Riverside Avenue, as it was first known, was created to be Reno's loveliest boulevard. Passengers traveling in horse-drawn buggies or in that newfangled contraption known as the automobile could, as they rode along, view the Truckee River in all its stages, full and frothing in winter and spring, calmer, lower and reflecting sunlight in summer and fall. The avenue was the southern boundary of the new Powning's Addition, where lots had just been platted by June 1888, and were being advertised for sale. Of course, those lots along what Powning called "the most fashionable driveway in the county" were highly desirable and were purchased by the movers and shakers of the fledgling town. Construction was sporadic however, and early photographs show scattered, moderately-sized Queen Anne Victorians dotting the landscape. The area had a rural feel, as the lots were good-sized with room for gardens and many residents kept chickens and other small animals.
The year 1891 brought more improvements to the area. One newspaper article noted, "Riverside Avenue, Powning's Addition, is being plowed and scraped by Dave Lodge, and in a week will be the great driveway of Reno." A month later, a follow-up article noted, "The rocks have all been taken out of the drive on Riverside Avenue. So take a drive up there and enjoy the beauties of the river." Also in 1891, The County Commission, by authority of an Act of the Legislature, purchased two sites for public parks or squares, one of which comprised Block Y in Powning's Addition, an area measuring 450 by 300 feet bounded by Riverside Avenue on the south, Jones Street on the north, Keystone Avenue and Vine Street on the west.
By 1893, it was reported that nearly all the lots in the Addition had been sold and that along the river front, there were only three corners left, with all but four sold on Second Street. Two significant homes had been constructed: that of architect M. J. Curtis (1887) on the first lot sold in Powning's, and that of Edward Barber, attorney (1891).
In May of 1894, it was announced that the new electric light on Riverside Avenue was lit for the first time. The newspaper reported, "It will enable anglers to fish at night if they are so disposed. Possibly the electric light may be a great advantage in luring trout to take the hook."
All was not peaceful along the Avenue, however. It seemed that the original plan for the road to be 100 feet wide was being ignored by residents who pushed their fences out, encroaching on the road so that it was not more than 60 feet wide in places. There were still incidences of garbage being dumped along the river and the road. In 1897, a plank sidewalk was laid from the Riverside iron bridge to the northwest corner of First and Virginia streets for pedestrians.
In 1902, the land that had been set aside for a park became McKinley Park, named for the nation's 25th president, William McKinley, assassinated in 1901. As Reno continued to grow, there was a movement to build new schools to accommodate the increasing number of children. A bond proposal to fund at least two new schools came before residents in late 1908 and was approved. The city agreed to deed McKinley Park to the School Board for one of the schools. Local architect George Ferris won the bid for the design of the new schools and the city was satisfied that there would be adequate space in front of the attractive new school for park space for the area. The school would bear the name of McKinley Park School.
Apparently Powning's original plan that Riverside Avenue would be 100 feet wide was abandoned; in 1909 citizens petitioned the City Council to improve the Avenue by widening it to 60 feet. In 1912, both the Fulton and Barber families deeded portions of the front of their lots to the city, to be used as park space to further beautify the avenue.
As time went on, more homes materialized along Riverside Avenue. In addition to the early Victorians, brick Craftsman bungalows began appearing with generous front porches from which to take advantage of their river view. A surprising number of these original homes still grace the avenue today. In 1929, a very large home was commissioned by heiress Lora J. Knight, who also built a "castle" on Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe which she named "Vikingsholm." Lora's Reno home was more of a complex, with a large main house, a caretaker's cottage to the rear and other small guesthouses on the property. A pool was later added. Reno architect Frederic DeLongchamps designed the property. Today only the main house exists and has been used as a business for many years.
The early Barber home was converted to a boarding house in 1930 and continued as such, run by the Fuetsch family from 1932, catering to divorce seekers. It was later demolished and today the site is the attractive Bicentennial Park.
In 1939, two new large structures were added to the Avenue. The Loomis Manor Apartments were built toward the west end of the street and on the east end, a beautiful Neoclassical Revival church that would be the home of the Christian Science congregation for years to come.
