-A A +A


To understand Nevada's architecture one must know its natural environment. Although indigenous peoples learned to survive in the harsh landscape, since Euro-Americans settled there in the mid-nineteenth century, Nevada has been regarded as a desert wasteland, rich in natural resources but inhospitable to humans. This view has permitted nineteenth- and twentieth-century inhabitants to extract what they could from the land with little concern for the long-term consequences. Much of Nevada's architecture, built for temporary uses, reflects this attitude toward the environment.

Jagged mountain ranges divide much of the state into narrow basins running north-south at an average elevation of 5,000 feet. This region of high-desert basins and ranges, known collectively as the Great Basin, covers most of Nevada. Most of the six to eight inches of annual rainfall evaporates immediately or drains into sinks—dry lake beds—where it eventually dries up, so there is no external drainage. The Sierra Nevada, along the western edge of the state, traps water from the Pacific storms heading eastward; most rain and snow fall on the Sierras rather than reaching the high desert beyond.

Vegetation in the state's mountain ranges is diverse, consisting of bristlecone pines in the highest elevations and ponderosa, sugar, and white pines; firs; and blue spruce at lower elevations. Along most of the ranges, piñon pine and juniper grow between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. Below 6,000 feet, sagebrush mixed with various native grasses blankets the desert floor.

Only the edges of Nevada fall outside the Great Basin. A strip along the northeastern border is part of the Columbia Plateau, where water from the Owyhee, Bruneau, and Salmon rivers reaches the Pacific Ocean via the Snake and Columbia rivers. In southern Nevada, the Mojave Desert—even drier than the Great Basin—is nevertheless home to myriad plants, including Joshua trees and creosote bushes. The region's Muddy and Virgin rivers both flow into the Colorado River and eventually to the Gulf of California.

Though Nevada has several rivers, only the Colorado, located along the southeastern corner of the state, is navigable. The lack of major rivers has required other transportation systems across the state, such as trails, railroads, and highways. Minor rivers such as the Humboldt served first as paths for Native Americans and later for nineteenth-century emigrant trails because they were among the scarce sources of water for humans and animals. These trails in turn were the basis for nineteenth-century railroad routes and for twentieth-century highways because the rivers supplied water for railroad engines and for towns that were stopping points for motorists.

Since the beginning of human habitation in the region, much architecture has been created and used for temporary purposes. The prehistoric peoples who lived there found shelter in caves or among rocks. Their other structures—none of which have survived—were impermanent, usually made of wood and woven reed mats. The habitations of Nevada's later Native Americans, members of seminomadic groups, were made of ephemeral materials such as willow branches, erected and taken down each season.

During much of the nineteenth century, most Euro-Americans traveling through Nevada had no plans to settle there. Their aspirations lay in the states beyond—California and Oregon. Those who did stay to search for gold or silver hoped to return home with newfound wealth rather than remain in Nevada. Hundreds of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century mining towns, long abandoned, are scattered across the state; in some cases, no buildings remain where once hundreds or even thousands of people lived. Walking through these towns today gives the visitor a sense of the openness of the land and the isolation of these old settlements. The smell of sagebrush and creosote fills one's nostrils as the wind blows through empty buildings and over ruins. Sometimes the possessions and debris left by inhabitants remain, preserved in the desert sun, and the visitor can see old furniture, rusted carcasses of cars, and tin cans left behind when the mining boom failed and the residents moved on to what they hoped would be a more prosperous place.

Even in the twentieth century, this emphasis on the temporary persists. Modern gold and silver mines tend to have life spans averaging ten to fifteen years. While a mine is in operation, an entire town can develop around it, but once it has closed, the mine's employees move on to the next site. The same is true of the state's casino industry, which extracts money from gamblers in much the same way that mining companies extract natural resources. Few casinos are more than twenty years old, and many are altered or destroyed in fewer years than that. Despite a population numbering about 2 million, Nevada has not shed its reputation as a place of quick opportunity where life is always changing and the past can be reinvented. The general attitude toward habitation is still one that considers natural resources—water, clean air, and land—as expendable. This is perhaps best seen today in the endless rows of tract houses surrounded by lush lawns spreading across the Truckee Meadows around Reno or in the Las Vegas Valley. Developers build houses as quickly as they can, following the mid-twentieth-century model of laying out subdivisions, with little thought to the specific environment of the Great Basin.

Prehistoric and Later Native Americans

The prehistoric peoples who lived in the Great Basin depended on Lake Lahontan, which covered most of northwestern Nevada from 50,000 to 4,000 years ago. Since then, the enormous lake has gradually evaporated, although its legacy can still be seen in the alluvial fans along its edge. Pyramid Lake north of Reno, and Walker Lake near Hawthorne, are all that remain of this vast body of water.

Human habitation in Nevada began approximately 11,000 to 12,000 years ago—a time period established by findings at a number of sites throughout the state, including Tule Springs outside Las Vegas and Leonard Rockshelter in the Humboldt Basin. Another group of prehistoric peoples inhabited Lovelock Cave on the shore of Lake Lahontan from about 2,000 B.C. to about A.D. 1400.1 The Lovelock peoples had a complex culture supported by the abundance of fish and waterfowl in the lake and surrounding wetlands. They created baskets, fishing nets, and duck decoys woven from willow and tule reeds. Their reasons for abandoning the area are unknown.

About 4,500 years ago, prehistoric peoples from the Southwest settled in the southern part of the state, much of which is now covered by Lake Mead. The earliest groups lived in rock shelters and caves, giving way to the Basketmaker culture around 300 B.C. This group constructed pit houses—circular, subterranean structures roofed with wood poles and mud. About 2,000 years ago the Anasazi moved into extreme southern Nevada, perhaps as part of an expanding trading network in the Southwest. By A.D. 500–700 they had created communities with irrigated fields and adobe dwellings; however, these structures were much simpler than the pueblos typically found in the Southwest. The most famous of these communities was Pueblo Grande de Nevada (also known as the Lost City), named by the archaeologist M. R. Harrington. Harrington excavated the site before it was flooded by Lake Mead, which was created by Hoover Dam. The city, which included pit houses, pueblos, rock shelters, caves, and salt mines, covered both banks of the lower Muddy River.2 Archaeological evidence shows that the Lost City was inhabited continuously from about 500 B.C. to A.D. 1150, when the Anasazi abandoned the area. The cause remains unclear but may have been over-population, conquest, or drought. Around this time the Southern Paiute moved into the area, becoming the dominant culture before the arrival of Euro-Americans.

The Native Americans succeeding these prehistoric groups encompass the Washoe, the Northern Paiute, the Southern Paiute, and the Shoshone. The Washoe, the smallest of these groups, historically inhabited valleys around Carson City in the winter and moved to the shores of Lake Tahoe in the summer to fish and harvest medicinal herbs. The Northern Paiute lived in the northwestern regions, centering on Pyramid Lake, nourished by Lahontan cutthroat trout, now extinct, and a once-abundant native fish, the cui-ui. The Southern Paiute continue to claim a relationship with Pueblo culture. They were the only Nevada tribe to practice agriculture, perhaps influenced by their Anasazi predecessors, though hunting and gathering dominated their daily life. The Shoshone lived in the eastern part of the state. All of these groups were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Their traditional lands covered thousands of square miles in which they moved in groups to take advantage of seasonal changes and animal migrations. The smallest economic unit, the nuclear family, consisted on average of six individuals.3 Because of the harsh environment, these people formed bands ranging from one to twenty families during the winter; in the other months they would break off into single families or small groups of families to search for food. 4In the fall they reunited for communal activities such as semiannual pine nut harvests or rabbit and deer hunts. Their numbers never grew large because of the sporadic quantities of food. Their nomadic lives motivated them to specialize in certain crafts, primarily basketmaking. Unlike pottery, baskets were lightweight and easy to move. Native Americans used baskets of various sizes, shapes, and weaves for water storage and catching fish. Washoe baskets are now highly prized by collectors and museums.

