Washoe County Library

The midcentury marvel is renowned for its lush interior garden court.

After the demolition of the Carnegie Free Public Library, the Reno branch of the Washoe County Library was housed in the Nevada State Building, which by the mid-1960s, was slated for demolition to make room for the Pioneer Theater and Auditorium. The newly established Fleischmann Foundation offered the library $1.2 million for the construction of a new building, and after a lengthy struggle, and the near loss of the donation, the city signed a 99-year lease on several parcels on South Center Street in December 1963. In June 1964, the Nevada State Journal reported that the county had approved the plans for the new library, and had issued requests for construction bids. The architect Hewitt C. Wells, of the firm DeLongchamps, O'Brien and Wells, submitted the winning design, which offered many unique interior features.

Wells designed the 43,000 square-foot building around an enclosed and covered garden court. Reading areas and the multi-tiered book stacks look out on the interior garden, which includes large trees and a pool. Access to the main circulation desk is by a bridge that crosses the landscaped area. Reading and staff areas, lecture rooms, cataloging, and the loading areas for the county's two bookmobiles were included in the original design, which offered a capacity of 186,000 volumes. The front façade of the library is a large copper and glass screen that reflects the curvilinear plan of the interior court. Through the brick work and the use of copper, Wells maintained unity with the Reno City Hall, located diagonally across Center Street, which he had recently designed. Wells’s city hall building now houses the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum.

The library opened to the public on May 13, 1966. The dedication ceremony and an open house were held on May 22 with more than 700 people coming to view the exquisite and daring design. It was not long before Hewitt Wells was honored for his artistry. He received the Industrial Landscape Award from the American Association of Nurserymen for his interior use of hundreds of plants, shrubs, and trees gracefully arranged in huge iron planters along walkways of stones and mica schist. America’s First Lady, Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, presented the award as part of her Beautify America campaign.

The Downtown Branch Library is in use today and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. It is also listed in the Reno Register of Historic Places.


Mushroom pods
Mushroom pods The dramatic interior of the Washoe County Library in 1966. The "mushroom pods" offer clusters of seating. Source: Washoe County Library Date: 1966
Mid-century modern
Mid-century modern The main library exterior ca. 1966, shortly after construction. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries Date: ca. 1966
Ground floor plans
Ground floor plans Washoe County Library building design by Hewitt Wells, the architect. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries Creator: Hewitt Wells Date: 1964
Populating the garden
Populating the garden The installation of the interior landscaping, as covered by the Nevada State Journal, April 27, 1966. Source: Nevada State Journal Date: April 27, 1966
National recognition, 1967
National recognition, 1967 From an article in Designers West Magazine in April, 1967. The caption reads: "The ultra-modern Washoe County Library in Reno, Nevada, is a unique, free-form design with few interior walls. Visitors relax and read in elevated circular reading areas on top of giant poured concrete mushrooms that rise two and three stories from the ground level. Natural plants line the flagstone walkways and adorn the reading areas, while a fountain plays on the ground level." Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries Creator: Designers West Magazine Date: 1967
A busy place
A busy place With microfiche machines in the foreground, Washoe County Library patrons check out books at the service desk. Source: Washoe County Library
Children's area
Children's area The children's area in the Washoe County Library was later moved to another location in the building. Source: Washoe County Library
Main floor
Main floor The service desk and card catalog at the Washoe County Library. Source: Washoe County Library
National recognition, 1966
National recognition, 1966 The Washoe County Library was personally commended by Mrs. Lyndon Johnson, as reported by the Reno Evening Gazette on November 16, 1966. Source: Reno Evening Gazette Date: November 16, 1966
Checking out, 1970
Checking out, 1970 A view from behind the service desk at the Washoe County Library, 1970. Source: Washoe County Library Date: 1970
View from the top
View from the top The open design of the Washoe County Library is clearly seen in this view from the top floor. Source: Dick Dreiling
Open space
Open space The award-winning interior garden inside the Washoe County Library. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries
Reference area
Reference area The reference area of the Washoe County Library before print indexes and card catalogs and most reference books were rendered obsolete by online access to databases and information. Source: Washoe County Library
Visit from Bertha, 1986
Visit from Bertha, 1986 Bertha the elephant, from John Ascuaga's Nugget, gets a Washoe County Library card during the library's 20th anniversary in 1986. Library Director Martha Gould is on the right. Source: Washoe County Library Systems Date: 1986
Washoe County Library interior, 2014
Washoe County Library interior, 2014 This photo was one of 800 entries in the "Libraries Are Beautiful – Inside and Out" photo contest sponsored by Gale Cengage Learning in 2014. As a result of the 28,000 votes cast, it won the first place award in the "Coolest Internal Space" category. Creator: Marc Tiar Date: 2014


301 South Center Street, Reno, NV


Mella Rothwell Harmon, “Washoe County Library,” Reno Historical, accessed June 14, 2024, https://renohistorical.org/items/show/60.