In 1995, Mercedes de la Garza, a honey-blond Texan with a perpetual merry glint in her eyes, accompanied her husband to Reno, where he was being interviewed for a job. During his interview, she left their hotel and wandered around the downtown. She came upon the Mapes Hotel, which bore a sign reading “A Project of the Reno Redevelopment Agency.”
“I thought if the leaders of this community are that progressive to save an incredible building like that, I want to move here,” De la Garza says. “So I did.”
Under the initial illusion that city government wanted to preserve the Mapes, she soon learned the political terrain and plunged into the campaign to save the hotel. When the city blew it up, she watched sadly from Barbara Bennett Park.
On that first walk around Reno, de la Garza also took note of the bridge alongside the Mapes—”thinking it was a nice old bridge that was still intact, having come from San Antonio, where they have loads of those kinds of old bridges—not quite as nice as that one.”
But the aging span’s structural weaknesses (as well as flood control problems) could soon cause its closure and eventually its demolition. If the Virginia Street bridge, unlike the Mapes, is to be saved, residents like de la Garza are its hope. Advocates of the bridge, which will begin its second century this year, tend to emphasize its history, its romance, its allure—which are unknown to most residents. Only two of every 10 Nevadans are natives these days, and in addition to growing at a furious rate, the population is turbulent—people come to Nevada, leave, are replaced by others. Appeals to local history and emotions don’t resonate with this populace of newcomers, for whom the bridge is a bridge and not an icon.
Birth of a fable
It started out as just a bridge. That point on the Truckee River had been the site of a central crossing since 1857, and bridges had come and gone. On July 17, 1905, a contract was let for construction of a concrete bridge to replace the solid-ribbed, arched iron span that had stood since 1877.
It’s uncertain when construction started or when the bridge was opened to traffic (a city fact sheet gives the dates July 17 for the first, Nov. 1 for the second, but 1905 newspaper reports don’t support those dates), but it’s known that a temporary bridge was installed slightly upstream, the old bridge was taken down (and moved downstream and reinstalled), and the new bridge was built and put into service.
The new bridge was accepted from the contractor by the County Commission—which then owned the property—in January 1906, so the whole project was completed in less time than the current Interstate 80 improvements are taking. (The temporary bridge was an early work of Nevada’s best-known architect, Frederic Delongchamps, who then called himself Delonchant.)
Designed by San Francisco architect John Leonard, the bridge is a reinforced-arch, concrete structure, its surface level with the surrounding land and its walkways decorated with a concrete fascia and wrought iron. The two arched spans have often become clogged during the river’s chronic floods.
In the hundred years since its construction, the bridge has endured ordinary use, weather and floods. The Nevada Department of Transportation has estimated that about 90 percent of the bridge’s normal life has already been used.
The bridge experienced something else, too—image building, much of it in the hands of non-Nevadans. As the largest city in the state that had the quickest divorces, Reno became a divorce mecca. “Going to Reno” gained a nationally understood meaning. The Washoe County Courthouse became the local focus of the divorce industry, but national writers also liked to write about the bridge.
They created a fable about women divorcees throwing their wedding rings off the bridge. It appeared in movies and books and magazines (the dust jacket for Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr.’s 1929 novel Reno showed a rain of rings—and divorcees—falling into the river waters). State archives administrator Guy Louis Rocha has found the story appearing as early as a 1927 out-of-state leaflet. The Jaycees and other groups kept going down into the riverbed with high-powered vacuum hoses to find all those rings, without much luck.
Most of the divorcees were not movie stars and could hardly afford to throw away their diamond rings. But surely some people, seeing the movies or reading the novels, eventually did throw rings into the river—a case of life imitating myth, in writer Mike Sion’s phrase.
So it became the Reno bridge, with some Eastern writers calling it Reno’s “bridge of sighs,” after the Venice bridge. Such nonsense continues to this day. Two years ago, New York Times writer Patricia Leigh Brown called the bridge “the city’s most beloved divorce icon”—a designation probably more reasonably assigned to the courthouse. (Time magazine, Sept. 15, 1930: “Well did each divorcee recall Judge Bartlett’s warm friendly chambers on the second floor of the ornate courthouse where her decree had been granted—the pictures of the judge’s family and dogs, the worn leather chairs, the old …” etc.)
The courthouse, however, is not the tourist attraction it once was. Tourists wanting to see where the movie stars were divorced have been observed walking up the courthouse steps, encountering the airport-style security, and leaving without going in. And one of the few other identifiable divorce-era icons for tourists to see, the Silver State Lodge log cabins on Fourth Street, were torn down in 2003.
Saving the bridge for tourists, however, would be symptomatic of what has so often led local policymakers down blind alleys. So many downtown decisions have been made for the tourists instead of for the residents, and the decline of the city center accelerated as a result.
Until relatively recently—within the lifetimes of most of those reading this newspaper—it was possible to have an Old Reno downtown like Old Sacramento. Instead, to make the downtown more appealing to tourists, structure after structure came down—the arcade, the flour mill, the brick City Hall with the clock tower, the Overland Hotel, the Majestic Theatre, the Oddfellows Building, the Pearson/Cafferata Building, the West Street fire station. Reno clubwomen in the 1960s tried to save the State Building and were run over by the forces of progress. The pedestal clocks, Powning Park, the colorful alley stores that drew heavy foot traffic, trees, the shops with the set-back entrances—all disappeared from the downtown.
That the downtown was becoming less attractive to the locals as it was tailored to the tourists seemed to occur to no one. By the time California tribal gambling started keeping tourists away, and the casinos started turning back to residents for customers, the downtown had ceased welcoming locals.
