South Wells Avenue was once a happenin’ little shopping area. New, modern buildings were being built to accommodate merchants seeking a compromise between downtown and the Park Lane/Shoppers’ Square malls – then the only two malls in Reno. South Wells Avenue is 22 blocks long, too far to walk, so for this morning and probably a follow-up next week we’ll hopscotch around instead of going block-by-block. The inspiration for all this? Twofold: The Reno City Fathers – and Mothers – are toying with a major redesign of Wells Avenue, with new landscaping, street lighting, and single lanes leading into traffic go-arounds at several locations. Secondly, a landmark restaurant that opened during the heyday of the street, closed a week or so ago – a landmark that started and ended an era.
We’d like to recall what the street once meant to our town’s economy and lifestyle.
• • •
Cruising through newspaper ads, old Yellow Pages, City Directories, county records and other clutter pointed us toward the mid-1970s as the glory years of Wells Avenue. It’s seems eerie that McDonald’s, which opened in June of 1975 on the corner of Colorado River Boulevard, recently closed. The Wells Avenue McDonald’s was the third in Reno, following closely behind the original store on Keystone and the second on Oddie Boulevard (both those structures replaced in recent years.) Across Wells Avenue was Wayne’s Drive-In, soon to become a casualty of Mickey D’s proximity. The Deluxe Laundry north of McDonald’s was one of McKenzie Construction Company’s first buildings in Reno, ca. 1952, and is still active in business and under the same ownership. [And now a coffee-house, or something…]
Restaurants – good ones – abounded on Wells Avenue. A favorite watering hole for business people was Posey Butterfield’s, later the Rapscallion, on the corner of Vesta Street. A Mandarin Café was across from McDonald’s, great Chinese, no relation to the classic Mandarin downtown. We once wrote of old service stations becoming the best restaurants in Reno, and the Gulf Oil station that became Froggy’s Lunchbox, just north of McDonald’s is one of them. (You may know it better as P.J. & Company.) A base chapel was hauled down from Reno Air Base to the corner of Vassar and Wells, bricked over and made into Little Flower Church, somewhere between 1949 to 1951, depending on your resource. Now a bank, it was banker Sid and Vera Stern’s macaroni joint in Wells Avenue’s heyday, proving that all good Wells Avenue buildings, including Catholic churches, start or end as restaurants. Then we have the restaurant that became an office building, the Dairy Queen just north of Vassar; if you look real hard you can see where we ordered Peanut Buster Parfaits. And we can’t forget Juicy’s on Ryland, for a great burger in the lube bay.
South of Posey’s was Humphrey’s Furniture, a fairly large store. Another major furniture store in Reno was Baker’s Furniture south of Arroyo Street, which had its origin as an Eagle Thrifty drug store. It then became Baker’s, then Good Morning Furniture, then closed. Eagle Thrifty moved across the street into a new building, with the greatest shopping variety in Reno, a true super-drug store. Name it, they’d have it in that great basement of theirs. That store, as did all Eagle Thrifty’s, became Raley’s, and that Wells Avenue Store is now an IGA outlet [or some kind of Mexican store…]. Many small retail buildings were built in the 1960s, some pretty clever and well-designed. Check out the building on the southwest corner of Wells and Roberts Street: architect Web Brown incorporated five distinct architectural styles into one retail building. Landlords had little trouble finding quality, long-term tenants, in all categories of merchandise – Brundidge’s Art Supply, GoodTimes Clothes, Lear-Higdon Opticians, Tapis Tree Needlework. Crown Electronics, Wok-on-the-Wild Side kitchen stuff, Whippy’s Golf Shop, Reno Ski Shop. Pants Etc., Earl’s Western Wear, Sierra Custom Sound, Greco’s Music Store, Murdock’s, Sierra Cyclery, Solari Paints. Aids Ambulance operated out of a building at Stewart Street, their name proving to have an unfortunate connotation in years to follow.
And services: a half-dozen pet stores, another half-dozen cleaners, beauty shops and barber shops galore, Corrigan’s and Ryan’s saloons and the Wonder Bar, dentists and optometrists, Art Remple Television, a Valley Bank and a major post office (at Ryland, now a hock shop.) Many government offices – State and federal – in the small buildings around Posey’s. A block-square vacant lot to play ball in north of Wonder Street, owned by LaVere Redfield, the water table about four inches below the ground hampering its use as a building site until recently. [The building that was built there also sank, now in 2014 it has some lesser quality tenants.] Cornwall Insurance Adjustors, and the rhyming diners, Eato’s Burritos and Pat-Your-Belly-Deli, and that’s where I draw the line.
South Wells Avenue was a great street. In the years following World War II 37.2 per cent of the schoolkids in Reno lived within two blocks of either side of the street and continue to harbor a fierce loyalty to it even today. The Wells Avenue Gang – a group formally organized by my classmate the late Clark Santini – meets regularly and will probably read this and regale me, of the Whitaker Park bunch, with tales of their youth.
But this is not a column validating their aberrant behavior, rather a plea for all to remember fondly the many businesses and merchants who populated South Wells Avenue, and hope that in time to come the municipal plans to revive it will meet with great success.