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The Nevada Traveler: When easy divorces put Reno on the map

By Richard Moreno
One of the many divorce-related postcards printed during Reno’s heyday as the Divorce Capital of the World between the 1920s and 1950s. Photo courtesy of the University of Nevada, Reno Special Collections
Traveler 09-30-20

An auburn-haired woman, perhaps in her early 30s, strolls through the glass and bronze double doors of the majestic Washoe County Courthouse. She pauses next to one of the massive columns that support the courthouse’s portico and then leans over to plant a kiss on the pillar (cover of Life Magazine, June 21, 1937).

She heads north toward the Riverside Hotel, where she had spent the previous six weeks dreaming of the moment she would finally be free. She pulls off her wedding ring and then throws it as hard as she can into the river. She is about to begin her new life (“The Misfits,” starring Marilyn Monroe, 1961).

Or at least that’s how Reno promoters liked to tell the story.

From 1920 to the early 1950s, Reno deservedly was known as the Divorce Capital of America.

Between 1929 and 1939, about 32,000 marriages were dissolved in the Biggest Little City in the World. A Reno divorce was known as “Taking the Cure” or getting a “Reno-vation.”

Fortunately, a handful of places still remain in Reno with ties to that period. The most obvious symbol of a Reno divorce is the Washoe County Courthouse, where so many divorces were granted and where so many kisses were allegedly planted.

The courthouse, completed in 1911, was designed by famed Nevada architect Frederick J. DeLongchamps in a Classical Revival style.

Another longtime divorce industry landmark is the Riverside Hotel, erected in 1927 by Reno powerbroker George Wingfield. Built with wealthy divorce-seekers in mind, it had 40 corner suites with refrigerators, kitchens and connecting rooms for children and servants (it also had 60 smaller, single rooms for guests of more modest means). Today, it serves as housing for artists.

Other structures still found in Reno that were connected to the divorce trade include:

• The El Cortez Hotel (239 W. Second St.), which opened in 1931. Designed by the Reno firm of George Ferris and Son, it was the tallest building in the city when it was completed. It quickly became a popular place for divorce-seekers to stay; business was so good that it was expanded a year after it opened.

• The Nystrom House (333 Ralston St.) was a Gothic Revival style home built in 1875 for Washoe County Clerk John Shoemaker. It served in the 1920s as a boardinghouse for Reno’s divorce trade.

• The Glass Gallery/Dow House (935 Jones St.) was built in 1907-08 by Lisle Jamison. By the early 1930s, the lovely Colonial Revival/Queen Anne style home had become a popular rooming house for divorce seekers.

• The Twaddle Mansion (485 W. Fifth St.) was built in 1905 for local rancher Ebenezer “Eben” Twaddle. The elegant house boasts fluted posts with Ionic caps, which support a frieze and pediment. Starting in the early 1930s, it, too, became housing for divorce-seekers.

Additionally, in the 1930s a thriving “Dude Ranch” business bloomed in rustic areas around Reno, including Washoe Valley’s famous Flying M E Ranch and the Pyramid Lake Ranch. While many had private cabins for divorcees (60 to 70 percent of which were women) waiting out their six weeks, others consisted of large ranch houses with dining rooms and living quarters shared by guests.

Closer to Reno, the Frey Ranch (1140 W. Peckham Lane) was built in 1870 by Enoch Morrill and, after it was sold in the 1890s, was owned by Joseph Frey and his family. In the 1920s and ’30s, the ranch, which includes a Victorian main house, was used as a dude ranch for divorcees seeking the “Reno cure” (as a divorce was called in those days).

Reno’s divorce trade peaked in 1946, when 19,000 divorces were granted. By the 1960s, Reno was no longer America’s divorce capital, having been eclipsed by much larger Las Vegas, and ultimately done in by looser divorce requirements in many other states.

Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.