We’re back with more of the old motels of Reno. So far in this series we’ve looked at the motels that were along 4th Street in downtown Reno, specifically on the west side of town. We looked at the motels that lined both sides of the street, and also looked at one block in particular that was close to the casino action. 4th Street used to be Highway 40, the major route between northern California and the rest of the country, which is why there was such a high concentration of motels along there. But 4th Street never was the “main street” of Reno. That honor goes to Virginia Street. Most of the hotels, casinos, and other businesses in downtown Reno, the things that tourists actually came to see, were situated along Virginia Street. This was also Highway 395, the main north-south corridor through this part of Nevada. The central core of downtown stretched from the river up to about 4th or 5th Street, and that’s where most of the early-century hotels and casinos were built. North of 5th Street you started to get into suburbs and residential areas. So most of the smaller mid-century motels on Virginia Street were found there. That’s what we’ll look at today, the motels north of downtown along Virginia Street.
One of the closest motels to downtown was the Thunderbird. This is just north of 4th Street; on the south side of 4th there were a couple of older, larger brick hotels. So back then 4th Street kind of marked the edge of the true downtown core. Now, of course, downtown has expanded, and the largest hotel downtown, the Silver Legacy, is right across the street from here. But the Thunderbird is still here. And at least in the years just before Covid, was still getting decent reviews.
Monte Carlo Motel
One street north of the Thunderbird, at the corner of 5th and Virginia, was a whole block of old motels. Across the street a department store was built. Known as Gray Reid’s, it was the largest store in downtown Reno. That store was later remodeled into the Circus Circus Hotel/Casino. Being right across the street from Circus Circus kind of diminished the appeal of these motels, and they declined over the years. The first one, right on the corner of 5th and Virginia, was the Monte Carlo Motel. This motel lasted longer than many others downtown, even longer than the other ones on this block. But the Monte Carlo was torn down in 2020.
Heart O’ Town Motel
The Heart O’ Town was the next motel to the north. It and its elaborate neon sign served downtown for many decades. But it ended up being closed and boarded up around 2009. A long debate was held about what to do with the motel. The motel and its land were purchased by developers who were hoping to build a new entertainment district in this part of Reno. There was supposed to be student housing, offices, restaurants, and nightclubs, all built between here and the freeway. A new part of downtown. Instead the development fell through and left nothing but boarded up motels in its wake. The city considered the motels blighted, like so many of the other motels we’ve looked at, and wanted them torn down. Others thought that there was still life left in the buildings and a renovation could give them many more decades of life. As you can see below, the city ended up winning. The motel was demolished in September of 2016. This was actually before any of the motel demolitions on 4th Street had happened. In a way, these demolitions started the trend that we’ve been dealing with for the last 7 years.
For a bit after the demolition, the city used this land to house a sculpture park. Artwork and sculpture from Burning Man was moved here and opened for the public to walk around and see up close. But that didn’t last. After Covid the sculptures were removed and now it’s just an empty fenced-off lot, waiting for new development that was promised 14 years ago.
Golden West Motor Lodge
The story of the Golden West Motor Lodge mirrors the Heart O’ Town above. They were both bought at the same time by the same developer. They were both closed at the same time, and the fate of both was fought over. And they were both demolished in September 2016. But this one didn’t even get to be used as a sculpture park. It’s just been an empty lot ever since. Occasionally used for parking. You’d think this land would be valuable. On the main street, right across from a major casino. It’s a prime location. But this seems to be the curse of some of these properties downtown. Doomed to remain empty.
And the Uptown Motel, right next to the Golden West, didn’t even last that long. This one was torn down around 2005, when the Heart O’ Town and Golden West were still open to residents. I’m not sure why this one was torn down so early. Or indeed why this block kind of went down piecemeal, torn down gradually over the course of 15 years, instead of levelled all at once. This lot also has been empty ever since 2005. The city commissioned a mural to take its place on the side of the Reno Vulcanizing Works next door.
On the opposite side of the street was the Clos-In Motel. The name of this place follows the pattern that we’ve seen with some of the other motels, of them bragging about their proximity to downtown. The “In-Town”, the “City Center”, and now the Clos-In. And the motel was getting up close and personal with the Gray Reid department store too. You can see in the top postcard that they were right up against each other. And it was this closeness to the store that spelled the motel’s doom. If you remember from earlier, in 1978 Gray Reid was transformed into the Circus Circus hotel/casino. The casino was on the ground floor, restaurants were on the second floor, and the rest of the building was hotel rooms. The ground floor was a little small for the kind of casino they wanted, so they pushed the walls outward to make more room. And one of the directions they pushed was to the north, right where the Clos-In was. I imagine the motel was torn down in 1977 when renovations started. A few years later a high-rise hotel was built, completely covering anything that might have been left of the motel’s parking lot. In the present-day photo below, I believe the motel would have been located right about where the left roll-up door is. The old Gray Reid building can still be seen above the casino’s facade.
