In 1936, the architect Paul Revere Williams, who had completed at least two commissions in Reno by that time, designed two houses for the illustrious California House and Garden Exhibition. One was a French cottage, and the other was a three-room “Steel House.” The steel house employed modern materials in such a way as to look traditional. From a distance, the steel walls looked like wood, and the interior wall treatment suggested painted wood paneling.
The use of steel in home construction had been experimented with since 1890. It had proven to be too expensive for the average home buyer, however, until the Los Angeles company, W.C. Lea, Inc., invented and patented new processes for manufacturing pre-fabricated steel components that could be shipped to any location and constructed on-site. The company employed the eminent Paul R. Williams as their consulting architect. In a July 1936 L.A. Times advertisement, Paul Williams declared, “If you can buy a home of any kind, you can buy a Lea Steel Home!”
With Reno’s housing market continuing to boom, Roland Giroux, known as “Joe,” developed a complex of small detached apartments at 1307 South Virginia Street, between Arroyo and Pueblo streets, on what was then the edge of town. Giroux’s intent was to attract Reno’s transient work force, tourists, and the ubiquitous divorce-seekers. Named the El Reno Apartments, the complex consisted of 15 Lea Steel homes. Each unit was furnished and fitted out with the latest of Westinghouse kitchen appliances, metal kitchen cabinets, comfortable and efficient floor plans, decorative exteriors, and all the benefits of steel buildings: permanence, as well as resistance to fire, termites, dry rot, and earthquakes.
Construction was quickly completed by local workers, who poured concrete foundations and assembled the pre-fabricated sections that had come from the factory. All that was needed was finishing work, anchoring the components to the foundation, and building the roofs. Outside and in, the units looked like traditional construction, but closer examination revealed everything was steel.
The El Reno Apartments were popular through World War II, after which a raise in the rent forced tenants to find other lodgings. Within a few years, the complex was no longer sustainable and the units were sold off individually; most were moved to other locations around town. The little houses have retained their distinctive bay windows, spurring a local activity of trying to identify El Reno units. As many as 13 of the original 15 have been found so far.