Though these groups followed cyclical life patterns in the Great Basin, their nomadic existence prevented them from leaving permanent architectural forms. Winter dwellings were conical structures made of juniper or pine logs set directly on the ground or on a circular foundation of stones, with an opening at ground level. When shade was needed during the hot, dry summer months, local people made dwellings using a framework of narrow, bowed branches covered with brush to form a curved roof. Historians sometimes call them by the Apache term wickiup, referring to a circular structure of arched poles covered with brush.
These Native Americans managed to survive in an extremely unforgiving environment, but the first white men they encountered in the early nineteenth century considered them hardly better than animals because of their lack of permanent communities, buildings, and agricultural fields. The white settlers' attitude toward the Native Americans, whom they called Digger Indians, provided the ideology for justifying their mistreatment and even extermination. By the mid- to late nineteenth century the federal government had forced Nevada's indigenous people onto reservations consisting of the most uninhabitable land.

Euro-American Exploration and Settlement

With the arrival of European and American explorers and trappers, who in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth century began traversing what became Nevada, the region was opened to settlement, cultivation, and industrialization. In the late eighteenth century Spanish explorers and friars established the eastern and western approaches to a trail, defined by other Euro-American explorers in 1830–1831 as the Old Spanish Trail. It passed through today's Bunkerville, Moapa, and Las Vegas, connecting Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Los Angeles. In the early nineteenth century fur trappers searching for beaver followed rivers in the hope that they would lead to the Pacific. To their disappointment, they found that the Humboldt, which flows from eastern Nevada westward, eventually drained into the Humboldt Sink. Nevertheless, such ventures helped pave the way for emigrants moving west. The first group, the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, crossed Nevada in 1841 by following the Humboldt to its sink and then following the Carson and Walker rivers to the Sierra. The route along the Humboldt, with variations along either the Truckee River through present-day Reno or the Carson River through present-day Carson City, became the most popular because pioneers could find water and wild grasses to feed their livestock as they journeyed westward.

Two events in 1848 spurred westward migration. First, the discovery of gold in California in January 1848 brought prospectors through Nevada. Second, the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February 1848 granted the United States all of Mexico's territory north of the Gila River, opening California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada to settlement. The Mormons, who had migrated west to the Great Salt Lake in 1847, took control of the Utah Territory, which encompassed what later became the states of Utah and Nevada.

Only a few years after they settled in Utah, parties of Mormons began colonizing Nevada to establish trading posts. In 1851 they founded the first town in Nevada, Genoa, at the eastern base of the Sierra in Carson Valley, south of Carson City. By this time the discovery of gold in California had attracted westbound prospectors and pioneers, who stopped in Genoa to buy supplies before crossing over the mountains. The first Mormon structure, a log stockade and cabin, was soon followed by houses and farm buildings.

Mormons also began to settle the southern part of Nevada, following the Old Spanish Trail to send colonies as far west as San Bernardino, California. This trail became known as the Mormon Trail or the Spanish-Mormon Trail because of the Mormons' heavy use of it. In 1855 a small party established a fort near what is now downtown Las Vegas. Natural springs at the site provided water, but lack of wood forced the settlers to favor adobe for buildings. The settlement did not last long; in 1857 Brigham Young called all Mormons back to Salt Lake City in preparation for what he thought would be a war against federal troops. The Mormons left their homes and property to non-Mormon settlers, whom they called Gentiles. Though no war occurred, Mormons did not return to Nevada in large numbers until the late nineteenth century.

By the late 1850s a steady stream of emigrants passed through Nevada each year. The trade they provided, as well as the new logging operations in the mountains around Lake Tahoe, created a robust economy. Rather than continuing on to California, some prospectors searched for gold in the rivers and creeks of northwestern Nevada. Towns near Genoa, such as Carson City, were often settled with lofty aspirations. Abraham Curry, one of Carson City's founders, laid out the town's grid, including a plaza for the capitol. His forethought proved to be fortunate when Carson City became Nevada's capital in 1864.


One of the most famous mining rushes in the American West brought thousands to the Comstock, a mining district named after the Comstock Lode, a massive ledge of silver and gold ore that ran through what is now known as the Virginia Range, approximately fifteen miles northeast of Carson City. Throughout the 1850s placer miners in the canyons of the eastern Sierra hoped to replicate the success of their counterparts in the western Sierra Nevada gold country. Placer mining is used when gold is found in unconsolidated deposits of sand and gravel from which the metal, because of its high density, can easily be separated. The sand and gravel are suspended in moving water, and the much heavier metal sinks to the bottom. In the ravines of the Virginia Range, particularly in Gold Canyon and Six Mile Canyon, miners found enough gold flakes and nuggets to eke out a modest living as they searched for still richer claims.

A major discovery occurred in January 1859, when miners struck gold at the upper end of Gold Canyon, leading to the founding of the town of Gold Hill. Five months later other miners made a similar strike at the head of Six Mile Canyon, eventually giving rise to Virginia City. When an assay of the ore came back from California indicating that it would yield $876 in gold and $3,000 in silver, or nearly $4,000 a ton—the equivalent of nearly $85,000 a ton today—the district changed forever. 5Because these metals were found in veins, or lodes, much of Virginia City's mining after these discoveries consisted of hard-rock mining, requiring the extraction and refining of gold and silver from ore.

News of the strikes inspired hundreds to swarm over the Sierra Nevada from California. By spring immigrants from throughout the continent, and indeed the world, had come to try their luck at getting rich. Like mining districts throughout the West, the Comstock had a high percentage of foreign-born residents; by 1870 over 44 percent of Nevada's population was foreign-born.6 The largest ethnic groups were the thousands of Irish, Chinese, and Cornish immigrants, hundreds of German settlers, and numerous other new arrivals, including Canadians, Italians, and French. The towns that sprang up around this excitement and newfound prosperity became cosmopolitan cities, forming one of the largest urban chains west of the Mississippi. At its peak in the mid-1870s, the Gold Hill–Virginia City metropolis, sprawling across the slopes of Mt. Davidson, had a population of about 25,000 people. Discovery of the Comstock Lode lowered the price of American silver, making the United States the leading manufacturer of silver goods in the late nineteenth century. After 1860 or so, the abundance of this metal from mines in Nevada and California helped popularize the domestic use of silverware, making the late nineteenth century the “era of the sumptuous table.”7 However, the boom would not last forever.

Depletion of ores led to a local depression in the industry beginning in the late 1870s. A few limited strikes kept the mines open into the twentieth century, but the population and the economy of the Comstock fell into a downward spiral that left the area with fewer than a thousand people by the 1940s. Although mining has continued along the Comstock, tourism has taken its place as the principal industry. Today the Virginia City Landmark District is one of the nation's largest.

Most Comstock buildings are vernacular expressions of Italianate architecture, sometimes employing Greek Revival, Queen Anne, or Second Empire details and often made from mass-produced building components. Occasionally professional architects, some of regional importance, worked on the Comstock. A few structures, notably the Storey County Courthouse, the Fourth Ward School, and St. Mary in the Mountains Catholic Church, all in Virginia City, are distinguished examples of design of the period.

