Stewart Street Indian School abuzz with activity

Twenty years ago the federal government mothballed the Stewart Indian School, leaving a dim future for those quirky, colorful rock buildings at the south end of Carson City.

Even today, Stewart stands mostly out of the public glare - especially now that Western Nevada Community College has withdrawn its satellite presence from the former Indian School that last taught tribal children in 1980.

But Stewart is abuzz with activity.

State offices and nonprofit programs like Friends in Service Helping fill most of the near century-old buildings. The state Buildings and Grounds Division has a continual quest to restore and improve the historic facility.

Buildings and Grounds director Mike Meizel bristles when he hears someone say, "Why doesn't the state do anything with Stewart?"

Meizel defends the state's efforts to retain the charm of an early 20th century facility while bringing in modern accents - paved streets, parking lots, reliable sewer and electrical systems plus new heating and air conditioning units.

"There's a misconception the state hasn't done anything with Stewart," Meizel said. "Larry (Hale, Stewart's maintenance supervisor) and I get a little frustrated because everyone thinks it's all falling down."

Meizel's division has done $5 million in upgrades since 1986 but much of it was invisible work, like moving the electrical power grid underground or converting a central boiler system to individual boilers in each building.

Pam Wilcox, director of the State Lands Division that owns Stewart, said many people just don't remember the poor condition of the school property the state acquired in 1982. Dirt roads, and not good ones, traversed the campus then.

"They were more potholes than roads," Wilcox said.

Meizel has a shopping list for nearly $7 million more in upgrades that he will present to the 2001 Legislature. Nearly $5 million is earmarked for remodeling Building No. 17, a 1960s structure and home to the WNCC satellite campus from 1986 to this spring. The college used 20 classrooms at Stewart for programs such as nursing, drafting, electronics and English as a Second Language before the Cedar Building or Reynolds Center for Technology were built.

More state offices are destined for Building 17. The Department of Prisons and the Department of Motor Vehicles and Public Safety already have a substantial presence at Stewart.

Meizel also wants to survey every roof on the 65 or so buildings and make necessary repairs, especially on the roofs of the 17 unused buildings. But Wilcox said money doesn't flow freely for work at Stewart.

"The state every (legislative) session has very limited money," Wilcox said. "It has to go all over the state. It's hard for Stewart to compete. It's always with the unoccupied buildings we're having to compete for money."

The Stewart Indian School has always been a priority for State Sen. Lawrence Jacobsen, R-Minden, but he said legislators from Southern Nevada have consistently shown less enthusiasm for Stewart.

Jacobsen, serving in the Nevada Legislature since 1963, played youth basketball at Stewart decades ago and had a key role in transfering the closed school from federal to state ownership.

"The state had given the land to the federal government years ago," Jacobsen said. "I thought it only proper we get it back."

Like many classic political deals, this one happened aboard an airplane. Jacobsen and then-Interior Secretary James Watt were sitting across the aisle from each other and Jake brought up the Stewart Indian School.

Jacobsen initially got involved with Stewart with the urgings of then-U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt, R-Nev. Laxalt recruited Jacobsen and Carson Valley rancher Fred Settelmeyer to "do something" about Stewart.

The federal government had put Stewart on the surplus property list after moving the Indian School to New Mexico because many of the buildings did not meet federal earthquake standards.

Over a period of 10 years, the state acquired the 110 acres that makes up nearly all the property that once was the Indian school, which dates back o 1890. The acquisition started with 50 acres in July 1982 that made up the core facility with most of the buildings.

The 14 acres at the southeast corner with the ponds where Carson City drains treated sewage was added in May 1988. Another eight acres at the northwest corner were acquired in 1989 with nine of the buildings on that land set aside for the Washoe Tribe of California and Nevada, which has yet to make use of them.

All this acreage came to the state at no cost through historic monument and health and human services grants. The state did pay $153,000 in July 1990 to purchase 38 acres along the southern perimeter.

That land has only seven buildings now but could easily double the office potential for Stewart in the future if the state continues needing more office space.

Stewart has already served as a perfect overflow site for the Capitol Complex. State government has grown during the past two decades to keep pace with the state's population boom - Nevada has had the fastest growth rate in the nation for 14 years.

