Biggest Little City in the World isn't little any more.
Reno is the regional capital of an enormous area of western Nevada
and the eastern Sierra.
On a fine spring day in 1928,
Reno held a great municipal celebration at the railroad tracks
in honor of paving
the two-lane highway
over Donner Summit to California. As the band burst into a brassy
ragtime, and the bankers, bootleggers and other leading citizens
beamed with pride, neon letters on the new iron arch spanning
Virginia Street blazed with light for the first time. "RENO," they
bragged against a downtown skyline of Edwardian brick, "The
Biggest Little City in the World."
The iron arch is gone now, replaced by a brighter version much jazzier than the
Jazz Age original, and Reno's golden age of society divorcees, bootleg whiskey
and basement gambling rooms is gone with it.
Modern Reno dates from another fine spring noontime, almost
50 years to the day after that gaudy little celebration, when
an enormous tan tower rose 26 stories from its bright, light-bejewelled
base on an enormous asphalt pad near the edge of the airport,
far from the city center. The $131,000,000 MGM Grand Hotel greeted
every incoming flight to Reno-Cannon International the same way
the old arch greeted every train at the railroad depot downtown.
The MGM Grand -- it's the freshly painted Reno Hilton now -- was the flagship
of Nevada's gamblinghouse fleet, the most magnificent pleasure liner ever launched
on Nevada's desert sands, and its crew was the pick of the industry. There
were glamorous big-name stars and the fabulous Hello, Hollywood review, a magnificent
arcade of expensive shops and a gambling floor as big as two football fields.
It was the class of the wagering world, and if the title has since been taken
by the astonishing new resorts being built in Las Vegas, the huge hotel is
still a potent reminder that Reno offers every pleasure a fun-seeking visitor
could want, from world class cuisine to pee wee golf.
Twenty years later, the Silver Legacy has drawn the center of attention back
downtown. This enormous gambling theme park is elaborately designed and connected
organically to its neighbors. It contains, among other attractions, the Brews
Brothers restaurant and microbrewery, the first brew pub in a major Nevada
Reno's heart is downtown. The city was was born at Lake's Crossing
where Myron Lake's bridge brought the Virginia City road across
the Truckee River, and from there the changes wrought since the
opening of the MGM Grand are easily visible to the naked eye.
Truckee River Walk extends east and west. Eastward it follows
the river all the way past the Hilton and
through Sparks nearly
to the enclosing hills. You'll pass trout fishermen if you walk
this way. To the west it takes you past the little amphitheater
where the pleasing noon concerts are performed in the summer
months, and on across Arlington Street into the "City of
Trembling Leaves" (as author Walter Van Tilburg Clark described
it) where cottonwoods and elms shade rambling Victorians, left
over from a time when divorcees waited out an endless six-week
residence for their freedom.
The Riverside, once the grandest hotel in the state, has been half-demolished
and converted to artists' studios. The Mapes, built in 1948 as Nevada's tallest
building, and the Harolds Club that Pappy Smith built into the biggest and
best-known casino in the world, are gone.
Continue on another pleasant half-mile to Idlewild Park with its rose gardens,
broad lawns and ducky ponds. The trail proceeds on, and on, and on, and on
about as far as you're prepared to hike, with a small picnic and rest area
at its end, many miles from Lake's Crossing.
To the north, Virginia Street between the river and the railroad track is brilliant
with casino facades. Newcomers have added to the city's downtown dimensions
and moved its center north: the Eldorado, the Sundowner, the Flamingo Hilton,
Circus Circus and the mighty Silver Legacy. Two of the city's most popular
casino hotels, the Peppermill and the Atlantis, are well south on Virginia
Street near the Convention Center.
Almost any downtown dining choice will be enjoyable, but here are a few suggestions:
The Eldorado. Here you can choose from one of the state's finest gourmet dining
rooms, La Strada, or the city's most highly praised buffet, or six other stylish
and distinctive dining choices. The Carano family has adopted the strategy
that brought John Asquaga his fame and success in Sparks: serve the best food.
Harrah's offers first class gourmet dining also, the Cal-Neva always has an
inexpensive special or two, and the Circus Circus buffet is a bargain.
