The “Believe”-adorned plaza in downtown Reno, where once stood the Mapes Hotel in all its glory and demise, or “The Queen of Virginia Street” as Hagen Sandoval calls it, is empty on a recent Sunday morning.
Remembering the Demolition
“I was 4 years old when it was torn down. I briefly remember watching a building come down on television but at the time I didn’t know anything about it. And then in high school I really got into it. I love history. I love anything about Reno. But all the history we have in this town just slowly seems to disappear. Back then, buildings were built to stay. You look at the post office. It wasn’t as temporary as buildings seem to be these days.”
Digging Through the Days When Reno was The Mapes
Sandoval, a sixth-generation Renoite still striving for a journalism degree after several attempts, works in the mortgage lending business by day, and then spends his spare time on a documentary film project about the Mapes.
“I’d rather read through newspaper clippings than go out,” he says.
Personal Connections and Celebrities
His own great-grandfather who worked over three decades for the Reno fire department once met John Wayne at the Mapes.
“It was a celebrity town back then. You also didn’t have to have backstage passes. People mingled at the Mapes. It was a more social town.”
High School Projects
Hagen’s own passion for the Mapes dates back to high school projects.
“The more research I did, the more I found out about this place, it was something special. The more people I met who knew about the Mapes, they showed their passion and their love for such a place. This was just a hotel but to many people it was a place where they had some of their most important memories, their high school prom. My great-grandmother who actually got me interested in the Mapes had her 21st birthday in the Sky Room (the nightclub at the Mapes). Her mother worked in the coffee shop as a waitress. It was a big employer in this town. Those personal connections give me the drive to keep going. This place meant something to people.”
The 'Interview of the Century'
One of his first interviews was with Gloria Mapes Walker. She co-owned The Mapes Hotel and Casino, with her brother Charles, before competition from other casinos, the recession and the failure of another casino they opened, The Money Tree, forced them to close their Art Deco structure in 1982, 35 years after its opening.
“I was so excited. For me, this was like the interview of the century. To me, she was such a celebrity. She was living in south Reno. And I guarantee you if you ask someone my age, they would have no idea who Gloria Mapes was. She was very closed up, extremely closed up. I also had no tape, I just had my notes. She’s since passed (in 2014). I’ve had a lot of conversations and interviews and notes, but I need more on camera interviews. A lot of people know about the fall of the Mapes, but much less about the Mapes itself.”
Hagen still doesn’t understand why the Mapes wasn’t saved. It was last owned by the Reno Redevelopment Agency, the city’s economic development arm. Unanswered questions are part of his documentary’s quest.
“They had six proposals to renovate the Mapes when they voted to demolish the hotel in 1999. They rejected all of them. What I want to know is why was the city so quick to tear down a place to have a city plaza. I have a lot of questions which I’m looking to answer. We also need to talk about its legacy. It was the first place to have entertainment and gaming and lodging all under one roof. For ten years, it was the tallest building in the entire state, twelve stories."
Why was the city of Reno so quick to tear it down?
"It was built so you could add another wing. It could still be here, but it sat vacant for 20 years and no one did anything with it besides stripping all of the hotel of its hardware, locks, everything. It just fell into disrepair. When the city got it, they just saw it as an eyesore. But they were too quick to tear it down. Why were they so quick to tear it down? Why couldn’t the Mapes be saved? Was the construction really faulty as some people say? You hear both sides. But the Mapes was very modern, as far as architecture. A lot of what they attribute to tearing it down was that the rooms were too small. But any building can be saved. It just takes a matter of motivation.”
The content of a New York Times article written after the demolition is now shocking to Hagen, as is the eerie emptiness of where the Mapes once stood.
“Jeff Griffin who was the mayor then said, we are building a new Reno. They said this is where Reno is heading. What we are going to put here is going to be extremely important. I don’t know that this is extremely important. It’s a beautiful plaza and it’s finally getting some art but is it the same thing with other properties we are going to tear down? I’m not saying motels we are tearing down have as much significance as I think the Mapes does but I think too often we’re too quick to dismiss history and move forward. What’s the new Reno now? Is it the same Reno they dreamed of in 2000?”
Believing in Awareness for the Past and Revitalization
Hagen, who sees himself as a future preservationist now building awareness, and saving stories from the past, is also a strong believer in revitalization for old structures still standing.
“I’m extremely impressed with what they’ve done with the post office building. That’s what we need more of. It saddens me to think there was a point in our city’s history they weren’t focussed on preserving the past. The only way you can move forward is to learn from what you did in the past and from what your strengths were.”
For any tips, suggestions, help, or comments, Hagen can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via his film’s Facebook page “Reno’s Mapes Hotel: The Queen of Virginia Street”.