that hosts Reno’s month-long arts and events celebration each July. In September 2021, the Reno City Council approved the City of Reno's purchase of the church building and adjacent parking lot from Artown for a total of $875,000, to be paid in installments over seven years. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Nevada State Register of Historic Places, and the Reno Register of Historic Places, the building remains vacant, its future yet undetermined.

Images

The church in 1940
The church in 1940 The Church in 1940 as photographed for the Farm Security Administration. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Office of War Information Photograph Collection. Creator: Arthur Rothstein Date: 1940
The church ca. 1945
The church ca. 1945 The church in its prime. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries Date: ca. 1945
Paul Revere Williams
Paul Revere Williams A portrait of the architect, Paul Revere Williams. Source: Lear Theater, Inc.
Architect's rendering
Architect's rendering Architect Paul Revere Williams' rendering of the church was published in the Reno Evening Gazette on October 12, 1938 to mark the commencement of work on the new structure. Source: Reno Evening Gazette Date: October 12, 1938
Flood of 1950
Flood of 1950 Periodic floods are a drawback to being located on the banks of the Truckee River. The flood of 1950 flooded the basement, and the church lost many historical documents, and damage was sustained to the nursery and basement levels. Source: Nevada Historical Society Date: 1950
The back of the church
The back of the church West elevation, facing northeast, 1999. Source: National Register of Historic Places nomination form Creator: Mella Rothwell Harmon Date: 1999
Bill and Moya Lear
Bill and Moya Lear The Lears and their Lear Jet. Widow to the inventor of the Lear jet and often referred to as “Queen Lear,” Moya Lear is responsible for purchasing and therefore saving the building when the church was forced to move because of plumbing and electricity failures. Moya was a dedicated member and Sunday school teacher for 30 years and could not stand to see the building go to waste. She then purchased and donated the building to the arts. Source: Lear Theater, Inc.
Theatrical aspirations, 2003
Theatrical aspirations, 2003 The church building in 2003. Creator: Max Chapman Date: 2003
Future promise
Future promise An exterior photo of the Lear Theater in 2003. Creator: Max Chapman Date: 2003
New stage, ca. 2002
New stage, ca. 2002 Building the stage structure for the theater, view from the auditorium. Source: Lear Theater, Inc. Date: ca. 2002
Remodeling, ca. 2002
Remodeling, ca. 2002 Construction to increase the stage and back-stage area. Source: Lear Theater, Inc. Date: ca. 2002
Entrance, 2008
Entrance, 2008 The Lear Theater entrance, closed for remodeling. Creator: Max Chapman Date: 2008
Entry stair rail
Entry stair rail First Church of Christ, Scientist/Lear Theater, entry stair rail with empty urn, 2010. Source: Paul Revere Williams Project, University of Memphis Creator: Sam Brackstone Date: 2010
Remodeling, 2010
Remodeling, 2010 The lobby of the Lear Theater during remodeling. The carpet has been removed to show the original tile floor. Source: Reno Gazette-Journal Date: 2010
Interior view
Interior view An interior view of the sanctuary and balcony from the half-completed stage. Creator: Alicia Barber Date: 2021
The half-completed stage
The half-completed stage A view from the rear of the sanctuary shows the half-completed stage area. Creator: Alicia Barber Date: 2021
The First Church of Christ, Scientist building in 2022
The First Church of Christ, Scientist building in 2022 A photo taken in May 2022 shows the fenced-off building with a fresh coat of paint and unkempt landscaping. Creator: Alicia Barber Date: 2022

Location

501 Riverside Drive, Reno, NV

Metadata

Mella Rothwell Harmon and Alicia Barber, “First Church of Christ, Scientist,” Reno Historical, accessed June 20, 2024, http://renohistorical.org/items/show/63.