In his 1975 study of Colorado mining towns, Eric Stoehr identified three stages of town planning: (1) the settlement phase, characterized by small populations, log cabins and tents, and haphazard street layout; (2) the camp phase, characterized by larger populations, woodframe buildings, town grids, and the establishment of local governments, utilities, and other amenities; and (3) the town phase, characterized by continued mining productivity, more elaborate architecture of brick and stone (including substantial public buildings), and the latest urban services. 8These stages can be applied to most of Nevada's mining towns, along with a fourth phase, abandonment, which occurred when the mines were played out and most, if not all, of the population left for more prosperous places.

Like the habitations of other western boom towns, the Comstock's first buildings consisted of canvas tents with wood frames and foundations and canvas roofs and walls. More substantial structures—wood-frame houses and commercial buildings—were soon built. Falsefronted buildings became characteristic of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century mining camp. These flat, rectangular facades provided ample space for signs and, more important, represented the promise that the camp would become an urban center.9 The rapid, unplanned construction led to a town full of buildings of various styles and types. J. Ross Browne, a visitor to the Comstock in 1863, noted: “The oddity of the plan, and variety of its architecture—combining most of the styles known to the ancients, and some but little known to the moderns—give this famous city a grotesque, if not picturesque, appearance, which is rather increased upon a close inspection.”10 Virginia City's main streets were cut into the side of Mt. Davidson, creating steeply graded cross streets and building lots that backed right into the mountain. By the late 1860s buildings crowded the city, interspersed with mines and mills that continued to bring gold and silver ore from deep below the surface.

The Comstock region also featured industrial structures, including mine and mill buildings, scattered throughout the area as opportunity dictated. Along with having to build and maintain a large industrial complex to extract and process ore, the Comstock faced a number of logistical problems, which resulted in some technological achievements that became internationally famous. The Marlette Lake Water System brought water thirty miles from the Sierra Nevada mountain range, but its fame was due to the fact that it piped water 1,200 feet through an inverted siphon, down into the valley to the east and then back up the Virginia Range, 900 feet, to Virginia City. The construction of piping that could withstand the pressure of over 1,000 column feet of water was a remarkable engineering feat.

In addition to being responsible for transporting some of the richest gold and silver ore ever discovered, the Virginia and Truckee (V&T) Railroad became famous for the engineering of its right-of-way. Because it had to ascend over 2,000 feet in just over eleven miles, the railroad made the equivalent of thirty-seven complete turns. The Crown Point Trestle, bridging the depths of the Crown Point Ravine, was a tall wood structure that inspired awe among most of those who crossed it and demonstrated the accomplishments of the Comstock's businessmen, who built an infrastructure to facilitate the development of an industrial mining giant. Like most of the railroad line, the trestle is no longer extant.

Most of Nevada's mining towns of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries follow the general plan of development in Virginia City. Ledges of ore were usually discovered and mined along mountainsides in Nevada, so towns grew up nearby along steep inclines or narrow valleys. Urban grids were dropped on top of the existing landscape with little regard for topography, resulting in steeply graded roads and awkward building lots. If the town survived to become a city, the main streets were lined with buildings displaying identifiable architecttural styles with local or regional variations, crowding out earlier structures.

As many of the mining towns became prosperous, their architecture reflected local investment of this wealth. More of it, however, left the state, primarily for California, where large and powerful mining companies controlled most of Nevada's mines.11 The uncertainties of the mining industry and the knowledge that the borrasca, or bust, would inevitably follow the bonanza prevented most prudent residents from pouring all their wealth into Nevada's mining communities. Other residents, particularly those who had profited from mining and real estate speculation, sometimes erected elaborate buildings despite rumors of an impending bust in order to maintain faith in the local mines.

The millions of dollars' worth of gold and silver pouring out of the Comstock swiftly brought statehood to Nevada. In 1860 Nevada broke off from Utah Territory to form a separate territory. By 1864 it had become a state. President Abraham Lincoln needed Nevada's electoral votes to ensure his re-election, and he needed the support of Nevada's congressional delegation for his Reconstruction program. Nevada telegraphed the text of its entire constitution to Washington, D.C., to expedite the process of entering the Union only days before the 1864 presidential election.

Although the Comstock played a pivotal role in Nevada's early history, other mining towns continued the process of settlement and exploitation of the state's natural resources. During the 1860s, for example, the towns of Austin and Aurora were established, and roads connecting them to agricultural areas were vital in ensuring the success of the mining operations there. Austin, which served as the seat of Lander County from 1862 to 1979, has lost most of its population over the years, but adobe, wood, brick, and stone buildings still line its streets. Aurora, on the other hand, peaked in the mid-1860s, thereafter struggling until the 1930s. At that time Aurora still had many historic buildings, but all of these were wiped out by the scavenging of materials after World War II. Today Aurora is a rich site for historical archaeology, but not a single building stands.

The Comstock boom continues to affect the environment and people living in the area today. First, the underground mines carved out of the earth beneath Virginia City are still there, creating a honeycomb whose parts occasionally collapse, creating dangerous sinkholes in town. Second, trains carried much of the ore from these mines to stamp mills along the Carson River east of Carson City, where it was processed. Though the mills disappeared long ago, their legacy remains in the form of mercury contamination along the Carson River. In the nineteenth century mercury was used to remove silver and gold from ore. Because the amalgam of gold, silver, and mercury required heating for separation, much of the mercury was lost into the drainage system. Consequently the Carson River's bed remains contaminated for a fifty-mile stretch between Carson City and Fallon.

The mining of the Comstock Lode transformed the Tahoe Basin. In the nineteenth century the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe were covered with virgin forests of diverse species. Mark Twain, who camped on the shores of the lake in the early 1860s, commented on the striking clarity of the water in Roughing It (1872). However, by the turn of the century loggers had deforested the mountains, using the trees to satisfy the demands of the mining region to the east. Since the basin offered the nearest source of large trees, this area was logged first. Though some of the lumber was used for constructing buildings, most of it went underground to create a system of square-set timbering to support the mines as they went deeper into the earth to follow the veins of ore. To this day, much of Tahoe's old-growth timber remains underneath Virginia City.

Rather than replacing the original forest, which included sugar and Jeffrey pines, cedars, and some firs, lumbermen planted fast-growing varieties, mostly firs. The second-growth forest that stands today lacks diversity and is particularly susceptible to drought and fir beetles. Approximately one-third of the forest died as a consequence of a drought in the 1980s, leaving a dangerous threat of fire. The death of many trees and the process of removing them through controlled burns and bulldozing have also affected the lake's clarity. In addition, the lack of living trees has contributed to the runoff of soil and debris into the lake.

By the late 1870s Nevada's first big cycle of mining booms and busts had ended. Not only had the Comstock's lode played out, but mining towns across the state were abandoned. The extent of these busts is apparent in more than four hundred ghost towns throughout Nevada. Mining towns rose near the ore deposits, usually resulting in towns nestled in narrow mountain canyons, reachable only by rough roads or mule trails. When the inevitable bust came, miners and others who depended on the industry generally had to abandon their buildings, taking only what they could afford to move.

From 1880 to 1900, Nevada fell into a severe depression. During this period no new mineral strikes occurred. A series of severe winters hurt the ranching industry as well. Those who could leave the state did, and Nevada's population plummeted from 62,266 in 1880 to 42,335 in 1900. Many mining towns became ghost towns, and others, like Virginia City and Austin, limped along despite a drastic loss in population.

