Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Mapes Hotel: Reno's Lost Art Deco Jewel

By Ross Everett

The Mapes Hotel in Reno, Nevada met its demise on Superbowl Sunday of 2000 when 75 pounds of explosives packed inside the structure's support columns brought it to the ground. The controlled demolition came despite years of effort by a number of groups within the community to preserve the building with lawsuits, redevelopment proposals, and grass roots lobbying efforts. The National Turst for Historic Preservation even took up the cause, challenging the destruction in a lawsuit that eventually reached the Nevada Supreme Court.

While the logic and necessity of demolishing the Mapes is very questionable, one thing that is certain is that the hotel was an important part of Northern Nevada history. The opening of the Mapes in'47 ushered in a new era in casino gambling, and changed the economy and way of life in Nevada forever. The Mapes was actually the first property in the country to combine a hotel, casino and live entertainment under the same roof. It also became the hotel of choice for celebrities staying in Northern Nevada. Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe stayed at The Mapes during the filming of 'The Misfits'. Joseph McCarthy, America's famed anti-Communist crusader, admitted to a reporter over cocktails in the Mapes Lounge that he really didn't have a list of Communists in the US despite his frequent and vitriolic insistence to the contrary.

In the 50s and 60s it became, along with Lake Tahoes Cal-Neva Lodge the place to be seen in Northern Nevada. The top floor, window-walled Sky Room showcased performances by the legends: Sinatra, Louis Prima, Mae West, Milton Berle, Sammy Davis, Jr., and the Marx Brothers among others. Subsequent years were not kind to downtown Reno but the Mapes prospered during the 60's and 70's. The hotel finally closed in'82, due more to financial difficulties experienced by the Mapes family caused by one of their other Northern Nevada gaming properties than anything else.

Reno never experienced the massive growth that occurred in Las Vegas and southern Nevada, and for that reason the destruction of the Mapes is more open to debate than the hotel demolitions to the south. Even the demolition of The Sands--perhaps the most historically significant casino in the state--is hard to argue against given the inability of such a small property to compete in the current Las Vegas marketplace and in light of the value of the mid-strip real estate. The old properties may have historic value to pop culture historians, but their survival doesn't make economic sense. They're simply 'analog players in a digital world'.

That's not the case in Reno, where vacant land and/or buildings ripe for redevelopment are abundant downtown and in the other casino areas of the city. The official reason that the Mapes had to come down was that the city needed the land to expand its vision for downtown redevelopment. While this is certainly a much needed effort, to suggest that the existence of the Mapes was a barrier is absurd. In fact, many of the proposals rejected by the city would have gone a long way to enhance the revitalization of downtown Reno and included artists lofts, office space and other mixed used properties. Despite receiving a number of viable concepts for the Mapes Building, the City Redevelopment Authority rejected all of them and the Mapes was destined for demolition.

The role of the City Redevelopment Authority was questioned throughout the process. Overlooking the Truckee River, the hotel was on a prime location between the downtown casino area and the riverfront district. A number of sound financial proposals were presented that would preserve the integrity of the structure including condominiums, office space, and perhaps most viable, upscale senior apartments. Oddly, all of these proposals were turned down by the citys Redevelopment Agency which continued to maintain that demolition was the only viable option despite copious evidence to the contrary.

Following the 2000 demolition, the lot remained vacant for over a year until a temporary ice skating rink was hastily constructed the following winter. The property has been improved and the rink is now permanent which, while not in itself a bad use for the land, further calls into question the efficacy of demolishing the structure. It would appear that the city had no clue what to do with the land, but for whatever reason wanted the building brought down. This has led to all sorts of conspiracy theories, from the City Development Agency having financial incentive to raze the hotel to rumors that the building was haunted and was destroyed to keep the Reno area from being overrun with paranormal activity. Whatever the reason for the decision, the city of Reno has lost a beautiful art deco treasure that played a significant part in the economic growth of the state.

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