The El Reno Apartments

El Reno

So — you want to escape the hustle and bustle of downtown but stay close to shopping, to live where the air is fresh, the neighbors some distance away, shady trees, a garage, yard maintenance and walking distance to a new lake and park?  Lakeridge Shores?  Or Alum Creek?  The Villas?  The Cottages?  Tavo Valera, in Sparks maybe?  Expand your horizons: How about near the 1200 block of South Virginia Street by the Antique Mall and Statewide Lighting, your groceries from the AM/PM at Arroyo Street, and a fine meal at Landrum’s. Or whatever they call it now.


Did I mention that this is the mid-1930s?  The block where the El Reno Apartments were located at Arroyo and two-lane South Virginia Street is near the south edge of town, ‘most anything south of there pretty rural.  The Old Orchard Trailer Park and grocery was down there, Plumb Lane ended five blocks to the west and didn’t cross Virginia Street, most homes to the south of that were summer homes, out by the Moana plunge.  On the plus side, there was a country club by the new golf course now that they got rid of those damn noisy mail planes that flew out of Blanch Field on Urban Road.  And there was a brand new lake being built, Virginia Lake they’d call it when it filled in 1940.  You could walk from the El Reno Apartments on Arroyo and South Virginia to Virginia Lake.  Pretty neat.

          They were the hot place to live from the mid-1930s until well after World War II.  A former El Reno resident I spoke with recalled that they had pleasant, private little yards and were very quiet, and a building with a few of those new-fangled automatic washing machines — no Bendixes with rollers here.  The developer/landlord, whose name was Roland Giroux, also known as Joe, was handy, cordial and friendly (his wife Nora and son Louis would die years later in a small plane in a collision with a military plane somewhere by Independence Lake.)  My own mother recalled returning to Reno after World War II and learning of the El Renos — the cachet attributed to residing there as comparable to living in the highest-end townhouse of today.

          The El Reno’s, we’ll call them for short, were unique: They were prefabricated of metal.  Cute little units, very stylish with board-and-batten metal sides and well-proportioned at 900 square feetReno steelman Fred Schwamb’s father Martin owned Martin Iron Works, and Fred thinks they came by rail from Los Angeles, told me to check the ‘web for U.S. Steel’s site, because they might have built them.  [researched to no avail]  The other guru of steel in Reno, Andrea Pelter, recalled that her father John Ginocchio (Reno Iron Works) supplied some of the pinnings to hold them down, and Andy recalled his comment that they had some good alloy in them, more than just sheet metal, maybe some titanium.

          Facts come hard about the El Renos; three that stump me are when they were built, which seems to be about 1935.  And, how many there were, which seems to be somewhere between 11 and 14.  Romolo Bevilacqua, whose house-moving business relocated them, recalled two semi-circular crescents of six homes each facing each other (the garages, later moved out on Del Monte Lane and now long gone, were on the west side of the property along Tonopah Street, accessed from the apartments.)  The tenant list in 1939 shows 13 residents, but two with the same surname, a 1946 list lists ten.  Go figure. 

          Finally, when did they close?  They fell off any radar I can find between 1949 to 1951, which is not conclusive — soon I’ll research when Sewell’s opened on the El Reno site, which should be a little easier (Buster Sewell, you out there???!)  [Sewell’s opened in 1955 per a Sanborn map.]

Now — take a ride in southwest Reno.   By Virginia Lake, at 236 Bonnie Briar, a classic little El Reno.  Across from the 7-1leven on Mt. Rose, appropriately 711 Mt. Rose Street.  Clean, needs weeding.  1425 Plumas.  Two at 1461 Lander, on one lot.  Note, some porches are to the left, others to the right [the porches were always on the Virginia Street/east sides whether the units faced north or south.]  1409 Tonopah, just across from the original site, connected to another unit at 100 West Pueblo. A professional office at 115 Ridge Street.  Up now to the University, on the southeast corner of College Drive and North Sierra Streets; an El Reno was set on top of another structure to form what was once an elegant private two-story home with a great view.  Sierra has been widened and the trees now obscure the view, but the little home is still visible among the add-ons and vegetation.