Today, locals feel little connection to downtown and even less to the Virginia Street bridge as an icon—if they even know of its role as an icon. In fact, it is rare to find people who know of the bridge site as Reno’s birthplace and almost as unusual to come across folks who have remember anything about wedding rings being tossed in the Truckee.
The battle to come
It’s hard to believe Reno’s divorce era can still arouse the debates it did at the time, but when Brown’s story appeared in the New York Times in 2002, syndicated columnist Brent Bozell responded, “This apparently makes Reno … important to some preservationists who want to protect the city’s Virginia Street Bridge. … Some landmarks preserve the freaky, unsavory moments in time meant more for the curious tourist than for history. But not this. They are serious about making a statement. … Reno’s divorce-a-go-go merits commemoration, but not celebration. It deserves a spot in history as the landmark for a town that, sadly, made its name promoting the destruction of the family.”
The debates over the bridge’s future could become just as heated, but there is no mistaking the urgency of the situation. On the west side, at a point where the force of a half-dozen floods struck, a hole has been driven clear through the low concrete pedestrian wall. Iron rods within the structure are exposed and rusting. There are substantial cracks. City Public Works Director Steve Varela told a service club in February that he will probably have to close the bridge to vehicles: “It’s imminent. We may have to close the bridge down because it is unsafe.”
Some of the anger in this debate can come from people who believe their options have been artificially limited before the debate even began. Federal funds would surely be needed for renovation or rebuilding of the bridge, but the Army Corps of Engineers has issued reports that have been exercises in eliminating alternatives—a June 2002 Army Corps report is filled with phrases like “This measure was eliminated from further consideration,” referring to things like bypass channels, channel deepening, river widening, and so on. Lifelong Reno resident Neal Cobb (who provided some of the photos for this article) calls it the “nothing is possible” report: “The 2002 decision that they made on it is bullshit.”
Since federal funds will depend on the Corps giving its approval, locals feel decisions are being made by faceless bureaucrats on the other side of the country who won’t have to live with the results. It frustrates residents who have taken an interest in the bridge issue.
On the other hand, officialdom at municipal, state and federal levels is filled with people who want to protect the bridge. Engineer Paul Ferrari, who proposes bypass channels around the bridge to solve flood problems, says there are few outright opponents of saving the bridge, and that the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) is willing to provide funding. But he still says, “Right now, the odds are 70 percent it’ll be torn down, 30 percent it’ll be saved.”
The reason is inertia. Ferrari, a salt-and-pepper-haired engineer whose office dress is casual shirt sleeves, says various snarls ground the process to a halt about a year and a half ago. Time is passing, and the bridge’s 10 percent of remaining life is also passing. It’s what Cobb calls demolition by neglect. Every dispute drags out the process. One official wanted an expensive physical model of one proposed plan. While the FTA will provide funding, a hydrologist for the state highway department raised some objections. Sorting out each of these disputes takes a few months. Time passes. And because of the limited remaining life of the bridge, delay is a decision.
“[T]he funding is way down the road, from the Corps of Engineers,” Ferrari says. “In the meantime, the bridge is going to reach its useful lifespan, and if it’s not reinforced, rehabilitated and retrofitted, you can have a condemnation-by-neglect scenario.”
Many players in this debate say that all the necessary pieces to save the bridge are out there, but there is no one to bring those pieces together.
An agreement was signed when the Center Street bridge was replaced. It committed most of the players, like the Army Corps, to saving the Virginia Street bridge. In the event of a court battle, this pact would likely strengthen the hands of bridge supporters in ways advocates of the Mapes never enjoyed. But meanwhile, the meter would be running—demolition by neglect would be unfolding.
Connecting with the community
The small group of dedicated champions of local culture or historic preservation need reinforcements if the bridge is to be saved. When the bridge’s demolition is scheduled, the public will probably get educated and organized fast, as happened in the case of the Mapes. For a time, they will connect with local history and culture.
But now is when that support is needed, and except for special events, many people in Reno are not engaged by the downtown, much less the bridge—not as culture, not as history. The bridge is an icon for two reasons—its location at the site of the birth of Reno, and its alleged role in the divorce industry. Neither cuts much ice with most newcomers, and this is a valley of newcomers.
Alicia Barber, author of a soon-to-be-published book on Reno’s image in popular culture, says the fact that Reno residents are unfamiliar with the city’s history is exactly why structures like the bridge should be protected—”to remind our community of those important places that are in our city to enhance our connection to our past, so those memories don’t get lost, especially these elegant structures that can remind us of our common identity.”
If all the new residents were like de la Garza, all would be well for bridge supporters. Since she and her husband came to town, she has embraced her new hometown, getting involved in quality-of-life campaigns. She supported an anti-billboard ballot measure, testified against a Beverly Hillbillies casino and tried to save the Mapes. She is not as deeply involved in the bridge issue (she is now a new mother), but she is an architect, so her interest in historic structures is natural. Not all new arrivals have it.
And without some way of mobilizing resident opinion and bringing it to bear on a bogged-down process, Ferrari’s 70 percent will probably prevail. The subsequent historic marker won’t cite floods as the cause of the bridge’s destruction. It will name lack of interest.
There is another question that deserves attention—if the bridge comes down, what goes up? If the present bridge is removed for simple fiscal considerations, the new design would also be driven by fiscal considerations, and there is every reason to believe that a replacement bridge design would be utilitarian, modern and banal. De la Garza, who willingly concedes that not every historic structure can be saved, considers this an important issue.
“I do wish Americans would create built environments that reflect aesthetically driven decisions as opposed to fiscally driven decisions,” she says. “But as a person who lives in a culture that creates landscapes marred with places that look like no place in particular, I don’t hold very high expectations for whatever replaces this beautiful, historic bridge.”