Remnants of Reno’s turbulent 20s and 30s

Despite having a population of just over 18,000 in the 1930 census, Reno cast a pretty big shadow. No doubt because of its reputation as a wide-open place where a person could get a fast divorce or indulge in a number vices such as drinking and gambling, Reno was far better known than most similarly-sized communities in the nation.

It was a time when a Reno columnist named Earl Leaf could, without a hint of shame, begin a story on the front page of the Nevada State Journal with “What kind of liquor are you getting when you step up to a bar in a local speakie? Is it good, wholesome product, or is it poison?”

Reno in the late 1920s and early 1930s was alive with divorcees seeking “the cure” (divorce) and establishing residency in the state for the required three months (until it was further reduced in 1931) and then only six weeks.

And it was place where gangsters like Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis could lay low.

Fortunately, a handful of structures in Reno have survived from that era. In fact, tucked throughout the neighborhoods south and west of downtown Reno are apartments, bungalows and cottages built during that time that once served as housing for divorce-seekers.

Additionally, there are other buildings that played a part in Reno’s story from that time such as the Riverside Hotel, now called the Riverside Artist Lofts, a stately brick lodging house at 17 South Virginia Street that was erected in 1927 to cater to the divorce trade.

The imposing six-story hotel was designed by famed Reno architect Frederic J. DeLongchamps and owned by George Wingfield, a local banker who was once the state’s richest and most powerful person.

The Riverside sits on the site of Reno’s first substantive building, a trading post known as the Lake House, erected by the city’s founder Myron Lake.

Adjacent is the Washoe County Courthouse, built in 1910, but which played an outsized role in the city’s divorce industry. It’s the place where some 30,000 divorces were granted in the decade of the 1930s.

A couple of blocks north of the courthouse at 239 W. Second Street, is the El Cortez Hotel, an Art Deco masterpiece (check out the beautiful terra cotta friezes on the building’s exterior) built in 1931 at the height of the divorce trade. Recently restored, the El Cortez was built by a silk merchant, Abe Zetooney, who hoped to cash in on the divorce business.

When it opened, the six-story, 60-room hotel was Reno’s tallest building and boasted a coffee shop and beauty salon/barber shop on the first floor.

An historic structure from that era with a dramatically different story is the Tudor Revival-style former home of casino owner William J. Graham, erected in 1928. Located at 548 California Avenue, the home is now used as an attorney’s office.

Graham, along with his partner, James McKay, gained notoriety during the early 20th century as owners of several illegal gambling parlors in Reno including the Bank Club (downtown) and the Willows (located west of Reno). The two were also known associates of Alvin Karpis and Baby Face Nelson.

Graham and McKay also owned a company called Riverside Securities, which owned and operated Reno’s red light district (located east of downtown, along the Truckee River), which was known as the Stockade. In 1938, the two were convicted of mail fraud and sent to prison.

For a good read on the history of Reno during that period, check out Al W. Moe’s “Mob City: Reno” and his companion book, “Roots of Reno,” available in local bookstores and on Amazon.

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


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