In 1900 the slump turned into another boom when Jim Butler discovered silver in Tonopah. Like the Comstock, Tonopah drew prospectors in huge numbers. By 1910 the state's population had nearly doubled to 81,875. The subsequent economic surge created new cities in the center of the state, led by Tonopah and Goldfield, located twenty-five miles to the south. For a short time Goldfield became Nevada's largest city, with a population of well over 15,000 in 1907–1908.12 Other towns, such as Rhyolite, went through the boom-and-bust cycle in less than a decade.

Like earlier mining communities, these towns started out as tent camps, growing as more and more men arrived to strike it rich. Simultaneously, other men and women arrived to make their living by supplying the miners with goods and services such as housing, food, and mining equipment, as well as through prostitution. Within a few years, Tonopah and Goldfield had a number of solidly built hotels, banks, and public buildings. Both towns quickly became county seats, drawing away the population and economies of their predecessors. Such shifts were typical in Nevada, where county seats followed the boom-and-bust cycle of the mining industry.

Silver and gold were not the only metals that drove Nevada's economy in the early twentyeth century. Discovery of copper in the vicinity of the small town of Ely in 1900 made the Robinson Mining District the richest such district in Nevada's history. The strike led to a strong and steady industry that lasted into the 1970s. Unlike relatively small veins of silver and gold, which can sustain a mining operation for ten to fifteen years on average, porphyry copper deposits can keep a mine going for decades. Because the copper is scattered relatively evenly throughout the rock, the resulting large deposits can be mined in great quantities over a long period of time. The Ruth Pit, near Ruth, seven miles west of Ely, became one of the largest open-pit mines in the world. Because of its excellent conductivity, copper is the material most widely used for electrical wire. The copper industry transformed Ely into a county seat and established the mining communities of Ruth, East Ely, and McGill. McGill, in particular, became the quintessential company town. The Nevada Consolidated Copper Company carefully planned industrial areas and residential neighborhoods to separate management from labor and to segregate other ethnic groups from Euro-Americans. 13In the early 1990s Magma Copper Company began reworking the enormous piles of tailings surrounding the pit to recover the precious and semiprecious metals left there by earlier, less efficient techniques. In addition, BHP Copper North America has been mining new sources of copper ore. As a result of these recent initiatives, Ely and the surrounding area are experiencing a revival.

Though eclipsed by gambling and tourism since 1950, mining still contributes to the state's economy and continues to shape land-use planning and architecture. Advances in hard-rock mining in the mid-twentieth century have allowed mining companies to run goldmining operations that produce as little as .02 ounces of gold per ton. Instead of following veins of ore underground, as was done in the nineteenth century, today's miners can exploit entire mountains, blasting, sorting, and milling the ore into smaller pieces that are placed in leaching pads. A cyanide solution circulates over the crushed rock, leaching out the gold and silver. The Smoky Valley Common Operation in Nye County is gradually transforming Round Mountain into a huge open pit as it extracts precious metals from the earth.14

In the second half of the twentieth century, mining continued to undergo boom-and-bust cycles, though the industry was strong during the 1990s. Nevada's relatively few restrictions and long-standing support of the industry have kept mining costs much lower than those in many other parts of the world. Nevada is the nation's leading producer of gold, silver, and barite and the only producer of mined magnesite. 15It also produces other minerals, includeing copper, gypsum, and lithium. Gold production in particular has been a major part of the state's mining industry. The country's first open-pit gold mine was opened near Carlin in 1965. The Carlin Trend, the largest gold strike in North America in the twentieth century, has made the area around Carlin a major gold-producing region.
As in the past, mining has had both positive and negative effects on the state and local communities. Most operations are located largely on federal land and are highly regulated. Communities closest to the mines see the greatest economic effects, as highly paid workers move into the area. Rapid population growth, however, heavily burdens the infrastructure of small communities, whose populations may double or triple during the life of the mine. Many mining companies help relieve the burden by donating money to build additional roads, sewers, schools, and housing. Once the mine has played out, usually after ten to fifteen years, the mining company moves on, taking most of its employees with it. The once-bustling town falls into another economic slump, waiting for the next boom.

Because of the transitory nature of mining, as well as state and federal regulations, mining companies build structures based on the short term. Nevada and federal laws require that companies reclaim disturbed land once mining is ended. Though the open pit remains, tailing piles and other disturbances must be contoured and planted with native vegetation in order to support wildlife and new agricultural and industrial uses. All buildings erected for the mining operation must be removed as well. Mining companies and their employees therefore prefer prefabricated buildings, mobile homes, or trailers. When the mine closes, these buildings can be easily moved to another location, leaving behind only the open pits and waste piles.


Since the 1860s, railroads have shaped the face of Nevada, creating opportunities for settlement and development. Their predecessors throughout the 1850s and early 1860s were road builders and telegraph companies. A route crossing the central part of the state, roughly followed today by U.S. 50, provided the path for the Pony Express, which carried express mail between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. At regular intervals the Pony Express constructed stations for resting and changing horses, using local stone and sometimes wood if it was available. The express ended in 1861, after eighteen months, put out of business by the transcontinental telegraph. A telegraph line along the route kept many former Pony Express stations going, but the opening of a new telegraph line in 1869 along the recently completed Central Pacific Railroad to the north doomed the remaining stations. Crumbling piles of stones can still be seen today along U.S. 50. Nevada's only extant station still in its original location, a log cabin and wood-frame inn, stands in Stateline, near Lake Tahoe.

Fast on the heels of the mid-nineteenth-century mining boom came the construction of the transcontinental railroad across the state. After the arduous task of building the tracks over the Sierra Nevada, the pace of laying rails across Nevada accelerated. The tracks roughly followed the Humboldt River and the old Humboldt Emigrant Trail, as steam engines required frequent water stops to keep running. Although the Central Pacific was constructed to cross rather than specifically to serve Nevada, it proved to be an economic boon to the state. The towns established by the Central Pacific and later railroad companies have been among the most stable and prosperous in Nevada—Reno, Sparks, Winnemucca, Elko, and Las Vegas.”16 From 1868 to early 1869, the Central Pacific marched across the state, bringing a new industry and improved transportation for agricultural and mining products. In 1899 the Southern Pacific absorbed the Central Pacific, taking over its lines and building new tracks and towns in the early twentieth century.17

Railroad towns throughout Nevada and the West had similar physical characteristics.18 The tracks ran through one end of town, with a grid of streets and lots stretching from them. In some instances a secondary grid would develop on the other side of the tracks, populated by shacks, bars, and brothels. The streets facing the tracks were lined with railroad structures, such as depots, warehouses, and water tanks, and commercial buildings largely catering to railroad passengers, including bars, stores, and hotels. Some towns, like Lovelock and Las Vegas (in its early days), had a main street running perpendicular to the tracks and terminating at the depot. Nearby the railroad built modest dwellings for its workers, which could range from wood-frame shacks to brick bungalows. In many former railroad towns the more substantial examples of these buildings still stand and are easily identifiable as identical structures set in an orderly row.

As in small towns across the country, the depot was an important fixture in small-town Nevada, serving as the center of activity. It was the place where residents could get news beyond their town's borders and experience some of the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life when a train arrived or departed.19 In Nevada most depots are side-loading, that is, oriented parallel to the tracks. Depending on the size of the town, a station might serve as both passenger and freight depot under one roof, as exemplified by the Gold Hill Depot. The combination station usually had space for passengers and freight depot located at opposite ends of the structure and separated by the agent's office, marked by a bay window that provided a clear view of the tracks. The freight end can often be identified by its greater size, large doors, loading platform, and a pattern of exterior sheathing that differentiates it from the passenger end.20 Sometimes the depot included housing for the station agent. In larger towns, such as Reno, Lovelock, and Ely, separate stations were built to accommodate heavy passenger and freight traffic.

