Nevada’s endangered history

Lear Theater tops list that includes courthouses, cemeteries, native languages

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: The Lear Theater building, an example of Neoclassical architecture built in the 1930s, was for years allowed to fall into disrepair. The City of Reno plans to purchase the building from Artown, but its future remains uncertain.

For the second year in a row, Reno’s historic — but deteriorating — Lear Theater tops a list of the state’s “11 Most Endangered Historic Places.”

The annual list by the Preserve Nevada group draws public attention to places and pieces of Silver State history threatened by neglect or development. Over the last two decades, some of the endangered places have been preserved, while others have fallen to bulldozers, including structures that were included in the National Register of Historic Places.

“When a building is on the National Register, people may think it’s automatically protected, but that’s not the case,” said Michael Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and director of Preserve Nevada. “It’s up to local ordinances and local decisions… We work hard to preserve those sites, but we know not everything will be preserved. In this line of work you have to prepare yourself for disappointment.”

In Reno, much of the brick-and-mortar evidence of city’s 153-year history has vanished under concrete and asphalt. The Mapes Hotel was imploded in 2008; the old Masonic Lodge, built in 1872, was the city’s oldest commercial structure when it was razed in 2019; and many of the Victorian homes in the Gateway District were leveled to make way for the University of Nevada, Reno’s expansion

There are success stories as well: a few of those Gateway houses were moved to safer locations; the grand Riverside Hotel is now artists’ lofts; and Reno’s NCO railroad depot, built in 1910, is now a restaurant.  “Sometimes it’s beyond anyone’s ability to save those endangered places,” Green said. “The Victory Hotel in Las Vegas, for example, was lost to fire. Many of them do survive; the rate of success with buildings on the endangered list has been pretty good.”

The Lear Theater

Reno officials are working on the city’s purchase of the Lear Theater, but just because the structure may soon be publically owned isn’t a guarantee that it will be preserved. The Neoclassical Revival building at 528 W. First Street dates back to the 1930s. It was designed by the renowned African-American architect Paul Revere Williams as the First Church of Christ, Scientist.

The church’s congregation moved to a new building in 1998. That’s when Moya Lear, widow of aviation pioneer Bill Lear, bought the building and donated it to the Reno-Sparks Theater Coalition in an effort to preserve the area’s architectural heritage.

The theater closed in 2002 and has remained empty for nearly two decades. The local arts organization Artown owns the Lear, but city officials in September announced plans to buy the building for $750,000.

“Options for the Lear Theater (include) sales and redevelopment offers. Unfortunately, some of the proposals have included developments on Riverside Drive that might threaten both the Lear and that historic street. Until there is a concrete plan for adaptively reusing the building while adhering to historic preservation standards, the Lear Theater’s future continues to hang in the balance.”

– Preserve Nevada.

Careful planning required

Alicia Barber, a professional historian and author, who has written about the theater’s historic value in her online Barber Brief, said the building’s fate will depend on how well the city crafts plans to renovate and repurpose the structure. “It sat vacant and unused for a long time,” she said. “It hasn’t been maintained or secured. There have been break-ins and vandalism. It may end in demolition by neglect if it continues to deteriorate.”

Barber noted that there is a lot of public interest in the building, particularly from people interested in historic preservation and from Reno’s African-American community. “Paul Revere Williams was the most important African-American architect of the 20th century,” she said. “For a person of such prominence to come to Reno in the 1930s was a big deal. There is a strong affinity for him here and that also should be incorporated into what happens next with the theater.”

Vanishing history

When new projects are planned, historic preservation often falls by the wayside, Barber said. Some people may think that progress is paramount and that “you can’t preserve everything,” she said.

“That’s true, you can’t save everything, but if you use that excuse every time, the historic buildings will all be gone,” Barber said. “There’s one remaining house from the original town site remaining and it’s surrounded by Jacob’s Entertainment property. The evidence that Reno was even here in the 19th century is almost gone. You can probably count on two hands the number of structures in the city that date to the 19th century. It’s an irretrievable loss.”

“(Losing historic buildings) sometimes happens all at once; whole blocks at a time for a major project,   but more often than not, it happens gradually. And when people aren’t attuned to that, or don’t value those buildings, or recognize that other people value them, it will all be lost.”

– Alicia Barber, Reno historian.

In addition to the Lear Theater, this year’s list includes sites related to Indigenous Nevadans, historic courthouses and cemeteries, buildings in Austin, and a theater in Las Vegas. Here’s a look at the other ten items on Preserve Nevada’s 2021 list:

The Stewart Indian School

When it opened in 1890, Stewart Indian School in Carson City was among the first of the many U.S. boarding schools designed to educate and force a different culture upon Indigenous Americans. It closed in 1980, and is now a historic site. The campus includes a cultural center and museum as well as buildings used by state agencies as offices. But more remains to be done, Preserve Nevada noted: “the state has helped with funding, but money is needed to renovate and preserve some of its historic buildings, including the bakery building/post office, gymnasium, and auditorium.”

Nevada’s Indigenous Languages

The Endangered Languages Project and the First Peoples’ Cultural Council warn that about 40 percent of the world’s 7,000 languages are in danger of disappearing. These include the Northern Paiute, the Southern Paiute, Shoshone, and Washo. “The more we can do to encourage the teaching of these languages to current and future generations, the better our chances of preserving these important parts of the cultural heritage of these people, and of Nevada,” according to Preserve Nevada.

 “Many of our elders aren’t around anymore; we’re losing so many,” Arlan D. Melendez, chairman of the Reno Sparks Indian Colony, said. “They’re trying to fill the gap with whoever’s left, and that’s not a lot of speakers.” He spoke after Gov. Steve Sisolak officially apologized Dec. 3 for the state’s role in creating the Stewart Indian School. Melendez noted that even though the pandemic halted many in-person celebrations and ceremonies for tribes, programs that promote learning traditional dances or Indigenous languages are inspiring younger generations and providing a spirit of hope.

