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Historic Past


Washoe County Courthouse, Riverside Hotel, Virginia Street Bridge S. Virginia St. at the Truckee River, Reno

The Washoe County Courthouse is the third courthouse for Washoe County (one of the original nine counties in the Nevada territory established in 1861). Designed by Nevada State Architect, Frederic DeLongchamps, the courthouse was completed in 1911. Its busiest days came during the 1930s, when nearly 33,000 divorces were granted inside. Divorce had become Reno’s primary industry, symbolized by Alfred Eisenstadt’s famous photograph of a young woman kissing a courthouse pillar, which appeared on the cover of the June 21, 1937 edition of Life.
The Riverside Hotel took full advantage of the booming divorce business, opening in 1927-the same year the residency requirement went from six to three months. DeLongchamps designed the hotel for George Wingfield, a legendary Nevada power broker. The Riverside was known as one of the town’s swankiest hotels and had an excellent reputation among divorce seekers. Reno scenes in Clare Boothe Luce’s play The Women are set at the Riverside, and it was featured in many other novels and movies about the Reno divorce trade.
Built in 1905, the Virginia Street Bridge was designed by John B. Leonard of San Francisco, a pioneer in reinforced concrete. The bridge is not only the site of C.W. Fuller’s first crossing of the Truckee River, but also the site of a famous bit of local lore. Legend has it that after receiving their final decree from the judge, the newly divorced would kiss the courthouse columns, sweep past the Riverside Hotel to the Virginia Street Bridge, also known as "wedding ring bridge" and "the bridge of sighs." There, they would toss their wedding rings over the side into the Truckee’s cold waters.


Mapes Hotel Site & Harolds Club Site (Mapes) 10 N. Virginia St., Reno;

Harolds Club) 234 N. Virginia St., Reno The first combined hotel and casino in Nevada, the Mapes was built on this spot in 1947. Its success made it a prototype for modern hotel/casinos, and the Mape’s renowned Sky Room drew some of the biggest names of its day, like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Marilyn Monroe. Today, a bustling, open-air plaza occupies the site.
Only a few blocks north is where the granddaddy of Reno’s gaming history once stood. Harolds Club, of the famous "Harolds Club or Bust" advertising campaign, broke new ground with billboards along America’s busiest highways. In its time, the campaign rivaled the Burma Shave campaign for exposure.
A well-known mural of a pioneer scene was added to the club in 1949, reflecting America’s pioneering spirit. The mural was saved, and this depiction of Nevada’s rich history is on display at the Livestock Events Center, 1350 N. Wells Ave. on the south side of the main arena building.


Nevada State Capitol & Nevada State Museum Carson City

This 1870 building of native sandstone is part of a beautiful campus that includes the Legislative Building, Supreme Court, and State Library and Archives. Inside the capitol, where lawmakers legalized much of what made Nevada famous, is a portrait gallery featuring every Nevada Governor from the 1860s to the present, as well as a life-size bronze statue of Nevada Native American activist and teacher Sarah Winnemucca. The statue is an exact copy of the tribute to her that stands in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
One of the most striking features of the capitol building is its 120 foot, silver-painted cupola, a fitting monument to the incredible mining legacy of the Silver State.


Cal Neva & The Crystal Bay Club Highway 28, Crystal Bay

The Cal Neva was built in 1926 by wealthy San Francisco businessman Robert P. Sherman. He patterned the lodge after a log cabin in the hit Broadway play Lightnin’, about the Reno divorce trade set at a hotel in Tahoe that straddled the California-Nevada state line. Originally a guesthouse for Sherman’s friends and associates, it soon became a playground for celebrities and socialites avoiding the public eye.
In 1928, it was bought by Norman Blitz, known as "The Duke of Nevada." After burning to the ground in 1937, it was quickly rebuilt, and during the 1940s and 1950s it endured a succession of owners. From 1960 to 1963 Frank Sinatra was one of them, and it became a hangout for The Rat Pack. Sinatra’s gaming license was later rescinded when gaming authorities spied well-known Chicago mobster, Sam Giancana, in the lodge.
Today, the Cal Neva offers tours of Sinatra’s secret tunnel installed from his private chalet to the main building, where celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis Jr. and the Kennedys enjoyed discreet passage. Tours highlighting the tunnel and stories of the Cal Neva’s famous guests are available Friday-Sunday. Call 775.832.4000 for tour information.
The Crystal Bay Club was built in 1937 and was known as the Ta-Neva-Ho. With a small gaming operation and several retail businesses, it was designed for the developing community on Tahoe’s north shore. During the rest of the Depression and through World War II, the property prospered. The casino has kept pace with the times, and today is one of north shore’s hottest music venues.