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From a later column:

A fortnight ago we credited reader Debbie Hinman with finding another relocated metal El Reno Apartment – at 326 West 11th Street.  This prompted some calls; veteran readers wondering how our quest for the homes, believed to number 16 originally, was going.  Newer readers simply wondered what the hell we were talking about, steel houses indeed?  The columns received national interest on my website; owners of these little steel homes, made in the 1930s by an outfit that made porcelain-clad service stations and diners, are faithful to them.  Example: the owner of the home at 326 West 11th spent considerable time and money to restore the bearings on his home’s trademark turbine attic ventilator.   We’ll update the original El Reno story someday, or you can read more about them in the column collection I’m trying to get under your Christmas trees. [OK, so it took three more years.]  In the meantime, here are the El Renos we’ve found so far:

          Out by Virginia Lake, find 400 Country Club Drive and 310 Bonnie Briar with an El Reno steel garage behind it (each unit had its own steel garage, with a turbine on their roofs also.)  Then go to 711 Mt. Rose Street, two around the corner at 1401 and 1403 Lander Street, and another close by at 1425 Plumas Street.  Then two across Tonopah Street from the original El Reno Apartment location on South Virginia Street, both converted into offices at 1409 Tonopah Street and 100 Pueblo (I think that the building at 121 Pueblo – a different configuration – was the laundry area/office for the apartments.  Check out the roof vents.)  [Never confirmed that.]  Closer to downtown, a law office at 115 Ridge Street.  Proving that they could be moved across the bridges, we know of the one at College Drive and North Sierra Street, hard to see but it’s there, and the one on West 11th.  By Washoe Golf Course, 545 Skyline Drive, found by sharp-eyed Annette Mortimer.  I’ve always thought there was another El Reno about six lots west of that and have asked a few neighbors, to no avail.  Some think it was demolished…

          In closing the El Reno thought, I’ll include that a faithful but anonymous reader recently sent me a newspaper account of a dozen little all-steel homes currently being removed from the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia, and being sold to collectors.


The saga continues…


A piece ran a couple weeks ago, detailing the little prefabricated 900 square-foot all-metal homes – a dozen of them, we speculated; maybe 15 – that were put up before World War II on the 1200 block on South Virginia where Statewide Lighting now sits.  They were moved off the site after the war, to all over town, and we gave the present locations of nine of them.  In a first, I put some pictures on my website, with some additional narrative (its still there, with some more info.    

Information came via phone, mail and e-mail, from all over the country; Reno, of course, the southern states, a bunch from the midwest.  Our sleepy little story probably got more feedback than I’ve ever received from any one topic, disregarding my account of the tunnel that led from the Hancock Mansion on Lakeside Drive to the island on Virginia Lake, dug before the lake filled in 1940 (a colossal fib but an urban legend that I’m afraid stuck.) 

          Curiously, our Reno version of the all-steel homes may not the same as the ones I received the mail on, which were known as “Lustron” homes, popularized by a company that made all-steel service stations and diners in the years following WWII.  They were close in size, similar in appearance, but did not get into the marketplace until 1946 — our Reno units were in place during the 1930s, and the many websites about the Lustrons make no mention of post-war production.  But there must be a link: The Lustrons were metal sheathed in porcelain, and two readers (not having permission I won’t use their names) reminded me that the El Renos were also called the “El Porcelains,” a detail I had forgotten.  The Lustron website is fascinating, accounts of many, many homeowners writing in about their homes in present-day settings, their dilemma in keeping the home’s combination dish-clothes washer-sink working (yes, after the war, that was tried, and some still work.)  They have an owner’s club, like ’57 Chevys with two bedrooms and a bath-and-a-half, and they e-mail each other telling where to find the serial numbers of a Model 3 home.  They’re all over the nation, many concentrated around Ohio and the midwest, where they were built in an old Navy plant.  One of the names frequently mentioned as a principal in the company was Carl Strandlund, the father of the modern Stran-Steel industrial buildings that we see all over the valley.  Another principal was named Tucker, ostensibly from the Tucker auto family.  (The Lustron website is still on the Web at production time.)

          There has been quite a bit of interest nationally in our Reno units, even although they are not Lustrons.  The fact that we had twelve (fourteen, sixteen, fifteen and a laundry building, fill in the blank) interests other Lustron owners, many of whom feel strongly enough about the homes as a lifestyle that some have been included in various states’ registers of historical structures, with some national mention.  My pictures of nine on one website blew a few web watchers’ minds.     

I’ll let a reader write the rest of this Saturday morning’s column; her name is Jill and she lives in the Bay Area.  (The [bracketed] additions are mine.)

          “…I grew up in Reno.  From 1946 to 1948 I lived with my parents in the El Reno Apartments.  We moved in in the spring of 1946.  I think there were 14 or 15 units; I know for sure there were four units on each of the side streets [Pueblo and Arroyo] and a crescent of maybe six units facing South Virginia.

          “The units were way ahead of their time.  They had a bath-and-a-half and all-metal kitchen cabinets and a great floor plan.  Our family loved living there.

          “Shortly after the Second World War ended, Louis Giroux [the apartment’s owner] wanted to raise the rents.  As I remember it, all of the residents agreed, but the rent control board refused.  This made him so angry that he chose to sell the units off and be finished with it.

          “My parents [Homer Forrester, an IRS agent, and Virginia Forrester, manager of the Riverside Hotel and later the Mapes Hotel] planned to purchase one of the units and move it to other land.  For some reason they chose the first unit facing South Virginia, so we moved into that unit with the plan of purchasing it.  The person that moved out was Bill Harrah’s first wife [Thelma], and I think that he had also lived there at one time.