You don't have to find a casino to have something to eat, of course. One of
the city's finest restaurants is Adele¹s, the exquisitely New York French
restaurant at Liberty and South Virginia. Luciano's at 719 S. Virginia is also
Deux Gros Nez, upstairs over the Hermitage Gallery at California and Humboldt
streets, is the inspired setting for a cup of fancy coffee or a cool beer from
England. The Santa Fe Hotel on Lake Street is one of Reno's best-known Basque
restaurants, having served most of four generations of local folks their hearty
working-man's family style suppers. Louis' Basque Corner, at Fourth and Evans
is another local favorite.
A little farther afield: the best cheeseburger in town is either at the Keystone
Cue & Cushion, at Fifth near Keystone, or Juicy's at 310 S. Wells (and
other locations) -- you choose.
Art also abounds in downtown Reno, especially during the annual
summer Arttown celebration. A unique collection of colorful,
carefully sculpted shapes and gleaming surfaces with powerful
emotional impact is displayed at The National Automobile Collection
at Mill and Lake Streets.
You can combine food and refreshment with another collection of colorful artifacts
at the Liberty Belle Saloon on south Virginia Street beside the Convention
Center. Here you can have an informal lunch or dinner and see the magnificent
collection of slot machines assembled by the grandsons of the man who invented
the diabolical device.
For art without the calories, the Sierra Nevada Museum of Art occupies two
near-downtown locations. At the E.L. Weigand Museum, 160 W. Liberty, the exhibits
are an eclectic mix of traveling shows and local artists. The neo-Georgian
Hawkins House at 549 Court Street, west of Arlington, exhibits 19th and 20th
century American art. The Stremmel Gallery on south Virginia Street is a busy
showplace of leading artists, and there is a row of galleries on Sierra Street
between First and Second.
The University of Nevada Reno campus adjoining north Virginia Street is another
locus for artists, exhibits and performances of every kind. Campus events are
listed at the Jot Travis Student Union (775-784-6589). The Gutzon Borglum statue
of Comstock mining tycoon John Mackay has been a landmark for almost a century,
and you'll enjoy the minerals collection inside the Mackay School of Mines
building behind him. If you're a late-night movie watcher, you may feel a shock
or recognition as you cross the great lawn of this classical Jeffersonian quadrangle.
It¹s not merely that it's modeled after the University of Virginia, it's
-- can it be? Yes! This is where Andy Hardy went to College! (in the 1937 movie
starring Mickey Rooney, that is.)
The more recent "Peavine Installation" by John Mason invites a visit:
walk up North Virginia Street, and walk uphill until you see the black and
white rectangles planted in the lawn outside the Lombardi Recreation Building.
When you've finished playing eye games with this beguiling
piece, walk a little farther up the hill and calm down at the
Nevada State Historical Society. You'll find handsomely mounted
and informative exhibits depicting the physical and social environments
established in the ebb and flow of Nevada history, as well as
research collections and facilities.
The queerly shaped building across the way is the Fleischmann
Planetarium. Inside is a specially constructed domed theater
where a unique cinematic process
provides visitors with the "experience" of space flights, an eagle's
eye view of the growth and development of a fluffy wisp of cloud into a ferocious
thunderstorm, the birth and death of a star, and other cosmic wonders of the
Rancho San Rafael a few blocks west of the University, is an
enormous county park, with open green space, playgrounds and
a gallery devoted to the interests of Wilbur May, the May Co.
Department Store heir whose charmed life ended peacefully a few
years ago. The exhibits center on the animals whose lives he
ended on hunting trips, and on the art which he collected as
avidly as he collected heads. The autumn Great Reno Balloon Race
ascensions are made from here in a scene of magical frenzy.
Speaking of green space, no law says you have to confine your graveyard strolling
to old mining towns. You might enjoy a half hour at Mountain View Cemetery,
accessible from Stoker Avenue via west Fourth Street. Only a few of the old-fashioned
angels, lambs or obelisks survive the trend to gang-mowing, but this burying
ground contains the earthly remains of some of Nevada's greatest figures from
the past. Pay your respects to Senator Pat McCarran, Mayor Ed Roberts, the
Pittman Brothers, Bill Stead, Alf Doten and thousands of others more or less
prominent in their lifetimes. Their present serenity belies the passions that
once stirred them, and the neat rows and simple plaques bear no relation to
the complex and sometimes tangled lives they lived. Mausoleums of the rich
and famous (now mostly forgotten) still stand in great gloomy rows, and a dirt-surfaced
Potter's Field on the downslope behind the maintenance sheds provides additional
food for thought.