As delightful as it must have been to sit on porches on a summer evening, enjoying the breeze wafting across from the murmuring river, the proximity to so much water was not always a good thing. There were floods that filled basements on a regular basis. Significant flooding occurred in 1907, 1928, 1937 and most notably, the large floods of 1950 and 1955. A news writer for the Reno Evening Gazette (REG), Frank McCulloch, took a walk on November 21, 1950 and reported the following: "Among the lovely old homes along Riverside drive and up the streets running into it, men and women stood and surveyed the havoc, most of them in stunned silence. In front of one house, a tangled mass of logs, uprooted trees and other debris blocked the steps. At another, the twisted wreckage of a child's tricycle lay against the front door. Lawns, among the best-manicured in Reno, had disappeared under as much as a foot of silt. Shrubbery was gone from most yards. And the basements—the basements were pools of muddy, stinking water and floating family possessions." Residents paid a price for that usually lovely boulevard fronting their homes and the river view.
Later that year, during a fierce October windstorm, six landmark cottonwood trees were uprooted. Sack reported that they were a shallow-rooted species and both the felled and standing trees showed interior rot. Sadly, ten of the remaining trees would have to be removed for the safety of everyone. At 60-80 years of age, Sack explained, that was about the lifespan of an eastern cottonwood.
The 1970s brought a different kind of crisis to Riverside Drive. In August of 1970, the Reno Recreation and Parks Commission voted to close Riverside Drive from its intersection with First Street to Stevenson Street as a means of flood control. It was pointed out that closing a street is not the same as street abandonment; the city would still maintain control of Riverside Drive. Not placated by this, a group of concerned women formed under the name Truckee Meadows Tomorrow (TMT) to fight the decision. In poured complaints from residents via letters and numerous phone calls protesting the Commission's decision. A November 14, 1970 REG editorial titled Spare that Drive! supported the opponents to the August decision, stating "No avenue in Reno possesses so much grace and charm as beloved old Riverside Drive."
Although the TMT group is not named, it is clear they are referenced in the statement, "They fear, with full justification, that if the initial block is removed, it will set a precedent that will eventually consume the drive." The editorial goes on to speak of Reno and Riverside Drive in terms that have become prophetic: "Too much of its [Reno's] beauty has been sacrificed in recent years to facilitate development. Too many of its beautiful tree-lined avenues have been transformed into shafts of shimmering asphalt in the interest of efficiency." In early December, the Commission rescinded their vote and held the issue in abeyance pending further study. In addition to the flood issue, a contributing factor to the move to close the street was a developer with plans to build a six-story office building immediately north of the property proposed for closur .
Following this decision, the Fleischmann Foundation provided a grant to the city of Reno. With this grant, the city purchased the lot for which the office building had been proposed and instead created a park. In mid-1973, the issue arose again as the city wished to close the first block of Riverside Drive to enlarge the planned park and reduce the safety hazard of traffic. Once again, TMT opposed this plan, with President Patricia Cooke expressing the group's contention that Riverside Drive is unique in Reno. Said Cooke, "Those first two blocks are the only two left where you can view the river at driving level." She disagreed that keeping the street open would present a hazard for persons using the park, citing that traffic around Virginia Lake Park does not cause an issue for pedestrians. It was a bittersweet victory for TMT; on one hand, they avoided the unsightly intrusion of a large office building crowding the historic neighborhood but they did lose the first block of Riverside Drive. However, through the beneficence of the Fleischmann Foundation, the neighborhood gained another park.
So here we are, nearly 50 years later, facing this issue once again. The plan to rehabilitate the Lear Theater involves the construction of an apartment complex immediately to the east of the theater. This construction would—you guessed it—necessitate closing yet another stretch of Riverside Drive and this time, a section of Ralston Street as well. Proponents of the plan wish to close the stretch between Ralston and Bell Streets to all but bicycle and pedestrian traffic.
"Sunday drivers," both local and visitors, all wishing to see a beautiful, significant historic building and a close-up view of the river from their automobiles would be denied that pleasure. Not to mention that a modern apartment building would be utterly out of place next to the Lear Theater and the gateway to Reno's most historic neighborhood. No doubt this was the same sentiment in the minds of The Fleischmann Foundation, when their grant made it possible for the city to create Bicentennial Park all those years ago.
As well as detracting from the Lear and Bicentennial Park, the area would have increased traffic due to the new apartment dwellers. It is likely that once the plan is widely communicated, there will again be protests from residents and others who use this portion of the avenue on their regular routes through the city and appreciate its quiet beauty.
The previously-quoted editorial ends with a statement that was true in 1970 and continues to be true today: "Too few shady avenues remain, and none so splendid as Riverside Drive. It should be guaranteed to posterity." Its creator, C. C. Powning, intended it as "the Aristocratic Riverside Avenue Driveway" in his advertising literature. And why shouldn't drivers, walkers and bicyclists all continue to be welcomed along the stretch that remains?