In addition to the transcontinental railroad, numerous short lines helped connect the state's major mining areas to supply centers that were linked with the main railroad. The V&T Railroad ran from Virginia City south to the Carson River, where it carried ore to a series of mills on its route to Carson City. A huge stone engine house dominated the railroad's center in Carson City. Constructed in 1872, it functioned until the demise of the V&T in 1950. The building stood vacant until 1991, when a developer demolished it. Other short lines connected mining towns to main lines, supply and population centers, and lumber sources. Examples include the Nevada Central Railroad, which connected Austin to Battle Mountain and the Central Pacific, and the Eureka and Palisade Railroad, which connected Eureka's smelters to the Central Pacific main line at Palisade south of Carlin. Both lines fell into disuse in the 1930s and were abandoned.21

Short lines also linked ranches and farms to major towns located on the railroad. The V&T Railroad, which initially served the Comstock mines and the ore smelters along the Carson River, built a connection from Carson City to Reno in 1872, connecting the line to the Central Pacific. The Truckee Meadows, the valley along the Truckee River and a longtime staging place for emigrant parties preparing to cross the Sierra, became an important trade and agricultural region in the later nineteenth century. Along the banks of the river, Reno served as the center for ranches in the meadows and to the north. In the early twentieth century the V&T's line to the fertile Carson Valley, running south from Carson City, created a link to agricultural communities there.

Railroad structures in Nevada included depots, engine houses, warehouses, workers' houses, and a variety of other structures such as water towers and bridges. The depots—the most visible railroad buildings—received the most attention from architects. The extant buildings constitute some of the best architecture in Nevada towns, usually displaying such popular styles of the period as the Stick Style in the late nineteenth century and the Mission Revival in the early twentieth.

Despite the significance of railroads in Nevada's history, relatively few structures from the nineteenth century survive today, particularly where cities favor growth over historic presservation. The car has long been the favored mode of transportation, connecting Nevada's farflung towns and cities. By 1950 most railroads serving passengers had shut down. Today only Amtrak provides passenger service, with one line running through northern Nevada, stopping at Reno, Winnemucca, and Elko, the other line passing through southern Nevada, stopping at Las Vegas and Caliente. The historic depots continue to function as passenger stations only in Reno and Caliente.

Farming and Ranching

In the 1860s mining ventures and the railroad attracted more newcomers and increased the demand for food, thereby stimulating other enterprises such as farming and ranching. Although mining boosted these two industries, farming and ranching had their roots in the first phase of Euro-American settlement. Agricultural development played a vital role in the growth of Nevada in the late nineteenth century, not only providing food to sustain the state's growing population but also contributing to the characterization of Nevada as a place inhabited by self- sufficient, rugged, and rustic individuals.

Mormon farmers hoped to build stable communities in northwestern and southern Nevada as early as the 1850s. Each migrating family brought a few head of cattle.22 Upon arriving in Nevada, the Mormons immediately built canals and ditches to irrigate their fields. Genoa, in particular, was on its way to becoming a prosperous agricultural community when Brigham Young called the Mormons back to Salt Lake City in 1857. In any event, the Mormons' efforts laid the groundwork for future farming and ranching. Agriculture continued and expanded on a small scale in valleys located near rivers.

Raising crops was often difficult in the desert, but cattle and sheep ranching throve because the Great Basin provided excellent forage in white sage, Great Basin wild rye, and wild grasses. Large, profitable sheep drives from New Mexico to the California gold country introduced sheepherding to Nevada in the 1850s. As California gold fields declined in the late 1850s, ranchers from California moved their cattle to the unexploited ranges of Nevada, Oregon, and Idaho.23 The Comstock and other mining booms provided Nevada farmers and ranchers with a growing market for their stock and crops. The railroad helped expand these markets, primarily to California, where San Francisco and Sacramento became the primary destinations for Nevada products; in the 1870s, for example, half of San Francisco's beef supply came from Nevada.24 The early presence of large cattle-ranching interests from other states quickly shaped this industry in Nevada. Since early Euro-American settlement, ranching in the state has been controlled almost entirely by a few large corporations, several dozen families, and the federal government.25

The open ranges of the intermountain West were considered well suited for raising sheep. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sheepherding became the province of Basque immigrants. Initially, most of them were young, single men from rural areas.26 Often unable to acquire their own farms or ranches immediately, they turned to herding sheep, a common occupation in the Basque country of Spain and France. Many Basque farmers raised sheep in the western foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. In the United States sheep-herding was considered an undesirable career because of the low pay and long periods of isolation on the range, but it was one for which many Basque immigrants were well qualified. They roamed the range, summering their small herds in the mountains and wintering them in the low deserts. Over time, many sheepherders were able to add their own sheep to the flocks, eventually going into the sheep-raising business for themselves. Though the range was supposedly open, conflicts arose among Basque sheepherders and more established American ranchers, which helped to prompt the passage of federal laws creating a national forest service and grazing districts with controlled access.27 The loneliness of sheepherding and the need for mobility led to an unusual type of dwelling known as the sheep camp. Compactly fitted out with built-in storage cabinets, these small trailers can be towed to sheep-grazing areas. Shepherds now use modern prefabricated versions.28 Some Basques continue in the occupation today, but most sheepherding is done by contract workers from Peru.
Ranching continues to contribute to Nevada's economy, but it has changed extensively during the past sixty years. The Great Depression ravaged many independent ranchers, opening the door for large corporations to take hold. In an attempt to conserve resources, the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 instituted the policy of restricting and controlling grazing on public lands through leases.29 Many large cattle operations are still run by ranching corporations that own thousands of acres of land and lease several thousand more from the federal government for grazing. Sheep ranching, once widespread in the state, has largely given way to cattle ranching; the decline in stock was so severe during the Great Depression that the sheep-ranching industry has never recovered. In urban areas developers have bought ranch land and subdivided it for tract housing.

Given the vast amounts of land required for grazing, ranches are often remote, relatively self-sufficient compounds. Large family-run ranches are centered around a home ranch, the base of operations where the family and hired hands live, livestock is kept over the winter, and new stock is branded. Home ranches consist of numerous buildings, including the main house, bunkhouses for cowboys—or buckaroos, as they are known in Nevada—storehouses, and corrals. During the summer months, when the herd is moved to higher elevations, smaller camps consisting of small corrals and perhaps a bunkhouse serve the buckaroos who watch the cattle. In the past, ranches have included such varied building forms and types as log cabins, adobe and mud structures, stone houses, and prefabricated buildings.

As in other western states, Nevada's ranching industry maintains a mythical status in its history. The decor of early casinos in Las Vegas—the El Rancho Vegas (c. 1943) and the Last Frontier (1942)—took ranching as its theme, with rustic furniture, lighting fixtures made of wagon wheels, and hunting trophies on the walls. Both complexes are gone, but their legacy remains in giant neon cowboy signs ornamenting casinos, such as Vegas Vic in downtown Las Vegas and Wendover Will in West Wendover. Even though few cowboys work in the state today, great interest in the culture of the buckaroo has persisted. The annual Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko, established in 1985, has become a popular event, attracting thousands of people each January.

