Sea & Ski comes to town

seaski2 copy


Takin’ care of business last Monday on Mill Street east of the airport, I spied a landscape crew aerating the expansive lawn of the complex on the south side of the street, just west of Edison Way. “What ho?” I thought to myself – pride of ownership remaining in a building three decades after the certificate of occupancy that mandated their green belt had passed? In Reno?

We’ll turn back the clock this Saturday morning to the late 1950s. While my research couldn’t nail this part down, I have a distant recollection that a San Francisco cop, a fair-skinned sort, once played with the military-issue sunscreen included in the survival kit of life rafts by adding some coconut oil and other stuff, to create a suntan lotion that didn’t smell like a burning clutch to his fellow beachcombers. Sea & Ski, he would call it, and he marketed it to other Bay Area redheads, later expanding into Southern California and eventually nationwide. His eponymous Rolley Company was off and running.

            He caught the attention of pharmaceutical giant Smith Kline & French, later SKF and now GlaxoSmithKline, who bought him out for a pretty penny and set up a plant on Reno’s Valley Road in 1961. SKF outgrew the Valley Road plant and in 1967 acquired 10 acres in the embryonic Lands of Sierra Industrial Park. The plant they commissioned garnered SKF, as the owner, the architect Marquis & Stoller of San Francisco, and local contractor McKenzie Construction, several national awards.

            What a beauty it was when it opened with great ceremony in 1968, and so remains, thanks to almost heroic efforts by its present owners, to the degree that a 21st-century bean counter can tolerate maintenance of a showplace that doesn’t show up on the shareholders’ bottom line. Originally redwood-and-glass, we thought early-on during construction that it was a Frank Lloyd Wright creation, which it somewhat emulates. The small front office area toward Mill Street, joined by a long glazed corridor to a larger plant area with a dramatic two-story glass north wall, is evident. But, what a pity the passing motorist can’t see the inner courtyard, extensively landscaped on rolling-berm grassy knolls, with pergolas and other architectural features surrounding a pond with a waterfall, fountain and a centerpiece redwood-beam bridge – the courtyard once an oasis of relaxation for the 150 Sea & Ski employees during a lunch hour or coffee break. The courtyard was featured prominently in local print and TV ads, and in its day hosted a number of civic parties and fashion shows. The redwood walls, alas like all redwood in our area eventually had to be washed to a lighter color, yet it remains one of the most attractive office courtyards in any local commercial setting even to this day. [2011: Still is.]

Sea & Ski was a community leader

            Sea & Ski became a welcome member of the local business community, with a pleasant fit into the light, clean manufacturing model that civic leaders were attempting to woo into the area, also as warehousers of goods in a town struggling to gain national recognition as a “freeport” center – read “no state tax on goods warehoused here while intransit.” Sea & Ski’s execs, along with those of parent company SKF, were willing cheerleaders of freeport warehousing and distribution, and eagerly joined some local warehousing pioneers – Frank Bender, Pres Hale, and Jud Allen come to mind – on junkets about the nation selling Reno’s and Sparks’ industrial desirability.

            The Lands of Sierra Industrial Park deserves a mention, maybe a Homefinder column someday. Sierra Pacific Power, in an effort to get the ol’ electric meters spinnin’, subdivided once-agricultural land northeast of the airport for major distribution centers (bet you always wondered why those streets were named Ampere, Edison, Joule, Ohm and so on – there you go.) They decreed, to their credit, that their sites were to house something besides gray tilt-up buildings on seven acres of blacktop, resulting in attractive additions to our town, with mandated, extensive lawns and vegetation, concealed trash areas, attractive lighting, comfortable outdoor employee lounges, and other amenities to beautify the park. Sea & Ski’s plant was the first – whoops, that word again – somebody might write me to say it was Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation’s building just to the south, but research eludes me here. Looks like a tie…

Change ultimately came to Mill Street

            SKF closed the Sea & Ski plant in April of 1980. A chunk of the original ten acres had been previously sold, and the remaining asset was acquired by Hunt-Spiller Globe Turbocharger Corporation, itself a giant in its own industry. Globe operates another “clean” industry, rebuilding the turbochargers of giant diesel locomotive engines, and numbers among its clientele the railroads around the world that use American-built locomotives. Their aging facility is at once an architectural triumph and a maintenance nightmare, but they maintain it beautifully. While cheery Mary Wills, Globe’s guardian of the gate, will probably shoot me for writing this, she’d probably love to share with readers the view of the building’s still-gracious courtyard that she enjoys every day. The Sea & Ski building, now the Globe Turbocharger building, is an unsung treasure on the local landscape, and Mary’s deservedly proud of it.

            And, I thank the kind folks at the Nevada Historical Society, my perennial wind-beneath-my-wings, for some needle-in-the-haystack help with the business-maturation chronology of this piece. Have a good week, and God bless America.

© Reno Gazette-Journal March 2, 2005