          “Before the planned purchase was completed [the Forresters’ plans changed] and we moved to northwest Reno on Melba Drive in 1948, and the El Reno units started to be moved out shortly after that.

          “I think that the Sewell’s [grocery] store was already in place when lived at the El Reno.  I remember shopping there the whole time we lived there.  The land that El Reno stood on was vacant for a long time… [Washoe Market existed; Sewell’s came later.]

          “Hope this information helps.”

          It does, Jill…immensely.  It’s people like you who take the time to type a letter and draw a map that enable us to keep track of how our valley came to be.  [The map Jill sent of the apartment site was very close to the Reno Sanborn fire map diagram, sheet 41.]

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[A few El Reno notes from within other columns:]

Speaking of El Reno units, my childhood buddy and Sigma Nu frat brother [the late] Dr. Lynn Gerow the Younger told me while we were blocking an aisle at Albertson’s that his father, Dr. Gerow the Elder paid $800 for the El Reno unit that Bevilaqua Movers then moved to 115 Ridge Street to use as his medical office. (Lynn Jr. later used it also for his practice.)  Bill Harrah and his first wife, Thelma, had occupied the unit. 

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Hide the children: A naked El Reno metal apartment unit on the loose, last seen on Plumas just north of Mt. Rose Street.  The thing was skinned so that stucco could be and at this writing one can see the metal studs, surprisingly none of which are close to any uniform interval – and the diagonal metal sheer bracing.  What’s interesting is the number of readers who drive by it and the resulting contacts I received regarding this public skinning, all about a bit of Reno nostalgia that I first wrote of four years ago almost as an aside. 

I have never confirmed that Williams designed them; I speculated in the original El Reno column that ran a few years ago that they were a Williams design only because while browsing through a coffee-table edition of Hollywood mansions a swimming pool lanai, pictured behind a Beverly Hills, Williams-designed mansion, jumped off the page at me, as being identical to an El Reno unit.  Williams’ hallmark bay window and the lacy ironwork on the little pool house mimicked those of the mansion (the mansion owners’ name was Paley, if you locate the book.) 

In other Saturday morning news, Debbie Hinman – or “eagle eye,” as her Nevada Bell co-workers call her – has found another relocated El Reno Apartment for us, this her second discovery, the earlier in the 300 block of West Eleventh Street.  It’s embarrassing for me to divulge the location of this newest one because I have driven past it 8,000 times: It’s at 1698 Plumas Street, east side, just north of Glenmanor between Mt. Rose Street and West Plumb Lane.  It’s been set onto a high concrete foundation to create a half-basement, there’s an addition on the rear (east) side, and it’s pretty well covered by foliage, but it’s an El Reno, for sure.  And an original El Reno steel garage sits to the north of it.  This puts us at 14 located out of a probably 15 original units.  Thanks, eagle eye.

          And no El Renos went to Sparks – that the wisdom of [now deceased] Romolo Bevelacqua, Reno’s premier house mover, who in his seven-decade career has moved hundreds of homes in the local area.  I congratulate Rom on being recognized by the City of Reno’s Historical Resources Commission as the 2002 Recipient of the Distinguished Service Award for his insight into a bygone Reno.  He has always been a prime contributor and resource to this column, with his recollection of relocations, like the El Reno units and our Levy Mansion story of last summer – (his firm turned the mansion to face California Avenue.) [Romolo passed away late in 2002.]

          There’s more El Reno buildings out there somewhere, folks – let’s go find them.

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The following are the addresses or locations of the 14 units we’ve located:

545 Skyline Drive (1)

400 Country Club Drive

711 Mt. Rose Street (2)

1425 Plumas Street (3)

1698 Plumas Street

236 Bonnie Briar (4)

Two at 1461 Lander, on one lot

1409 Tonopah Street

100 West Pueblo Street

115 Ridge Street (5)

College Drive and North Sierra Streets

326 West 11th Street

Byars Const. (6)

(1)    demolished, site rebuilt

(2)    Paul Revere William would be proud; compare the colors to Raphael Herman home in Rancho San Rafael

(3)    stuccoed, per text

(4)   owned by many years by Bevilacqua family who moved the units from South Virginia Street, repairs being effected at production time

(5)   Medical office for many years; was originally the apartment of Bill and Thelma Harrah

(6)   This unit was called to my attention by Terry Markwell, an original principal in Byars Construction, as was Roland Giroux, who developed the El Reno Apartments on their original South Virginia Street location.  We believe now that this unit was originally built on Giroux’ property on Del Monte Lane, not the El Reno site, and when Byars Construction was formed in the early 1960s the unit was moved to this location.  It has been demolished, but its slab and corresponding anchors remain visible in the concrete slab.

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