This column was written a couple of years ago at the suggestion of Bill Thornton – a pillar of our community who passed away on Nov. 5 (pictured below). Much has been written of Biil; this is my contribution to his memory:
A near-century after the township of Lake’s Crossing was staked out on the Truckee River, a brand-new building, at 294 feet the highest in the state and located at the financial, retail, social and geographic crossroads of Reno, opened for business on a Saturday afternoon. And thus, on October 26, 1963, a Northern Nevada icon was born. The First National Bank of Nevada, then the state’s “400 Million Dollar Partner,” commissioned the construction of the building to be its statewide headquarters. Curiously, the bank’s former main branch at Second and Virginia Streets, a block to the north, would remain as the preferred branch of the bank’s premier accounts for years to follow, evidence of either the sentimentality of the depositors’ formative days, or of the cachet and clout to be gained from the “94-1” branch number on their checks. But the new 16-story building would from that date forward house the central operation of its commerce on the lower four floors, with the fifth floor and those higher leased immediately to some of the Reno’s most prestigious legal firms and commercial tenants. I was somewhat amused that in spite of the wholesale pilgrimage of the bank’s administrative function to the new tower, their high-speed memory-card-reader/state-of-the-art, whiz-bang behemoth IBM computer remained at the Second and Virginia building, as it was too massive a task to move it. That amusement came as I realized that today, 53 years later, the IT tech who runs that IBM’s replacement with tenfold more capability would probably just haul it the one block south on a hand-truck and plug it back in.
(Photo: Treat Cafferata/RGJ file)
Let’s learn a bit of the tower structure: The name of the bank’s early-1960s president Eddie Questa figures in several sources as the engine behind building a new bank, on a site occupied by another, smaller FNB branch on the same corner, One East First Street. Shareholder approval was gained and deed was done, and the Harding Group engineering firm initiated the task of overseeing the preparation of the site and coordinating the management of construction and utilities to the new building. The architectural firm of Langdon & Wilson, then of LA and now with principal offices in Newport Beach, California, was commissioned to design a bank building. And did they ever; the obsidian glass with bright aluminum window mullions were unique in 1964 and remain so today. The usable floor area of the building is 160,000 square feet, which when including the entry floor works out to about 10,000 feet per floor (like most high-rise buildings, One East First has no 13th floor). The vault, with its 18-ton door, is 18 feet wide by 85 feet long. Inasmuch as the vault’s floor, ceiling and walls are fashioned of two feet of concrete and rebar, it’s a fair assumption that no matter what becomes of the structure, the vault will remain. And here I’ll beat a dozen column readers to what they’re itching to email me — that Parker’s first western store on East Second at Lake Street was also built as a bank with a vault in its basement, which Harry and Mush Parker used as a showroom for Levi’s britches.
The $4.5 million tower construction was a joint venture of the L. E. Dixon Company of San Gabriel, California and the J. A. Tiberti Construction Company of Las Vegas. Both were strong companies with many impressive projects completed on the West Coast. While both firms were domiciled out of the area, FNB took great pride that the vast majority of the subcontractors, suppliers and vendors were locally based. And, like dotting an i or crossing a t, one of the final acts of construction before turning the new building over to the 500 First National Bank employees was the placing of a 42-foot-tall lightning arrester atop the building. A helicopter was employed for this daunting task, an event not lost on the adoring press. By coincidence a set of pulleys, sheaves and a lanyard were attached to the lightning rod. The current Reno City Hall is at left in this view looking north. The Cal Neva parking garage is on the right. And, by golly, on that autumn day of 1963 Old Glory proudly flew above the Battle Born Nevada flag from that lanyard at the pinnacle of the new building,. A few housekeeping notes remain: Eddie Questa, considered the father of this “head office” building, passed away before the building was completed. A 500-car parking garage was later completed across the alley east of One East First Street. At its grand opening on Dec. 12, 1964, the first parking slot was allotted to FNB president Hugo Quilici; vintage cars from Harrah’s Auto Collection were parked on the upper floors with newly introduced 1965 models occupying the main floor on display. And one final note is imperative, that of the Mapes Hotel across First Street to the south, FNB’s neighbor for 36 years until the Mapes’ demolition in January 2000.
The story of One East First Street cannot be fully told in the context of Reno’s iconic structures without including the Mapes Hotel. In years to follow, One East First Street was acquired by the Club Cal Neva, and thereafter the office tower was sold to the City of Reno for its current occupancy as Reno City Hall. In 2015, the Club Cal Neva sold to the parking garage located a 55 East First Street to City of Reno as the garage is used primarily by the City of Reno, its employees and visitors, and other tenants of the office building. These transactions deserve a column of their own soon when space will permit more information.
What is quite relevant in this column is the activity being planned for a city council meeting next Wednesday, July 20,  at noon, when the architect’s 1964 rendering of One East First Street, a framed image about four-feet square, will be donated to the City by Bill Thornton’s family and the Club Cal-Neva headed by Jeff Siri. The rendering will be displayed in the building’s lobby with an appurtenant description of its creation. It’ll be well worth your trek downtown to see this artwork, in the now-Reno City Hall, the northernmost jewel in the City of Reno’s tiara – the classic Delongchamps post office, the graceful new Virginia Street Bridge spanning the Truckee River, and this iconic bank building-turned-city hall.
read Nettie Oliverio’s tribute to Bill © This Is Reno
column text © RGJ 2016