Another block up the street, at the corner of 7th and Virginia, was the Showboat Inn. This was the largest motel along Virginia Street, 4 stories tall. Built in the 1970s, it started as just an L shape. But in the 80s it was expanded by building a second wing, making it a U shape. The Showboat has survived pretty well all these years, and it even kept the Showboat name until 2019. Now it’s a Howard Johnson, and the other half of the U has signs up for Travelodge but also seems to be in the middle of rebranding to Howard Johnson. The motel doesn’t have great reviews, but it is still standing. In fact, the rest of the block was torn down several years ago to build an apartment complex. But this motel survived, which is more than you can say about most of the motels on this street.
Savoy Motor Lodge
Kitty-corner from the Showboat was the Savoy Motor Lodge, at the northwest corner of 7th and Virginia. This motel was in a quiet part of downtown, between the casinos and the University. But the quiet didn’t last long. In the 1960s the I-80 freeway was built between 7th and 8th Streets. Nearly everything on those blocks was demolished for the freeway, except for a sliver along 7th Street. The Savoy was within that sliver, so it was spared and survived into the 21st century. In 2007 the motel was demolished, but the sign remained for a while after.
Something is finally being built on the empty lot that was formerly the Savoy. The University Crossing center will be comprised of retail and restaurant space.
Across the street from the Savoy was the Jackpot Motel. Unfortunately, it wasn’t built right at the corner of 7th Street like the Savoy. So when the freeway came through, the Jackpot was sitting right where the on-ramp needed to go. The Jackpot was torn down in the late 60s to make way for the freeway. Now Maple Street goes right through the middle of the motel. A bank was built on the corner, taking the place of the gas station next door.
The Bonanza Motel sat mid-block between 7th and 8th Street. And you guessed it, it was also done in by freeway construction. The motel would have been floating about 30 feet above the eastbound lanes.
The Coed Lodge was on the northeast corner of 8th and Virginia, so it was safe from the freeway. The name refers to the motel’s proximity to the university. This motel lasted for a long time, even after 8th Street became a freeway exit. So this was the first motel that many visitors to Reno saw. This motel wasn’t felled by the freeway, but it did fall victim to progress of a different type. Running out of room to the north, the university decided in the 2010s that they needed to expand to the south. This block, between 8th and 9th, was in their sights almost immediately. In 2020 the entire block was demolished. Aside from this motel, an entire row of historic houses was torn down on the next street over. Construction still hasn’t even started yet, 3 years later, but now the university has a blank slate to work with. A new College of Business building is planned for this site, which is known as the Mathewson University Gateway.
Silver Dollar Lodge
On the west side of Virginia Street is the Silver Dollar Lodge. The first photo above shows how some of these motels were built in residential neighborhoods. This was only one block away from the university, where the streets were lined with old homes. This motel was built wrapping around one of the homes. By the time of the second photo, the house has been torn down and the parking lot expanded. It looks like the house had been in use as the office, and after it was torn down this new wing was built onto the motel. Today the Silver Dollar Lodge still stands, looking pretty much the same as it did decades ago. Despite the loss of the Silver Dollar house, there are still a couple of other old houses on this block.
Tiny’s Motel was the closest one to the University, right on the corner of 9th and Virginia. This one had the parking lot in an enclosed courtyard, providing a little privacy from the street. And it had neat little mid-century details like the red panels and the sign. Later it was renamed to the Sundance Motel, while keeping a lot of the same look. The motel survived here until 2020, when it was demolished along with the Coed Lodge. The city built a new bus stop on the site of the motel, but the rest of the block is still waiting for the university to start construction.
The Motel Capri was right across the street from Tiny’s Motel. Tiny’s is hiding behind the office. There’s also a nice convenient walkway and stairs above the office so you can get to the pool without having to dodge traffic. This motel still survives at the southwest corner of 9th and Virginia. The pool is gone, replaced by handicapped parking. And so the walkway to the pool is gone too. But the sign is still the same, fading and painted white. The breeze blocks are still around the office. It looks like there’s even still a Pepsi machine in the same spot, just upgraded to a new model. Reno has gone through a lot of changes over the decades, but some things are still consistent.