Nevada's lack of water remained a problem until the twentieth century, when the National Reclamation Act of 1902 provided for irrigation projects designed to put thousands of acres of desert into cultivation. Even with these federally subsidized programs, agriculture has never become a major industry in the state, and it probably never will because most available water is being diverted to urban areas to meet the demands of a rapidly growing population. The primary crops today are hay and alfalfa, grown to feed livestock.


With mining the dominant factor in Nevada's economy and the driving force behind much of its architecture in the early years of statehood, federal, state, and local government had relatively little impact on the built environment in the late nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the most important building constructed during the last three decades of that century was the capitol. County courthouses erected throughout the state and two federal buildings of the era—the U.S. Mint and the federal courthouse and post office, both in Carson City—were the other most visible public edifices in Nevada. In general, the significance of these structures was expressed through solid materials such as stone and brick and the use of styles—particularly Beaux-Arts classical and Italianate—associated with public buildings. Architects or builders sometimes combined styles, selecting elements that they believed would suit a particular structure. When compared with similar structures in other states, Nevada's government buildings reveal a relative simplicity and small scale. As originally built, the capitol resembled county courthouses in larger, more populous states; likewise, Nevada's county courthouses tend to be modest compared with those in other states. Nonetheless, Nevadans have always considered these buildings important, and their recognizable styles and highquality materials reinforce that perception. When a courthouse was erected in a mining town, however, it was never clear how long the town would survive, no matter how strong the initial boom. Though Nevada now has seventeen counties, thirty-four county courthouses have been erected since 1863, reflecting the frequent relocation of county seats to the town of the moment.30

Nevada's citizens also regarded school buildings as significant public structures. Schools often received large public expenditures to ensure that they would be well built and up-to-date. They range in form, materials, and style from one-room, wood-frame buildings to large brick edifices with classical elements. The school is often one of the few surviving structures in an abandoned town. Even in inhabited towns, the old school stands as a prominent symbol of residents' belief in the importance of public education.

Although the federal government would later play a major role in the state, its presence was minimal in the nineteenth century. Unlike the state and county governments, the federal government erected few buildings, except for such structures as military forts to protect settlers and mining operations from Native American uprisings. The first, Fort Churchill, was built along the Carson River near Silver Springs in 1860 in response to the Pyramid Lake War—two battles fought after settlers kidnapped two Native American women. As the only nearby wood came from cottonwood trees, the soldiers erected buildings of adobe and used wood for window and door lintels and roofs. The largest of the forts, it guarded the Comstock as well. Fort Churchill was abandoned only nine years later when the transcontinental railroad superseded mail routes through central Nevada that had also required protection. Several other forts stood at strategic locations across the northern part of the state, such as Fort McDermitt, Fort Schellbourne, and Fort Halleck. Fort McDermitt, established near the Nevada-Idaho border in Humboldt County in 1865, survived the longest, until 1888. Like Fort Churchill, it was established to protect settlers as well as stage routes and the main wagon road from Idaho to Winnemucca. Temporary forts dealt with local emergencies; Fort Ruby, for example, was built in 1862 to protect the overland mail route. These forts contained log cabins, adobe buildings, and stone houses, depending on the availability of materials. The military erected a total of twelve forts in northern Nevada to guard against Native American uprisings; portions of some of these buildings survive.

In addition to the forts, the federal government erected two buildings in Carson City in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The old U.S. Mint (1866–1869), now the Nevada State Museum, blends in with the early state government buildings in the capital, having been constructed of the same sandstone used for the capitol, the state prison, and the state printing office, among other structures. The old U.S. courthouse and post office, built two decades later, from 1881 to 1891, is a rare Nevadan example of Richardsonian Romanesque.

When Nevada entered the Union in 1864, its constitution contained a clause stating that the people of Nevada had to “forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States.” The act of Congress enabling Nevada to hold a constitutional convention required this clause for territorial land still held by the federal government.31 Today these public lands amount to approximately 85 percent of the state.

In the nineteenth century the federal government used little of this land except for its forts. The biggest land exchange at the time involved handing over millions of acres to the Central Pacific Railroad for construction of the transcontinental line. This transaction resulted in a checkerboard pattern of private and public land ownership—a patttern largely intact today along the railroad right-of-way. However, the federal government increased its presence in the West in the twentieth century, primarily in large civil engineering projects and military establishments. Nevada, with the highest percentage of federally owned land of all the states, has seen growing federal involvement in much of its affairs. The federal presence in Nevada has created a love-hate relationship, as the state long ago became dependent on federal funds for its economic well-being. This reliance extends to almost every level of life in Nevada, from subsidies for mining ventures and cattle grazing on public lands to the construction of dams, highways, and military bases that put money directly and indirectly into the state economy and encourage growth by subsidizing water and electricity. At times Nevadans have attempted to gain control of the state's federal lands, but it is unlikely that these efforts will be successful.32 The cost of managing those lands would likely require the state to sell the land to private owners. The consequent restricted access would be unpopular with the state's growing urban population, who consider open space a recreational benefit.

The federal government's first major project in Nevada, the Truckee-Carson Irrigation Project of 1902, was funded by the National Reclamation Act of that year, sponsored by Nevada's Senator Francis G. Newlands.33 This project, which consisted of dams, canals, and hundreds of irrigation ditches, transformed a part of Nevada's desert into rich and productive agricultural land. The act also enabled the federal government, through the Reclamation Service (later the Bureau of Reclamation), to construct numerous dams throughout the West during the twentieth century. The construction of Hoover Dam (Boulder Dam), beginning in 1931, created Boulder City and helped transform Las Vegas from a small railroad town to a burgeoning city and tourist destination. The water and electricity provided by the dam have been critical to this city's rapid growth during the twentieth century. For example, low-cost energy in the Las Vegas area helped determine the location of the Basic Magnesium plant, constructed during World War II to produce this substance for incendiary bombs. The town built to house workers became Henderson, now one of the nation's fastest-growing cities.

The construction of U.S. highways and interstates affected Nevada's development by bringing tourists and truckers through the state, boosting the economy of certain small towns along these roads. Two transcontinental highways were completed in the 1920s: the Victory Highway (U.S. 40), now largely superseded by I–80, and the Lincoln Highway (U.S. 50), passing through central Nevada. The two interstate highways, I–15 and I–80, have also played a significant economic role. I–15, paralleling the old Los Angeles Highway connecting Los Angeles to Salt Lake City via Las Vegas and cutting across Nevada's southern tip, has brought hordes of tourists by car and bus to gamble along the Strip. I–80 roughly follows the route of the old Central Pacific Railroad connecting Salt Lake City, Elko, Reno, and San Francisco. Some cities in northern Nevada welcomed the highway, but others fought it, viewing its completion and subsequent bypass as the death knell for local economies. This attitude has typified Nevadans' ambivalence toward the federal government. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century they welcomed federal policies and projects that supported mining, grazing, reclamation, and therefore the overall economy. During the twentieth century, however, Nevadans came to believe that the federal government often overlooked state interests in favor of national ones.

Though low in population, Nevada received a disproportionate amount of federal money during the 1930s. As historian Eugene P. Moehring notes, “By 1939, the state ranked first in per capita federal spending with public works programs taking the greatest percentage.”34 The Public Works Administration (PWA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the National Youth Administration (NYA), and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) funded or provided labor to build a variety of structures. Each agency had a different purpose. In general, the PWA, formed in 1933, funded large-scale construction projects through private companies and contractors. The WPA, established in 1935, provided direct work relief through the construction of public buildings and hired writers and artists to document history and create public art. The NYA hired students for part-time jobs; the CCC enlisted young, single men to work on conservation and resource- development projects, often using CCC camps as home bases. In Nevada the WPA paved 142 miles of new roads and repaired another 900, in addition to building 50 bridges and 133 public buildings and renovating schools, courthouses, and recreation centers throughout the state.35 The CCC helped construct U.S. Forest Service ranger stations and even assisted the National Park Service in reconstructing historic Fort Churchill.

