Walking East Fourth Street – 2001


F-carI pretty much left this alone from its original publication in the Gazoo. BTW, “Homefinders” was the section of the paper I wrote in, and I formed a Homefinders Club for the readership. And don’t ask me why I used a SF Muni streetcar for a photo – there’s no reason whatsoever…

“You’ve walked all over town in past columns, why don’t the Homefinder readers walk East Fourth Street?”  Or so a few readers wrote.

          It’s mostly because the RG-J recently carried an excellent three-issue overview of East Fourth with more ink and graphics than I could ever hope to squeeze out of the real estate editor.  This piece started as a commentary on old signs, but while riding around with a notepad some quirky thoughts of East Fourth in Reno and B Street – Victorian Way – in Sparks still beckoned to be heard, so we’ll mix up the two themes this morning.

          The two neon signs that most interest me while I’m enjoying an ale or three at Great Basin brewery in Sparks are first, the Pony Express Motel sign at the Prater/Victorian “Y”, a late-1940s product of Pappy Smith’s (Harolds Club) and Young Electric Sign’s imaginations.  I started to write that it was the first “motion” neon sign in town – (the arrows being shot from the Indians’ bows) – but I now spell-check out any superlatives, like first, oldest, highest, etc.  And “railroad” or “architect” for that matter.

          It’s much too big to steal, but the second sign I lust after is more portable, in front of the old Park Motel on Prater Way; the Phillip Morris-type bellboy with the once-waving arm that used to beckon travelers into the “motor lodge.”  It’s a creation that would blow the CC&Rs of the God-forsaken desert to smithereens if I lit it up in my backyard, waving at the architectural committee.  No chance.  Note the other remaining motor hotel signs on East Fourth – the Sandman, with the tires on the prewar sedan that once appeared to revolve.  And the classic neon art style, with no name that I know of attributed to it, on Everybody’s Inn and Alejo’s motels’ signs, and a few others – hopefully they will all be saved, rehabilitated and displayed somewhere as signs of a bygone era, no pun intended.  

          Check out the architecture on East Fourth – the brick patterns in the Alturas Hotel, J.R. Bradley Company, the buildings that flourished in the early postwar period like Siri’s Restaurant, Reno Mattress and some of the retail stores.  Replicating the rococo brickwork style in some of those buildings today would cost a fortune.  And Ernie’s Flying “A” truck stop, we called it then, now signed as RSC Something-or-other: The fluted column-tower signature of Flying “A” stations has long since been all but removed from this garage, but look close and you can easily detect a close resemblance to Landrum’s Café architecture on South Virginia – a very prevalent commercial style of a prewar period.  (Ernie’s was, with McKinnon & Hubbard on West Fourth Street, the forerunner of Boomtown, the Alamo and Sierra Sid’s to old U.S. Highway 40 truckers.)  And, if I’m permitted to editorialize, hats off to my old buddy Steve Scolari, whose family business Ray Heating – now RHP – has been on East Fourth for 70-plus years.  Faced with the need to expand, he turned the main office building facing East Fourth Street into a great-looking little office, yet retained its post-war nuance, then upgraded a half-dozen industrial buildings on the street and railroad land to the south into very serviceable first-class modern shops, preserving the workforce and tax base in the East Fourth corridor.  A gutty move, but a lead that more property owners in areas like East Fourth and South Wells Avenue should follow.  And progressive city management, not hell-bent on plowing two or three hundred million dollars into a hole in the ground, should offer tax incentives for this “infill” redevelopment like other cities do.  End of tirade.

Evidence of a bygone retail presence on East Fourth is Windy Moon Quilts on Morrill Avenue, the only quilt shop in town with a drive-up window.  Why?  ‘Cuz it once was a busy and highly profitable branch of First National Bank, that’s why.  [2016 note: Windy Moon has a second location now, in the old Mary Ann Nichols Elementary School on Pyramid Way.]

          We couldn’t tour East Fourth without stopping at the architecturally resplendent Tap ‘n Tavern, where that’s not sawdust on the floor, but last night’s furniture, and then mosey on down Highway 40 to Casale’s Half-way Club for world-class pizza, and if Mama Stempeck ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. What a great lady…

          Many notes remain and readers will kick in a few more, so we’ll probably go back and finish this tour soon.  (I’LL PUT IT ON THIS WEBSITE AFTER HOT AUGUST NIGHTS – kb.) I detected a slight deterrent to development on East Fourth while driving, starting, stopping, backing up, making notes and taking pictures, stopping again: on several occasions local ladies practicing the world’s oldest profession invited themselves into my pickup for a good time, some of whom were probably undercover police.  “Honest, officer, I’m researching a column for the Homefinder.”  (Good story, buddy, tell it to Judge Salcedo.)

  • • •

Giddyup: I’ve mentioned Mt. Rose Sporting Goods liberally in columns about downtown Reno and Park Lane, and thanked Kenny York and his late brother-in-law Sonny Burke for putting half of us through college by giving us jobs.  There probably won’t be more than 10,000 Homefinder readers delighted to know that Kenny will be the Honorary Grand Marshall of the Reno Rodeo this week, lookin’ good on his ol’ cayuse.

          The G-rated story of the Southern Pacific’s call girls in Sparks promised two weeks ago has not been forgotten, stay tuned.  Yes, all 17 of you nit-pickers, the old main fire station was on the southeast corner of Commercial and West Streets, not northwest as I wrote.  I knew better, my Cub Scout Pack 304 went there once. 

