Francis G. Newlands built his large home on Elm Court in 1890, two years after moving to Reno from San Francisco with his second wife, Edith McAllister. Newlands’ first wife, Clara, was the daughter of Comstock mining and banking magnate William Sharon, one of the richest men in the West. Despite Clara’s death during childbirth in 1882, Newlands, who had practiced law in San Francisco since 1870, was appointed trustee over William Sharon’s estate. Included were extensive holdings in Nevada, which Newlands moved to Reno to manage.
In May 1889, Reno papers reported that an architect and "New York landscape gardener," believed to have been Nathan F. Barrett, were hard at work on plans for the house and the surrounding fifteen acres. The house was originally designed in the Queen Anne style, and research suggests that it was originally covered in redwood siding and cedar shingles. For this reason, it is often described as being in the Shingle style of architecture.
Francis Newlands’ work in Nevada led him to the national silver question, which was having a significant impact on Nevada’s silver mining industry. He worked on the National Silver Committee in Washington, D.C. and in 1892, was elected to the House of Representatives as a Silver Party candidate. Newlands served in the House until 1903, when he was elected to the U. S. Senate, where he served until his death in 1917.
Perhaps Newlands' most significant political contribution was the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, which established the Federal Reclamation Fund from proceeds from the sale of public land. The first project under the Act was the 1903 Newlands Reclamation Project, which provided irrigation to Washoe, Ormsby, Churchill, and Lyon counties. Much of the project infrastructure, including dams and canals, remains in use today.
During his time in Washington, D.C., Newlands became interested in real estate, and was responsible for the development of the upscale community of Chevy Chase, Maryland, a street-car suburb of Washington. In Reno, the Newlands family was responsible for the development of the residential subdivisions east, south, and west of Newlands’ home--now part of the Newlands Historic District, listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The district is significant for its architecture and landscape design, as well as for its association with the City Beautiful movement of urban planning.
Francis Newlands died in 1917, leaving behind a complicated legacy. Environmentalists, historians, and Native American tribes have called into question the long-term success, sustainability, and equitability of reclamation in the arid west. Furthermore, Newlands' career is marred by his racist beliefs and political platform, including a failed attempt to repeal the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed suffrage for Black men. He vocally supported segregation and opposed citizenship for non-white immigrants. During the era of Newlands’ congressional and senatorial rule, these ideas reflected popular racial beliefs and misconceptions that complicated the Progressive politics of the time.
After Newlands' death, prominent Reno attorney George Thatcher bought the house in 1920. Thatcher was a well-known and successful divorce lawyer who occasionally let his prominent clients reside in his home. This was the case when Woolworth dime-store heiress Barbara Hutton came to Reno for a divorce in 1935.
For its historical significance, the Newlands House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963. The mansion was purchased from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1984 by Melinda and Dan Gustin, and has been fully restored as a private residence.