The campus contains a historic district with buildings dating from the earliest period of academic development in the area. When the state government moved the university to Reno in 1885, it sited the campus on ten acres overlooking the Truckee Meadows, north of the Truckee River and the railroad. Both the university and the town expanded, the former purchasing surrounding land and the latter sprawling to the north until it finally met and then surrounded the campus. Throughout the nineteenth century, however, there was a clear division between town and university.
Morrill Hall dominated the early campus and maintains its prominent position on the historic quad. Although the university constructed several similar buildings over the course of its first decade in Reno, only Morrill Hall survives. Between 1894 and the turn of the century, the campus grew to eleven buildings and began to take shape.
Initially the campus lacked a cohesive plan, its scattered buildings tending to face Reno to the south. In 1906 Clarence Mackay, son of John Mackay, one of the Comstock's bonanza kings, commissioned the firm of McKim, Mead and White to design a school of mines and then develop a plan for the campus. William S. Richardson of the firm created a master plan as well as designs for the new school. With the Mackay School of Mines Building, the campus took a new direction, which included the creation of a central quadrangle between Morrill Hall and the Mackay School, complete with a program for landscaping. The plan arranged academic facilities along the sides of the quadrangle, facing the grassy, tree-lined open space bounded by brick walkways laid in a herringbone pattern. During the next quarter century much of the development of the campus followed a plan developed in 1908 by Bliss and Faville of San Francisco, architects who worked closely with the firm of McKim, Mead and White.
By the turn of the century the university had begun to build dormitories to the west of the campus, across the ravine created by a small creek. In 1911 the university dammed the creek's drainage system, creating Manzanita Lake, named for the oldest of the dormitories on its shores. Following the completion of the Mackay School of Mines, the university planted American elms along the quad, which, with other landscaping, soon produced a campus that was as striking for its trees and lush vegetation as it was for its buildings. American elms have fallen victim to disease throughout most of the nation, rendering the species nearly extinct. The remote nature of the Truckee Meadows, surrounded by desert, has inhibited the disease, preserving a type of landscaping that once was common in North America.
Between 1913 and 1930, the university undertook a building program directed by Frederick J. DeLongchamps, who designed thirty buildings for the campus. Several other architects contributed to the appearance of the university during those critical years of growth. Influenced by Beaux-Arts academicism, these brick structures bestowed on the campus an appearance of refined elegance.
Postwar construction has tended to extend the campus north. Occasionally new buildings called for the demolition of historic ones.
Oddly enough, DeLongchamps is credited with the 1960s Scrugam Engineering Building, directly to the east of the Mackay School of Mines, but this International Style building is so uninspired, having been constructed late in DeLongchamps's life, that it was probably the product of his firm rather than of the principal architect. Since a flurry of construction in the 1960s featuring adaptations of the International Style, the university has returned to more classically inspired designs executed in brick. Many of the new buildings thus harmonize with the older campus.