          And our friends at Ralston Foods on Greg Street, all 124 of them, are working on 522 Accident-Free days as I write this.  That’s close to 65,000 man-days without an accident.  Hell, I didn’t do that well at Breckenridge Realty, and I was the only employee with the most dangerous machine an electric pencil sharpener.  Good for you all, keep it up.

          Have a good week, Let’s get it on, Mills; ride ‘em cowboy and God Bless America.


© Reno Gazette-Journal, 2001

A Tale of Four Sisters


McKinley Park School, on Riverside Drive between Keystone and Vine Streets, was one of the original “Four Sisters” built between 1910 and 1912, which operated over a seven-decade span.  It’s a strong likelihood that native Homefinders who were in elementary school even as late as 1970 attended one of the “Sisters.”  Their fifth option was Southside School, built in 1903 – the next elementary school built after the “Four Sisters” was Veterans’ Memorial, built in 1946.

                In 1909, Reno School District #10’s Superintendent B. D. Billinghurst negotiated $100,000 to build two of the finest schools in the West Coast, by his description “…modern and sanitary, eight classrooms and a large assembly room on one floor.  A domestic science room for the girls, and a manual arts training room for the boys, are placed in the basement.  The assembly hall is 40 feet wide and 80 feet long, including a stage on one end, lighted by electricity, with two sets of scenery.  A mechanical fan system of heating and cooling is provided.”

                Thus the McKinley Park and Orvis Ring Schools were built (Orvis Ring on the corner of East Seventh and Evans Avenue), and beauties they were – California mission-style, the rooms grouped around three sides of central courtyards, a fountain with a flagpole in the center.  But Dr. Billinghurst wasn’t through yet; a year later he bargained for another $250,000 for two more similar grade schools and a high school.  With these funds Mary S. Doten and Mount Rose Schools, (Washington and West Fifth Streets and Lander and LaRue Streets, respectively), were completed in 1911.  For the record, Libby Booth was the first principal at Orvis Ring and Echo Loder the first at Mary S. Doten, Mary’s middle name was Stoddard, Libby Booth was the last surviving charter member of the 20th Century Club when she died in 1953, and Arlington Avenue was named for the first superintendent of the Reno School District – now where else do you get trivia like that for four bits on a Saturday morning?  A junior high named for Superintendent Billinghurst would be built a block from Mount Rose School in 1930, on land donated by George Wingfield.

                So, we have the “Four Sisters” – known also as the “Spanish Quartette,”, attribution for either name unknown.  You’ll note a subtle difference between the two surviving schools: The earlier McKinley Park, like Orvis Ring, had a simpler structure over the main entrance and the intake flues for the cooling system were exposed, while the later Mount Rose, the twin to Mary S. Doten, demolished in 1971, has the massive Moorish domes framing the entrance.  Mount Rose to most people is more visibly pleasing – owing partially to the baby-poop wall and God-awful roof “tile” colors on McKinley Park that won an architect an award (all four schools were originally dove gray.)  At Mary S. Doten School in the 1940s, principal Rita Cannan would banish us to these turrets, up a flight of stairs that was more like a ladder, to a place of penance to reflect upon our misdeeds, little realizing that it was a grand place for a third-grader to just zone out and watch the world go by.  We never let on…  And, the domes were prescient of the new (1912) Reno High School’s design, by local architect George Ferris – (who also designed the Spanish Quartette) – basically a three-story version of the four elementary schools.  That school was on the Sundowner’s present site.

                The modern advances in the schools documented by Superintendent Billinghurst in the 1909 Nevada State Journal really worked – the auditorium stage “lit with real electric lamps” and the “central air system, with thermostats in each room.”  Mary S. Doten was a hell of a lot more comfortable than our later schools, including the present Reno High School which lacked air conditioning in the 1950s, ever were in late spring or early fall.  And Mary S. Doten was aesthetically nice to attend – big windows, high coved ceilings with huge round suspended glass light fixtures, rich woodwork and brass hardware, and hardwood floors one could only dream of having installed today.  Flowering ornamentals and wisteria in the courtyard, water bubbling in the fountain during warm weather, the school names in mosaic tile over the main entry door and a boiler the size of a railroad tank car in the basement warm enough to dry 300 pairs of soggy galoshes on a wintry day.

                Mary S. Doten closed in 1971 and was demolished soon after closing (a gleaming brass fire extinguisher from her lunchroom mysteriously appeared as a lamp in my office a month or so later.)  Orvis Ring was demolished three years later.  McKinley Park became the headquarters for some City of Reno rec and arts programs.  Mount Rose, through the mega-efforts of some parents and neighbors – notably Ted and Sue Schroeder, for two – was modernized and reopened in 1977, and remains an active school in the district.

                While traveling back in time for this column in 1996 and refreshing my memories, I visited Mount Rose School and looked at the courtyard in full autumn foliage (the fountain’s gone), through the ornate railings to the manicured lawn and mature trees lining Lander Street, and was reminded that Mount Rose School remains today a timeless gem in the school district’s tiara.

• •

I scribe this a day short of 9/11/03, and note that it was two years ago that I added the closing line of our column.  I’ve been asked how long I plan to close with it.  My response?  Quite a while.

                Have a good week, Let’s Roll, and God bless America.

© Reno Gazette Journal, 1996, 2003; Karl Breckenridge 2005