A TALE OF FOUR SISTERS

July 2016: Something unknown to me – maybe a HRPS walking tour – stirred up a couple reader questions about the Four Sisters , aka the Spanish Quartette, thank you Walter Van Tilburg Clark for that appellation (City of Trembling Leaves). I told both to go to my website, and both responded that they couldn’t find it. Thought I’d posted the story but I guess not. So here it is, from a 2003 Gazoo column:mt_rose_pic_web

                McKinley Park School, on Riverside 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

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