Mapes Hotel checks out forever
December 19, 2001
RENO – A string of firecrackers – very large firecrackers – went off in rapid-fire fashion a couple minutes past 8 a.m. Sunday.
The Mapes Hotel stood its ground for many seconds, its windows rattling furiously in the final moments for the art deco high-rise that launched the modern age of hotel-casinos.
More dynamite detonated and then the east end of the 12-story brick structure fell away. The rest of the building quickly followed suit, crumpling downward and toward Center Street.
Moments later, a gray dust cloud slowly rose, creeping first toward Center and then easing south down Virginia Street, stopping just short of the crowd of thousands at Court and State streets. Some three minutes later, the first glimpses of the apocalyptic scene emerged from the fog.
The Mapes, a fixture in downtown Reno since 1947, lay as a four-story mound of brick rubble. Many of the decorative square concrete tablets that gave the outer walls its art deco signature lay intact on the pile, one tablet dangling precariously over the railing above the Truckee River.
“It’s time to implode this bad baby,” Reno resident Sylvia Gardner said in the minutes before the implosion. “It’s time they do something. It’s been vacant a long time.”
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Gardner brought along her Australian cattle dogs, Jeep and Wiley, along with friends Richard and Jennifer Tibbs. They came up from Garden Valley near Placerville for skiing, the Super Bowl and the implosion, as did John Schiesel from Point Reyes, Calif.
“It’s going to be phenomenal,” Jennifer Tibbs said as anticipation for the implosion mounted.
The crowd cheered as the Mapes went down, but Gardner’s brother, Harold McNamee of Reno, was more ambivalent in the minutes before the detonation.
“I would love to see the building stay,” said McNamee, a residential real estate appraiser, “but an implosion is a pretty spectacular event. As an appraiser, the highest and best use of the property is the purpose they are going to put it to. (The implosion) is the most intelligent thing to happen.”
Spectators watched from Virginia, Sierra and Center streets as well as atop the Wells Fargo/Morgan Stanley Dean Witter building, the Cal-Neva garage, the Pioneer Inn and other nearby garages and apartments.
Though only 52 years old, the Mapes represented key historic details. The Mapes at the same time was the first and among the last of its type of hotel, and it was built by a woman.
“The Mapes was the first high-rise specifically built as a hotel-casino,” state archivist Guy Rocha said. “The Flamingo and the Mapes in tandem ushered in the modern era of gambling in Nevada. The Mapes led the way in the vertical field of casinos.”
The months leading to Sunday’s implosion sparked a minor debate between supporters of Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo, built in 1946, and the Mapes (1947) as the first establishments built as combined hotel-casinos.
Neither one can lay claim to that honor. El Cortez in Reno and El Rancho in Las Vegas opened in 1941 and Last Frontier in Las Vegas followed in 1942.
The Flamingo and the Mapes, however, set precedents followed to this day. The Mapes was the first to take the mostly ground-level nature of early casinos to the high-rise level.
“The Mapes Hotel is significant as Nevada’s most exceptional early high-rise casino,” reads the nomination of the Mapes for the National Register of Historic Places. “It is also Reno’s and Nevada’s most exceptional high-rise art deco style building.”
The Mapes was the first high-rise to house gambling, dining, lodging and entertainment under one roof.
The Mapes at 12 stories was the tallest building in Nevada from 1947 until the 15-story Fremont Hotel Tower opened in 1956, Rocha said.
While breaking new ground with height, the Mapes also paid tribute to architecture of a previous era. Its art deco design first appeared along the Truckee River more than a decade after art deco’s prevalence in the 1920s and 1930s.
“The claim that is made is this is the last of a type of architecture in the nation,” Rocha said. “It was completed post-era. By then, architects had gone to other styles.”
Bob Thomas, a former Nevada assemblyman, said design wasn’t the only feature beyond its prime. Thomas said the Mapes and the Shamrock in Houston fell to demolition because they were built just a few years before total environmental control was built into buildings.
“Both buildings had the misfortune of being built about seven years too early,” Thomas said.
The Mapes also represents the achievements of a woman. Gladys Hart Mapes conceived, built and operated the Mapes until shortly before her death in 1974.
Even before her husband Charles’ death in 1937, Gladys Mapes was regarded as the “power behind the throne.” Her extensive involvement in the community had her often regarded as “Mrs. Reno.”
Upon her death, the Mapes Hotel passed on to her son, Charles Jr., who operated it until the Mapes went into bankruptcy protection in 1980. The Mapes has stood shuttered since 1982.
The Reno Redevelopment Agency bought the Mapes for $4 million in 1996 with hopes to reopen the historic structure. Several proposals deemed unfeasible surfaced since then before the Reno City Council in September committed to demolishing the building.
Demolition crews discovered poor construction that would have cost much more than the estimated $25 million to rehabilitate. Floors as thin as three inches, sparse rebar and disconnected walls contributed to the weakness of the building, city spokesman Chris Good said.
Controlled Demolition Inc. of Phoenix determined the building could be brought down with only 100 pounds of dynamite rather than the originally estimated 250 pounds because of the poor construction, Good said.