Some of Reno’s most striking and glamorous architecture is found in buildings of the Modern Era. The Modern Movement (MoMo), broadly defined as spanning from the 1930s through the 1970s, is associated with styles including Art Deco, Art and Streamline Moderne, Mid-Century Modern, International, Googie, New Formalism, and Brutalism. Although vastly varied, they share a number of common traits: an emphasis on the functional, a lack of clear references to historical precedents, and an awareness of modernity. Modern buildings incorporated new technologies and materials, among them concrete, aluminum, asbestos, and air conditioning.
The Modern Era was a time of great change in Reno. The city’s population doubled in size between 1930 and 1960. Liberal divorce and gambling laws brought new visitors and residents to town. After a slowdown in growth and rationing of gas and construction materials during the Second World War, Reno experienced a sharp uptick in tourism, new construction, and residential population. Like other Western cities, it also witnessed the emergence of a fresh, modern aesthetic in architectural design.
Some of these new buildings were Reno’s first high rises. Interest in high-rise living, especially among single professionals, spurred the construction of downtown residential skyscrapers including Park Tower and Arlington Tower. New casinos and commercial buildings, including the First National Bank of Nevada tower (now Reno City Hall), also reached new heights.
The Modern Era represented a golden age of travel and tourism in the United States, and Reno’s profile as a destination rose as hotels and casinos—including Harolds Club, Harrah’s, and the Primadonna—expanded their footprints along with their entertainment and dining options. Local businesses sought to attract the eye of automobile tourists traveling along U.S. 40 and later, Interstate 80, with striking roadside architecture in the form of vibrant neon signs, Googie-style diners, and themed motels.
North of downtown, the University of Nevada, Reno campus embarked on a major building campaign in the 1960s, resulting in the construction of the Fleischmann Planetarium, Getchell Library, Church Fine Arts Building, and Jot Travis Student Union, among others. These buildings experimented with new forms and technologies, representing the cutting edge of architecture in Reno.
Many renowned architects contributed to Reno’s mid-twentieth century MoMo landscape. Locally, they included Raymond Hellmann, Monk Ferris, Graham Erskine, David Vhay, Russell Mills, Edward Parsons, Ralph Casazza, E. Keith Lockard, Frederic DeLongchamps, George O’Brien, Hewitt Wells, and Frank Green. Architects from other parts of the country—namely Los Angeles—who designed modern buildings in Reno included Armet and Davis, Robert Langdon, and Richard Neutra. The Oklahoma City firm Bozalis, Dickinson & Roloff, which specialized in geodesic domes, designed Reno’s Pioneer Theater.
Much of Reno’s Modern Movement architecture is currently under threat. Iconic buildings that have fallen to the bulldozer include Getchell Library, Union Savings and Loan, the Greyhound Bus Station, and dozens of motels. Many mid-century buildings have fallen out of favor with developers, who have deemed the structures shabby, run-down, or too expensive to rehabilitate—just as other cities across the country are reviving their MoMo architecture into jubilant cultural landmarks that drive economic development. Perhaps our community can regain its appreciation of these buildings, leveraging our shared architectural heritage to create vibrant, revitalized communities.