Recalling the Mapes Hotel

I was unpacking a box of books the other day and noticed I had two copies of Patty Cafferata’s “Mapes Hotel and Casino: The History of Reno’s Landmark Hotel.” I flipped open the slim book, which is about 80 pages, and soon found myself rereading it—and thinking back on the hotel that was once considered Reno’s grandest.

When I first arrived in Reno in the early 1980s, the Mapes was still operating. I remember people telling me it was where the movie stars stayed while filming “The Misfits” in 1961 and it had once been the tallest building in the state.

It was an impressive but aging brick 12-story edifice on the edge of the Truckee River that boasted a cool Art Deco design and plenty of the old Reno allure with its neon signs and clattering slot machines.

I remember riding the elevator to the Sky Room, just to see the view, and just wandering through the place soaking in the smoky ambience.

Then it abruptly closed. At the time, I was a reporter at the Reno newspapers and wrote a few stories about the closing. I remember even getting a tour of the shuttered hotel on the one-year anniversary of its closing with a bank official and writing a piece about the property’s uncertain future.

In my story, I compared the old hotel to Blanche DuBois, a character in Tennessee Williams’ classic play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” who famously had proclaimed, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” The same was true for the hotel.

Pick up a copy of Cafferata’s book because it explains the importance of the Mapes to Reno. Erected in 1947, it immediately became a symbol for the community’s bright future—or at least as bright as it appeared to be immediately after World War II.

Cafferata, who attended her high school Senior Prom in the Mapes’ Sky Room on the hotel’s top floor, has great affection for the concrete and brick structure.

The Mapes was the brainchild of rancher Charles Mapes Sr., who, in 1937, purchased the east corner lot on North Virginia and First streets. It was his intention to build a fine hotel on the property to honor his father, George, who, he believed, had once operated a grain store on the site.

Unfortunately, Mapes died before he had a chance to build the hotel and the other family members delayed construction with the outbreak of World War II.

Immediately after the war ended, Charles Mapes Jr., along with his mother, Gladys, and sister, Gloria, moved ahead with the project. The old federal building and post office sitting on the site was demolished and, in January 1946, work began on a 12-story, brick and concrete structure that would combine an elegant Art Deco design with modern building techniques.

In planning the hotel, Charles Mapes Jr. decided it would be a dozen stories because that would make it the tallest building in the state.

Cafferata notes that the younger Mapes also reasoned that he could keep that distinction for awhile because no casino would ever build a 13-story tower (13 being an unlucky number) and erecting a 14-story building would be considerably more expensive.

The Mapes Hotel officially opened on December 17, 1947 with great fanfare. In addition to a full house of locals, the hotel’s guests that night include actor Johnny Weissmuller (star of the “Tarzan” movies) and San Francisco columnist Herb Caen.

Cafferata traces the hotel’s high moments, like when it served as the host hotel for the cast of “The Misfits.” She also describes the various entertainers that appeared in the hotel, who ranged from Mae West to Sammy Davis Jr.

And over the years many celebrity guests stayed at the Mapes, including John Wayne, Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra. As Reno’s toniest joint, it played host to a number of high profile promotions, film premieres and other special events.

But all good things come to an end and on December 17, 1982—exactly 35 years after it opened—the hotel’s doors were closed. Charles Mapes Jr. had invested heavily in another downtown Reno casino, the Mapes Money Tree, which had failed, and had been forced into bankruptcy.

The hotel’s fate remained uncertain for another 18 years as many proposals came and went. Finally, the city of Reno bought the property for $4 million with plans to convert it to a timeshare project.

When that failed to materialize, the Reno City Council voted in 1999 to demolish the hotel—despite the fact that there were other proposals on the table and the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In spite of considerable local opposition, the council moved quickly to implode the building—even though it had no immediate plan for what to do with the site (it has since been used as open space and a popular seasonal ice skating rink).

The structure was destroyed on January 30, 2000.

Cafferata notes that the Mapes was the first building on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s List of Eleven Most Endangered Sites to ever be demolished.

“The Mapes Hotel and Casino: The History of Reno’s Landmark Hotel,” by Patty Cafferata is available at local bookstores or from the publisher, Eastern Slope Publisher, The cost is $14.95.

Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.


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