Nevada's large percentage of federal land, arid climate, and relatively low population density encouraged renewed military involvement in the state. Approximately forty years after the closing of Fort McDermitt, the military returned to Nevada to establish an ammunition depot for the U.S. Navy near Hawthorne, just south of Walker Lake in western Nevada. As another decline in mining activity had occurred in the 1920s, the state welcomed the arrival of a large military installation. In the 1930s the base grew to a vast complex of more than 2,000 structures, most of them ammunition bunkers scattered across the valley floor.

World War II boosted Nevada's economy with the establishment of an auxiliary naval air station in Fallon and a gunnery range in north Las Vegas, now known as Nellis Air Force Base. Both of these large bases closed after the war but were reestablished owing to the Cold War and the Korean War. Since the 1950s, the bases have grown in size, occupying millions of acres of federal land for the testing of aircraft and for bombing ranges.

Another product of World War II and the Cold War was the Nevada Test Site, carved out in 1950 from part of Nellis Air Force Base, located about eighty miles northwest of Las Vegas. The city and state welcomed this establishment as another means to encourage growth.36 From 1951 to 1963, 126 atmospheric tests of nuclear bombs took place; the giant mushroom clouds of many of the detonations could be seen from Las Vegas. That city seems to have been unscathed by radioactive fallout, but many communities downwind of the blasts, in Lincoln County, Nevada, and southern Utah, have been less fortunate. Radiation killed sheep and has caused cancer in some residents of these areas. Underground testing continued until ratification of the 1992 nuclear test ban treaty.

Nevada, which once welcomed the atom bomb, now faces the possibility of becoming the final resting place for the nation's nuclear waste. Since 1987, the U.S. Department of Energy has been studying the development of a nuclear waste repository beneath Yucca Mountain on the Nevada Test Site adjacent to Death Valley. The repository would cover 1,500 acres with a maximum capacity of 70,000 metric tons of spent waste that would remain radioactive for at least 20,000 years. The site was selected in part because of its low average rainfall per year, approximately six inches. Another factor was Yucca Mountain's location on the test site—an unpopulated 1,350-acre area already managed by the federal government. An unacknowledged factor, however, is the continuing perception of Nevada as a wasteland. With its relatively low population and limited political influence, the state has been unable to prevent the planning and construction of the waste site, which is scheduled to open in 2010. It is ironic that Nevada, a place where few people planned to remain permanently, is now confronted with a project designed to last tens of thousands of years.


Despite Nevada's founding as an industrial and agricultural state, the twentieth century has witnessed the development of the tourist industry through the exploitation of gambling and divorce, which were either illegal or heavily regulated in most other states. As a result, the state and its architecture have been irrevocably changed. Traditional industries, namely mining and ranching, continued to decline in the twentieth century. The century's first mining boom kept the economy going through the 1920s, but the halving of mineral production in 1930 intensified the Great Depression in Nevada. In an effort to attract more business, the state legislature liberalized divorce laws in 1931 by dropping the residency requirement from three months to six weeks—the lowest in the country; this put Nevada ahead of competing states such as Idaho and Arkansas, which had a three-month requirement.37 Another law enacted in the same year legalized gambling.

In the 1930s, however, the divorce industry was more important to the local economy than gambling. The six-week residency requirement meant a steady flow of money from out-of-staters to local residents and businesses. The demand for divorces was so high in the 1930s that Reno's hotels, auto camps, and nearby divorce ranches (dude ranches that catered to people waiting for divorces) remained full.38 Divorce was a large part of Reno's economy until the 1960s. By then, many other states had eased their divorce laws, and heavily populated states such as New York passed laws recognizing Mexican divorces; this measure shifted much of the market south.

The legalization of gambling has had more long-term effects on Nevada's economy. Passage of the law was not an entirely startling turn of events. Gambling had been legal in Nevada during most of the state's history from 1869 to 1909. From then until 1931, pressure from Progressive reformers made it illegal, but even during those years, sheriffs and police departments tolerated gambling in the back rooms of clubs.

As historian John Findlay notes, the legalization of gambling and the reduction in residency requirements for divorce were “part of a larger effort to attract people and capital” to the state.39 Having temporarily exhausted its mining resources, Nevada exploited its state's rights, granted by the federal government, to regulate, or deregulate, morals.40

Las Vegas, a town with a population of only about 5,000 in 1931, ultimately benefited the most from the legalization of gambling. Reno, with its nightclubs, bars, and back-room casinos, quickly capitalized on the influx of tourists coming to gamble or get a quick divorce. Served by the railroad and the Victory Highway, Reno was well located to receive tourists, mainly from the San Francisco area, who could make a short trip to gamble. Downtown nightclubs made alterations to accommodate casinos and continued to expand their gambling spaces to house an ever-growing number of tourists. As a means to control gambling, the city of Reno drew a boundary around—or redlined—the downtown area, thereby restricting gambling to a specific part of town. The density of construction there, as well as redlining, led to the erection in 1948 of the first high-rise hotel-casino in the country, the Mapes Hotel and Casino. Redlining remained in effect until 1971, when the city began to allow large casinos such as the MGM Grand (1978; now the Reno Hilton) to build in outlying locations.41 Since then, casinos in the Reno-Sparks area have grown along I-80 and South Virginia Street, Reno's main north-south thoroughfare.

Gambling encouraged the rise of tourism in other parts of the state. Lake Tahoe, for example, had been a favorite recreation area in the early decades of the twentieth century, attracting Californians to its snow-capped mountains for winter skiing and to its blue waters for summer boating and fishing. With the legalization of gambling, popular resorts just over the California-Nevada border in Crystal Bay on Tahoe's north shore added casinos to draw larger crowds. This pattern would be repeated throughout Nevada in towns located at or near the borders of other states and served by highways, such as Stateline; on the south shore of Lake Tahoe; and in Mesquite, along I-15 at the Arizona border. Other towns have come to life simply to capitalize on a border location. Most of these boom towns are fairly recent, established in the 1960s to take advantage of increased automobile travel; examples are Jackpot and Laughlin. West Wendover, established during World War II on the border with Utah, where gambling in any form is prohibited, has also become a boom town. These towns developed around a few casinos, restaurants, and gas stations and have gradually expanded to include residential areas with schools and libraries. Other areas remain no more than large casino complexes, oases along major interstates, such as Boomtown, west of Reno along I-80, and Jean and Stateline (Primm), both in southern Nevada along I-15. These casinos crowd the interstate and can be seen from miles away. At night, when nothing else competes with the view, these brightly lit complexes are beacons to travelers passing through the mountains or desert.

Over the course of several decades, Las Vegas has fully exploited the legalization of gambling. Established as a railroad town in 1905, the city had a slow start in the decades before World War II. The construction of Hoover Dam in the 1930s provided the small town with a steady flow of customers, mostly dam workers living in Boulder City who came to drink, dance, and gamble. By 1931 an underworld figure from Los Angeles, Tony Cornero, had built the Meadows Club, a building in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, which was the first Strip-style hotel and casino resort built on a highway on the outskirts of Las Vegas.42 The year 1931 also saw the completion of the Los Angeles Highway, connecting Las Vegas to southern California. Although train service was available to Las Vegas, the automobile soon became the preferred mode of travel.

