A hot little corner at Plumb and South Virginia


I’ve written before that quite often one can search the hamlet for a new column idea to no avail and come up wanting, and about then a friend across the table at the morning Senior Moment Krispy-Kreme Kaffee Klatsch & BS meeting at the Black Bear Diner disrupts my train of thought with a question: “Where was the Rifleman?” And another question, same morning, that turned into a friendly fist-fight with the gathered geezers: “Did Plumb Lane run east of South Virginia Street in the early ‘60s?”

            Struggling for an idea to christen this new WordPress column idea, I feigned annoyance that my thoughts should be waylaid with such minutiae. Then the reality set in, that half the guys in town recall the old Rifleman – an honest-to-God old gun shop that could custom build a hunting rifle from the stock forward a la Juenke-Saturn in later years, or could re-build Grandpa’s hex-barrel bolt-action .25-20 center-fire with necked cartridges that hasn’t fired since Teddy Roosevelt toured Yosemite. Take it to the Rifleman (on South Virginia by Klaich Animal Hospital on the old Park Lane corner, by the way) and they’d build it. Or fix it.

            Aha, a column is seeping into my skull (funny; the Senior Moment Krispy-Kreme Kaffee Klatch & BS group was a fixture in these columns five years ago, but Krispy-Kreme has now joined Blue Bounty in the alliterative restaurant bye-byes.) Now I might as well go with the other question of that morning meeting, did Plumb Lane run east of South Virginia?

            Yeah, as a matter of fact it did, sort of; first we should say that our town’s major streets seem to run on Government Survey (section, township and range as you learned in school) lines. Go to the north end of Keystone Avenue (Peavine Row in my youth) and look due south. You’ll see the street lining up almost exactly on Hunter Lake Drive, across the Truckee. Same survey line, even ‘tho the streets were built at different times, the void area between old ranches fell on survey lines and the roads were created there.

            Plumb Lane is similar. Plumb Lane once (until the late 1950s) existed west of Arlington, running westerly out to the Plumb ranch in the vicinity of Hunter Lake Drive (the stone house still on that northeast corner was the old Plumb family house, that structure built to replace an earlier one that burned, during WWII when building materials were scarce.)

            But yes, even prior to West Plumb’s extension to South Virginia from Arlington, it existed for a block in the middle of an alfalfa field from Lakeside to Watt, and east of Virginia for two blocks, unpaved, between Locust and Kirman. (Sort of; those streets were pretty undefined.) Several names show on old records for that short street, one being Plumb Street.

            There. We’ve answered two questions, but still need a column topic. Enter a large man with a wooden mallet who hits me right between the horns with a guttural incantation: “Finish – the – Plumb – and – South Virginia – intersection – yarn…”

            Why didn’t I think of that???

            OK – I made some notes at the Nevada Historical Society, which will henceforth be known as the “NHS” on this site, get used to it, from Sanborn Maps, City Directories and some old friends’ recollections. We’re downtown and heading south along two-lane South Virginia Street, Plumb Lane is brand-new but we don’t think it had a stop signal in its first incarnation. Wells Avenue comes in from the east, a service station on both corners, with a couple of fast-food joints on the corners. Some of the coolest rock-work in the valley is on our right at the El Borracho Lounge and the El Dorado Motel – still there, next time you drive by, take a look and imagine what it would cost to replicate that today.

            Al Vario, a popular fixture in the downtown late-night scene and a good guy all around, had just opened his “Vario’s” fine restaurant – one of Reno’s premium high-end night spots for dining, dancing and cocktails. I’ve mentioned it in columns past as being on a par with two others, Eugene’s, a little further to the south by the present Peppermill, and the Bundox at East First and Lake Streets. Al Vario sold his restaurant, after a great career of entertaining two generations of locals (and moved to Arizona); following a couple of intervening operators, it became “Bricks,” which remains to this day as one of Reno’s premier restaurants – you can count them on one hand… “Bricks,” by the way, is correct with no possessive apostrophe – the place is named for the extensive use of brick in the original Frank Green design.