"It will probably become the second Capitol Complex," Meizel said. "We banter that around in meetings."

State agencies pay rent at Stewart but that is just shifting public money from one agency to another - State Lands is the landlord.

Stewart falls in line with Gov. Kenny Guinn's desires to lease less space in the private sector and own the buildings that state offices occupy.

"As time goes by, Stewart will become more important," said Jacobsen, who has served in the Legislature longer than anybody in Nevada history.

Meizel and Wilcox have a similar notion. Stewart is the second largest property under State Lands' jurisdiction, behind the Capitol Complex - the state-owned land that includes much of the property between Carson and Stewart streets from the Capitol to the Nevada State Railroad Museum.

Wilcox said perhaps 10 medium office buildings, each with about 50,000 square feet of space, would use up available land in the Carson-Stewart corridor. She figures that property would be built out within 20 years.

"Once we fill that land up (at the Capitol Complex), this is the next place," Wilcox said strolling the campus grounds at Stewart. "When the freeway comes, there will be an interchange near here and Stewart will be a prime location."

The Department of Prisons has its administrative and finance offices and training facilities at Stewart.

"We have a very large presence out here," prison spokesman Glen Wharton said.

Prisons moved to Stewart in 1989 to get away from cramped administrative space down the street at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center. Stewart was the perfect solution for the department since the Indian School sits within a few miles of three of the state's seven major penal institutions.

"I suspect we would have to lease some space in the community if Stewart wasn't here," Wharton said. "Given our size that would have to be a substantial building."

Prisons occupies 55,502 square feet at Stewart and DMV leases 71,572 square feet.

Most of the public safety sector in the Department of Motor Vehicles and Public Safety is based at Stewart. Nevada Highway Patrol cadets bunk there. The Office of Traffic Safety, the Nevada Division of Investigations, the state Fire Marshal, the state Emergency Response Commission, the Criminal Justice/Narcotics Control Assistance Office and the Training Division all operate out of Stewart.

"With the big trees, it has a campus look," said Bernie Curtis, DMV's deputy director for public safety. "Stewart is very important for us. Some of our divisions work together closely. NDI and the fire marshal's office share the same large building. They at times work together on cases."

The state Buildings and Grounds Division manages and maintains Stewart for State Lands. Buildings and Grounds restored many of the buildings but tenants such as the Department of Prisons and FISH did their own building renovation work. Even Jacobsen logged thousands of working hours at Stewart.

"I catalogued 5,000 hours myself," Jacobsen said. "One summer I spent the whole summer there helping clean it up."

Prisons had a captive work force, literally.

"We renovated this building (NDOP headquarters) using prison labor," Wharton said.

FISH came to the Stewart Indian School via Friends of Citizens Under Stress, which had a 32-bed emergency shelter for the homeless at Stewart. FISH absorbed FOCUS in the 1980s and FISH now has seven buildings at Stewart with intentions of leasing two more, said Monte Fast, FISH's executive director.

FISH has shelters and transitional housing at Stewart. The shelter is for men, women and children, but Fast is in the process of leasing another Stewart building as a male-only shelter.

FISH also has a pair of duplexes with four two-bedroom apartments and four stand-alone houses with two to four bedrooms. To live in these units, applicants must have children, must have a job and must submit a plan on how they plan to become self-sufficient.

"Stewart is the safety valve in Carson City," Fast said. "It's far enough away from the city center and is well policed by two police forces (Capitol Police and Carson City Sheriff's Department). In Reno, they're spending money on hotels. It costs them 50 bucks a night to take care of a homeless person. Here it costs us $2.65.

"Stewart is the difference between Reno and Carson City. You try to put one of these things in Reno and see what happens. 'We don't want that here. Not in my back yard.'"

History also has its place at Stewart. Right at the main entrance, the Stewart Indian School Museum has three buildings. Museum director Sheila Abbe wants to lease three more buildings to allow expansion of museum exhibitions and programs.

As much as Stewart has become a state office complex, Wilcox said a key motivation for the state to acquire Stewart was to keep it from private ownership.

"The single most important thing is the state acquired this because it is historic and we want to preserve it forever," said Wilcox, who has been with State Lands since the agency acquired Stewart.


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