Owyhee Stone Buildings, Elko County

 The town of Owyhee and the Duck Valley Reservation date to the late 1870s. The original office building and stone building on the reservation date back to the 1890s or early 1900s. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 helped lead to construction of more stone buildings, including a hospital and a power house made of volcanic stone from the Owyhee area. These buildings represent the long history of Indigenous People in Nevada and the legacy of Native labor, but have declined with time and would benefit from attention.

Three rural courthouses

The Hawthorne, Tonopah, and Austin courthouses are on this year’s endangered list. Although some offices at the Nye County Courthouse in Tonopah remain in use, the rest of the building has been abandoned. A Brownfields grant allowed the county to perform a Phase I environmental assessment, which is needed before any stabilization and restoration can take place. Important Nevada figures such as Key Pittman and Pat McCarran once practiced law there.

The Mineral County Courthouse in Hawthorne, the only courthouse in Nevada to serve two counties when it was originally part of Esmeralda County, also is in danger. The structure is a two-story Italianate building with a five-sided circular entry porch and a balustrade. The Austin Courthouse, an 1871 Greek revival, still is in use and must be carefully maintained.

Historic Cemeteries and Burial Sites

Rural cemeteries are important sources of historical information both for what they contain, such as information on tombstones, and what they lack, such as marginalized groups whose members are buried in their own sites, such as the Jewish cemetery in Eureka.

Many have worked to preserve the historic cemeteries in Virginia City and the Reno community has made great progress with Hillside Cemetery, but some cemeteries are on federal land (such as Round Mountain’s and Belmont’s), and others are left in disrepair. The concerns of Indigenous Nevadans about their burial sites require attention, as do the burials of Chinese workers in the Tonopah area in what is now a mining tailing dump, according to Preserve Nevada.

Austin church buildings

 St. Augustine’s in the old mining town of Austin is Nevada’s oldest Catholic Church building. The structure is a combination of Gothic Revival and Italianate architecture built in 1866 with native brick and stone fired at the Austin Brickyard. It includes the only surviving Henry Kigen church organ that is still functional. The church is now a cultural center. Also built in 1866, the town’s Methodist Church is now the Emma Nevada Town Hall in honor of the opera singer who grew up in Austin. St. George’s Episcopal Church, erected in 1878, still serves the denomination who built it. But Austin is a small town, and the buildings require constant attention.

“The historic buildings on our landscape tell the story of this place and the people who were here before us. They help perpetuate our public memory long beyond the ability of individual memory. Those stories are what make our place unique, meaningful and distinct; they create a sense of continuity with the people who came before… To erase all evidence of those types of buildings and designs loses an enormous amount of our identity and they can never come back.”

– Alicia Barber, Reno historian.
PHOTO/NEVADA MAGAZINE: St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Austin

Commercial Hotel, Elko

Today, the casino in Elko’s Commercial Hotel opens periodically only to maintain its gaming license. But its long history dates back to Elko’s beginnings as a Central Pacific railroad town in 1869. Under owner Newt Crumley, also a Nevada political figure, it pioneered big name entertainment in the state in 1941, starting with legendary vaudevillian Ted Lewis and numerous others who went on to perform in Las Vegas and Reno. Today, the building needs work, and the property receives attention from ghost hunters.

Goldfield High School

PHOTO: UNLV SPECIAL COLLECTIONS: Goldfield High School

Built in late 1907 at the apex of Goldfield’s 5-year boom and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, it is one of the few highly significant buildings to survive the great fires of 1923-24. Along with three grade schools, the 3-story Romanesque-style masonry structure, designed by architect J.B. Randell, reflects the community’s commitment to education.

As mining and population declined, all schools were consolidated into the high school, where instruction continued until 1953. That year, a new school was built and the high school was abandoned. A 2009 National Park Service Reconnaissance Survey found that the building has “a high degree of historic integrity,” although lack of maintenance had led to roof deterioration and rendered the high school’s exterior walls unstable.

Since being deeded to a state non-profit corporation, federal, state and private funding has allowed the exterior walls to be rebuilt, eliminating the ongoing risk of collapse. A current state Commission for Cultural Centers and Historic Preservation grant will allow work to begin on roof restoration, thereby preserving this important example of Goldfield life from its time as the last great gold mining boom in the West.

PHOTO/JONI EASTLEY: A building at the Tonopah Army Air Field.

Tonopah Army Air Field

Tonopah Army Air Field was a B-24 Liberator training facility during World War II from 1942 to 1946. More than 6,000 military personnel were assigned to this base, including Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier. Jackie Gaughan, the longtime Las Vegas casino owner, was stationed there. All that remains of the air field today are two hangars in various stages of disrepair, many acres of concrete foundations, and the original runways, which are still in use. A third hangar collapsed early in 2019. The property is owned by Nye County.

Huntridge Theatre

The Huntridge first opened in 1944 in the new neighborhood built in the midst of World War II. The theater became a community and entertainment center for the surrounding area at the time, and for all of Las Vegas. It was the first desegregated theatre in southern Nevada.

The structure served as a cinema while also hosting stage productions and concerts. The roof of the theatre collapsed in 1995, but it was repaired and the venue remained in use until 2004. Developer J Dapper has purchased it, and Preserve Nevada has “high hopes for The Huntridge’s future and his plans, but its fate remains uncertain.”

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1 Comment

  1. So sad especially the Lear Auditorium. Oh well, I guess they think it is progress and not deterioration of our pass and our history here. God bless their souls.

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