Appreciating Modernism: Reno Downtown Library

Modernism has a strong core group of followers but it is not unfamiliar to push-back when it comes to preservation. Being less than 50 years old is difficult for a building. They haven’t yet met the National Register age criteria and they are often under-appreciated by the public, who see them as too new, or hardly give them a second thought at all.

Modernism is just now coming of age and is gaining in popularity. I thought I’d take a moment to share a Modern building that is near and dear to me: the library in downtown Reno, Nevada, which opened 50 years ago this year (happy birthday, Reno library!). I grew up with this building, but hardly thought about it until I got an internship with the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office. My first assignment? Writing a National Register nomination for this library. I walking back into the building with new eyes and fell in love with the space.

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Library interior from the walkway at the front entrance.

The library was designed by architect Hewitt Campau Wells (1915-1989). Following graduation from Princeton, Wells worked with Detroit architect Albert Kahn (who was at the forefront of industrial architecture at the time) and, upon moving to Reno, formed a brief partnership with Frederic DeLongchamps (a prominent early architect in Nevada).

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LIbrary interior, looking at the inside of the front facade.

The library won awards from the day of its opening. The First Lady at the time, Lady Bird Johnson, presented an award to the library in 1968 for the use of greenery in the interior. Indeed, there was a landscape architect for the space–Mitchell Serven–despite the fact that there is virtually no greenery outside the library.

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Library interior reading “pod,” with front door in the background.

The interior of the library is unlike any interior I have seen. The front door opens onto a second-floor bridge lined in greenery and circular reading spaces on columns seem to float at various heights amongst the foliage. The library was successfully listed on the National Register in 2012.

Sources and Further Reading

The National Register nomination is available online in its entirety! You can take a look, here.

The Reno library was one of three Modern buildings for public use built around the same time. All three are particularly visually intriguing. The other two are: the Fleischmann Planetarium and the Pioneer Concert Hall. All three are on the National Register.

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Library interior showing one of the reading “pods” and the main floors to the side.
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