The Mapes Hotel: Reno’s Lost Art Deco Jewel

by Ross Everett

The Mapes Hotel in Reno, Nevada met its demise on Superbowl Sunday of 2000 when 75 pounds of explosives packed inside the structure’s support columns brought it to the ground. The controlled demolition came despite years of effort by a number of groups within the community to preserve the building with lawsuits, redevelopment proposals, and grass roots lobbying efforts. The National Turst for Historic Preservation even took up the cause, challenging the destruction in a lawsuit that eventually reached the Nevada Supreme Court.

While the efficacy and justification of demolishing the Mapes is debatable, one thing that is not is the glorious history of the hotel. It was built in 1947, and signaled the start of the modern era of casino gambling. Despite the notoriety of Bugsy Siegel and the Flamingo in Las Vegas, it was the Mapes that became the first building in the nation to have a hotel, casino and live entertainment under one roof. It also became the hotel of choice for celebrities staying in Northern Nevada. Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe stayed at The Mapes during the filming of ‘The Misfits’. Joseph McCarthy, America’s famed anti-Communist crusader, admitted to a reporter over cocktails in the Mapes Lounge that he really didn’t have a list of Communists in the US despite his frequent and vitriolic insistence to the contrary.

During the ‘Rat Pack’ era of the 50’s and 60’s it became along with the Cal-Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe the place to be seen in Northern Nevada. The 11th floor, window walled Sky Room Lounge hosted performances by a roster of entertainment legends including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Louis Prima, Keely Smith, Milton Berle and Mae West. Downtown Reno struggled during the 1960’s and 70’s but the Mapes continued to prosper. The hotel finally closed in 1982, due to financial problems experienced by the Mapes Family brought about by their other Northern Nevada casino holdings.

Reno has yet to experience the sort of growth that has been seen in Southern Nevada, and for that reason the destruction of the Mapes is more open to debate than the hotel demolitions to the south. Even the demolition of The Sands”perhaps the most historically significant casino in the state”is hard to argue against given the inability of such a small property to compete in the current Las Vegas marketplace and in light of the value of the mid-strip real estate.

This is not the case in Reno, where land and buildings for development in virtually every casino area are abundant. The city argued that the land on which the Mapes stood was necessary for their redevelopment efforts–a somewhat absurd position given the realities of downtown Reno and the lack of any real development on the property since the demolition. Despite receiving a number of viable concepts for the Mapes Building, the City Redevelopment Authority rejected all of them and the Mapes was destined for demolition.

The role of the City Redevelopment Authority was questioned throughout the process. Overlooking the Truckee River, the hotel was on a prime location between the downtown casino area and the riverfront district. Back in 1996, the city of Reno purchased the hotel and began entertaining proposals for renovation and redevelopment. A number of sound financial proposals were presented that would preserve the integrity of the structure including condominiums, office space, and perhaps most viable, upscale senior apartments. Oddly, all of these proposals were turned down by the citys Redevelopment Agency which eventually led to the demolition of the structure.

After the demolition of The Mapes Hotel, the lot remained vacant for almost a year until a temporary ice skating rink was constructed in the winter of 2001. The site now houses a permanent ice skating rink which, while not a bad use for the land, brings into question the insistence by the City Redevelopment Agency that none of the proposals to preserve the building were viable. Clearly, they had no specific plan or even general idea of what to do with the land but for some reason wanted to see the hotel come down. This has led to all manner of speculation, ranging from financial self interest to a rumor that the structure was ‘haunted’ and needed to be destroyed to forestall future paranormal activity in Washoe County. Whatever the reason, the city of Reno lost a valuable landmark of a more civilized era.