            South of Vario’s/Bricks, hang on, you’ll love this: a golf driving range. It was called the Tom Thumb Driving Range, and had the best snack bar in Reno, most agree. (Jack Pine remembers the “pickle burger” they served, with a pickle inside the patty, invisible.) And, your next ball popped up from underground, automatically, after you drove. Cool. The driving range, where you hit from Virginia Street west to Lakeside Drive, was the brainchild of Al Vario and contractor Bob Helms, who was starting to rule the roost in the highway construction business. And maybe a couple other guys. The ultimate plan was to use the site for a hotel/casino on a grand scale. That never happened; in later years that massive lot was subdivided into office parcels visible today from the street. Interestingly, the streets were named for Lincoln and Mercury automobile models.

            And why was that, you say? Glad you asked: Sometime soon after 1960 and the Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, the owners of Eugene’s restaurant (e-mail me for a copy of that old column) whose names were Joe Patrucco and Gilbert Vasserot, envisioned a great new motel, on the northwest corner of brand-new Plumb Lane and South Virginia Street. They were both émigrés from Europe, and chose “Continental” for the name of their new venture. It was designed after the lines of the Holiday Lodge (now bygone) on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco – a south-seas look, very enduring, still one of the prettiest motels in Reno today. It had a fine restaurant mimicking their Eugene’s, a lounge that jumped (the Central Park), a gift store, a beauty shop, and remains a hub of Reno today. Why not rejuvenate the storied Central Park Lounge – parking probably. In its heyday street parking was generous. No more.

            And that “Continental” name explains the nearby street names…

Still driving south, we encounter a corner, sort of, at what will become “Plumb Lane” extended, but in the years close to 1960 about all we’ll see are used car lots on three corners, on the corner where the Continental will soon be built are now Pontiacs from still-downtown Winkel Motors, and kitty-corner from that on the future Park Lane corner, the embryonic Lee Bros. Leasing and Sales. At the present IHOP location was Whitey’s Union 76, a place where a guy comes out and puts gas in your car, washes your windshield, checks your oil (under the hood, it’s called) and airs your tires. Quite a concept. In a year or two, Security Bank of Nevada – later Security National Bank – Art Johnson at the helm, would open in the present B of A branch.

            Footnote: I used just one time “catercorner,” correct for “kitty-corner”, and “International House of Pancakes,” also only one time, and learned that Americans like their slang. In this column it’s IHOP and kitty-corner. And a few non-words you won’t find in Websters. And no, Sarah Bernhardt didn’t work at IHOP.

            A Motel 6 will soon appear on the southwest corner, that cardinal number indicative of the cost of a night’s lodging, which sounds a lot more rhythmic than “Motel 83” which is what a Motel 6 cost me in San Mateo recently. On that corner, where, by the way, one could parallel park on South Virginia Street in front of the coffee shop, was a “Sambo’s” which sort-of started to be a part of the Continental across the street but negotiations broke down. It was a gathering spot for half the town, as were its sister locations on Keystone and West Fourth (now gone), and on B Street in Sparks (Jack’s). Sambo’s name was actually taken from East Indian folklore but was interpreted by some with another connotation, and the Sambo’s reign ended in Reno and nationally. (And I’ll hear that it had nothing to do with the name, just bad business. Dunno.) Anyway, now, it’s a Chinese joint.

            Which takes us one joint south, that one specializing in sushi, which some people actually ingest. That building, we all know, was the home of Waldren Oldsmobile following Frank Waldren’s move of your grandfather’s car dealership from downtown – one of the earlier GM migrations to the burbs. The mini-shopping center lying to the west along Hillcrest Drive was the dealership’s mechanic and body shops.

             Across South Virginia in the pre-Park Lane days, we can’t forget the Key Animal Hospital, Dr. Joe Key, still kickin’, a great guy and lifelong friend, and further to the south, the storied Doll House, and that wasn’t Barbee and Ken shakin’ their booties in the wee hours of schoolnights.

            I’ve some other notes, and readers will probably send in a few more – and I’ve got some photographs stuck somewhere in the great beyond of cyberspace, which seems to be my milieu lately – so our trek around Plumb and South Virginia probably will roll on again. Somebody will probably want to know about the Old Orchard Trailer Park – I’ll meet you right here.

            Send me some of your recollections – we’ll work ‘em on to this site…