As 1960 approached, the city of Reno was reckoning with its rapid growth and the accompanying need for a new city government facility. Since 1907, Reno’s City Hall had stood on the southwest corner of Center and First (originally known as Front) Streets. The two-story brick building, with its distinctive clock tower, had served the city well, but being fully surrounded by other buildings, it offered no potential for expansion. The city made a decisive move in March of 1961 when it announced that the parcel housing the old City Hall had been sold for a considerable sum to First National Bank.
That left the city with the challenge of finding a new site and designing and constructing a brand-new City Hall as quickly as possible. After considering several locations including the site of the State Building on Virginia Street, the Federal Building on Booth Street, and Northside Junior High School on East 4th Street, the city finally decided on the parcel that had housed the Southside School on South Center Street, just south of Liberty Street. The city had purchased the block a few years earlier and demolished the school building in 1960. (The adjacent Southside School Annex building still stands—see separate entry).
Architect Hewitt Campau Wells was selected to design the new building. Wells, who received a degree in architecture in 1938 from Princeton University, had worked with Albert Kahn in Detroit and had been living through 1957 in San Francisco, where he designed the Fisherman’s Wharf Franciscan Restaurant. He had just joined the Reno firm of Frederic J. DeLongchamps and George L.F. O’Brien in 1962. Wells later designed the Washoe County Library, located just up the street, which opened in 1966.
For the new City Hall, Wells designed a modern structure with a two-story open central atrium that originally featured a lush array of shrubs and trees said to create a "semi-tropical atmosphere." Large embossed, oxidized copper panels surround the interior atrium and cover the wide overhangs of the dramatic exterior roof line. The new building, constructed for a total cost of $1.3 million, was dedicated on May 21, 1965, with remarks from Governor Grant Sawyer, Reno Mayor Hugh Quilici, and others. The 67,000-square foot building served as the center of city government for the next four decades.
In 2002, the City of Reno announced its purchase of the 16-story Cal-Neva office building on the northeast corner of First and N. Virginia Streets and its intent to move city offices there. The old City Hall building was initially considered for police headquarters, but with that plan abandoned, the city attempted to sell the building via public auction in 2005. Backers of a plan to construct a Nevada Discovery Museum there successfully acquired the building, which underwent a major conversion, including construction of a new glass lobby at the front entrance, before opening to the public in September of 2011 as the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum (The Discovery).