Thunderbird Lodge 5000 Highway 28, Incline Village

One of the best examples of grand estates on Lake Tahoe. During the 1930s, Nevada began a program to attract the wealthy and tax-burdened. This "One Sound State" program, as it was called, promised no income or inheritance taxes. As a result, Lake Tahoe, Carson Valley and Reno saw lavish mansions built during those years. A number of prominent San Franciscans built homes on Lake Tahoe, among them real estate tycoon George Whittell, who commissioned Frederic DeLongchamps to build the spectacular Thunderbird Lodge.
The home showcases local building materials as well as Nevada craftsmanship. Natural stone, wooden roofs, and exposed trusses in the main house and outbuildings highlight a style designed to blend with the natural environment.
The eccentric Whittell had a 600-foot tunnel connecting the main house with the boathouse, as well as passages to the card house and several rooms in the main house. Among the sights available for viewing is his custom, 55- foot, triple planked, mahogany speedboat, the Thunderbird. With a hull and cockpit resembling the fuselage of his personal DC-2 aircraft, the boat would cost $3.3 million in today’s dollars.
Whittell left most of his fortune to animal organizations and the 18,000 acre estate was purchased by Jack Dreyfus of Dreyfus Investments. Del Webb Corporation, of south shore’s Sahara Tahoe fame, acquired the property, which later went to the U.S. Forest Service. The Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society now manages the estate, which can be rented for the ultimate special occasion.
Visitors desiring tours of the property can reach the site exclusively via shuttle bus or by tour boat. Go to for more information or call 800.GO.TAHOE. Tickets can also be purchased online at


Nevada Gambling Museum 50 S. C St., Virginia City

See more than $500,000 worth of gaming memorabilia featuring over 100 antique slot machines, cheating devices and gambler’s weapons. 775.847.9022


Nevada Historical Society 1650 N. Virginia St., Reno

Established in 1904, this is Nevada’s oldest museum. The Shepperson Gallery features the periods and themes of Nevada history. Visit the "Neon Nights" exhibit, which focuses on Nevada’s sin industries. As part of its efforts, the Society also maintains a unique research library, which is open to the public from noon-4pm, Tuesday-Saturday. 775.688.1190


Fleischmann Planetarium 

University of Nevada, Reno campus The world’s first facility to offer views of the heavens along with other atmospheric phenomena, the Fleischmann Planetarium sits at the edge of the University of Nevada, Reno campus. Designed by Reno architect Raymond Hellmann and built in 1963, it is an excellent example of modern architecture, characterized by space-age designs depicting motion such as boomerangs, flying saucers, atoms and parabola.


Pioneer Theater

Another example of modern architecture can be seen at the Pioneer Theater (9) 100 S. Virginia St., Reno The theatre opened in 1968 and was designed to look like a bird swooping to the ground with its wings spread. The 140-foot diameter, goldanodized geodesic dome pays homage to Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Today, known as the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts, it is a focal point of Reno’s Truckee River Arts District and an important epicenter for Reno’s cultural expansion in the last 40 years. Both buildings provided a diverse and modern feel to Reno’s conservative architectural style.


Reno Arch Lake Street, Reno

The first arch in Reno was built in 1899 to welcome soldiers back from the Spanish-American War. It was replaced in 1929 by one lit by individual light bulbs and bearing the city’s slogan, "The Biggest Little City in the World," a phrase that dates back to 1910. The arch standing today, sporting modern and glitzy neon, was installed in 1935. It was removed and placed in storage in 1964, pushed aside for one with a more modern design located on Virginia Street. However, a film company working in Reno wanted to use the old sign in its production. The city agreed under the condition that the film company would restore the sign and keep it maintained.


Southern Pacific Depot / Amtrak Station 135 E. Commercial Row, Reno

This is the third train station on this site. The first was built in 1869 for the Central Pacific Railroad but was lost in the Great Reno Fire of 1879. A second building opened in 1889, but it too, burned. A smaller structure was used until Southern Pacific took over Central Pacific and built the present station in 1925. This was the stopping point for divorce seekers from the east during Reno’s divorce heyday, and along with the Lincoln Highway, one of the main routes into the city.


El Cortez Hotel 239 W. Second St., Reno

This Art Deco structure, designed by the firm of George Ferris and Son, was Reno’s tallest building when it opened in 1931. It was built to accommodate anticipated divorce traffic when Reno’s divorce law was liberalized again in 1931. Business was so robust that the owner constructed an addition only one year


Chapel of the Bells 700 W. Fourth St., Reno

In the mid-1950s, the first wedding chapel opened across from the Washoe County Courthouse. It was not long before others appeared on Reno’s landscape. The Chapel of the Bells has been in business since the 1960s.


The Cribs Second St. and Wells Ave., Reno

Among the trees along the Truckee River sit the abandoned remains of a brothel. Several brothels operated in Reno until 1942, when under pressure from the Army, the city outlawed them. Brothels are still legal in 12 of Nevada’s 17 counties.


Washoe Pines Divorce Ranch Franktown Rd., Washoe Valley

Though it began as a working ranch, where cowboy artist Will James lived and worked, Washoe Pines was converted to a divorce ranch in the 1930s. Over the years, a number of rich and famous guests served their six-week residency terms there. The ranch was the inspiration for scenes in the movie version of The Women. Though on private property and not available for visits, a site so important to this era in Nevada’s history is worth a drive past.

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