Reno author recalls rich history of the Mapes Hotel
Special to the Appeal
Until recently, just about anyone who has either lived in or visited Reno remembers the Mapes Hotel.
Once the grandest high-rise hotel in the city, the Mapes was imploded by the city on Jan. 30, 2000.
The story of the rise and fall of the beloved hotel, erected in 1947, is ably told in a new book titled, “Mapes Hotel and Casino: The History of Reno’s Landmark Hotel” by Patty Cafferata, a longtime Reno resident and former Nevada state treasurer.
Cafferata, who attended her high school senior prom in the Mapes’ Sky Room on the top floor, has great affection for the concrete-and-brick structure. In this relatively short work (80 pages), she describes the story of the hotel’s construction and the important role it played in Reno’s history and development.
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 there.
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.; his mother, Gladys; and sister, Gloria, moved ahead with the project. The old federal building and post office on the site was demolished and, in January 1946, work began on a 12-story 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, to make it the tallest building in the state.
Cafferata notes that Mapes also reasoned that he could keep that distinction for a while 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 Dec. 17, 1947, with great fanfare. In addition to a full house of locals, the hotel’s guests that night included actor Johnny Weissmuller (star of the “Tarzan” movies) and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen.
Cafferata traces the hotel’s high moments, like when it was the host hotel for the cast of the film “The Misfits.” She also describes the various entertainers who appeared in the hotel, from Mae West to Sammy Davis Jr.
Over the years, many celebrity guests stayed at the Mapes, including John Wayne, Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra. As Reno’s toniest joint, it hosted a number of high-profile promotions, film premieres and other special events.
But all good things come to an end. On Dec. 17, 1982 – exactly 35 years after it opened – the hotel closed. Mapes had invested heavily in another downtown Reno casino, the Mapes Money Tree, which 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, planning to convert it to a timeshare project.
When that failed, the city council voted in 1999 to demolish the hotel – despite the fact that there were other proposals on the table and the building was 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 plan for the site. Six years later, it remains vacant, except for a seasonal ice-skating rink.
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, P.O. Box 20357, Reno, NV 89515-0357; or call 825-2694. The cost is $14.95.
• Richard Moreno is the author of “Backyard Travels in Northern Nevada” and “The Roadside History of Nevada.”