By the 1930s the downtown area had been built up. Redlining restricted casinos to hotels and bars in the city center. The lack of space downtown encouraged development along the Los Angeles Highway to the south, beyond the city limits. This road eventually became the Strip. With the completion of the highway, Las Vegas was only a five- to six-hour drive from Los Angeles, which provided the major market for gambling in Las Vegas. Since the 1930s, and especially since World War II, Las Vegas and the Strip have attracted growing numbers of visitors from around the world.

Like the mining industry before it, the Las Vegas casino industry quickly became colonized, this time by hotel and nightclub owners from Los Angeles. These entrepreneurs hired architects in their own city who were already established designers of roadside coffee shops, diners, and drive-ins. The setting and architectural problems of Las Vegas were similar to those in Los Angeles and required similar solutions.43

Beginning in 1941, low-rise casino resorts based on the roadside motel prototype popped up at intervals along the highway. Resorts such as El Rancho Vegas (1941) and the Last Frontier (1942) set models for the next two decades. These casino complexes—a mix of the burgeoning ranch-farm style and the Spanish Colonial Revival—sprawled along the desert highway, catering to the visitor's every need. Buildings and parking lots were oriented toward the highway to attract motorists. Although World War II put a halt to casino construction, servicemen kept the gambling industry going during the war.

In 1946 mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel ushered in a new era of casino design with his sophisticated Hotel Flamingo. Siegel, along with architect George Vernon Russell of Los Angeles, looked to the modernism of that city's nightclubs, breaking with the earlier theme of the Old West.44 Though the Flamingo resembled a motel in plan and scale, it was a new type of resort with a horseshoe plan enclosing a large pool, lawns, and tropical plants—an oasis in the desert crowned by a vertical sign featuring a neon flamingo.

In the 1950s and 1960s the sign became the identifying image of the Las Vegas Strip. As more resorts opened along the highway, their owners faced increasing competition to attract motorists. Most buildings remained low-slung, so the large sign by the roadside became the most effective means of advertising. Among the most striking signs were William Pereira and Charles Luckman's champagne tower of 1953 at the Flamingo. As part of a complete remodeling of the complex, they designed a 60-foot-high cylindrical tower with neon circles that blinked on and off, seeming to bubble upward. The Dunes sign of 1964, by Lee Klay of the Federal Sign and Signal Company, rose 180 feet high and remained the Strip's tallest sign until its demolition in 1993. The buildings served as mere backdrops for these exuberant signs.

Construction of the eleven-story Riviera Hotel in 1955, the first high-rise in Las Vegas, marked a shift in the perception of the Strip as having unlimited space. Although many casino owners in the 1960s continued to commission large, low buildings, the increasing density of the Strip soon required additional vertical expansion. This density also called for eyegrabbing forms. As in the 1940s, casino owners in the 1950s and 1960s turned mainly to architects from Los Angeles to create a Las Vegas Strip look. These architects continued to draw on roadside commercial vernacular architecture, dominated at that time by a style variously called Googie, Coffee Shop Modern, and Populuxe, and characterized by an organic expressionism employing boomerang and kidney shapes, starbursts, curved and cantilevered roofs, and abundant signage. The writer Tom Wolfe attempted to describe the Strip: “Boomerang Modern, Palette Curvilinear, Flash Gordon Ming-Alert Spiral, McDonald's Hamburger Parabola, Mint Casino Elliptical, Miami Beach Kidney.”45 Some entrepreneurs began to use themes to unify their hotel-casino resorts. Jay Sarno, for example, adapted ancient Rome for a popular audience for his Caesars Palace of 1966.

The success of casinos in Las Vegas has been a rich topic of discourse for architects since Robert Venturi's visit in 1968. In the fall of that year the Yale School of Art and Architecture offered a seminar entitled “Learning from Las Vegas, or Form Analysis as Design Research” taught by visiting faculty members Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. They traveled to Las Vegas with thirteen architecture and design students, spending ten days studying the Strip and its architecture. The result was a celebration of the Strip. Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour published their findings in Learning from Las Vegas, which became the seminal book on the Strip and made the study of commercial vernacular architecture popular among architects. Considering the Strip as a phenomenon of architectural communication, the authors defined two types of roadside commercial buildings, which they called the duck and the decorated shed. The first, so called for a well-known Long Island poultry and egg shop (now a gift shop) in the form of a giant duck, represented the building as symbol, as architecture and sculpture combined. The second, a low, boxy building with oversized signage as ornament, represented the building as sign.46 Venturi found both forms in Las Vegas, and they persist today in ever-changing incarnations.

Shortly after the group's trip to Las Vegas, major changes in Nevada's gambling industry began to affect casino architecture throughout the state. In 1969 the Nevada legislature passed the Corporate Gaming Act, allowing corporations to hold gambling licenses; previously only individuals could hold these licenses. Corporate consolidation began in 1969 with the construction of the International Hotel, now the Hilton. Architects began to work with corporate committees rather than with individual entrepreneurs, whose idiosyncratic personal tastes had often influenced the architecture. Examples of design by committee include the first MGM Grand Hotel (now Bally's; 1973, Martin Stern, Jr.) and the Flamingo Hilton (c. 1977, Rissman and Rissman Associates), which resemble office towers pierced by small windows.

The national economic decline of the early 1980s showed that gambling—an industry the state had believed was recession-proof—was vulnerable to economic ups and downs. Since 1950, gambling has been Nevada's largest industry, far surpassing mining and ranching, and Las Vegas has become the center of the gambling economy. For much of the 1970s and 1980s, few new casinos were constructed. The opening of Steve Wynn's Mirage on the Strip in 1989 ushered in a new era of casino construction. Mega-resorts, with thousands of rooms and a variety of attractions besides gambling, have set a new standard of scale and entertainment for casinos. Thus far, the strategy has paid off; in 1999 over thirty-three million people visited the city, spending $7 billion. However, it has fueled a frenzy among major corporations in the gaming industry, which must create increasingly outlandish structures to attract new and repeat visitors. The result has been a constant reconfiguring of casino exteriors and interiors. For example, the second MGM Grand, built 1991–1993 as a big green box with a large cartoonish lion at its entrance, underwent a face-lift in 1998 that replaced the giant lion with one more regal in appearance. Other casinos, including Caesars Palace and Luxor, have added new hotel towers to accommodate more guests. Most important has been the increased density along the Strip, which forces visitors to walk rather than drive. Casinos have responded to rising pedestrian traffic by building out to the sidewalk, incorporating gateways and attractions to entice visitors.

Though much smaller than either Las Vegas or Reno, Stateline and Crystal Bay, on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, have also become gambling destinations, popular for their proximity to California. The eastern shore of Lake Tahoe is a strikingly beautiful place, where the steep mountains of the eastern Sierra's Carson Range meet the blue water of one of the world's deepest lakes. A few small communities dot the Nevada shore of the lake, beginning with Crystal Bay at the northern border with California and ending with Stateline at the southern border with South Lake Tahoe, California.

This basin was originally the home of the Washoe Indians, who spent their summers at the lake until being displaced. During the development of the Comstock, the basin's old-growth timber supplied raw materials for the massive square-framing used to support the walls of mines. Not until 1997 did the tribe win permission from the federal government to use parts of its traditional summer lands.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, entrepreneurs began to exploit the lake as a recreational area for wealthy Californians. The trip to the lake from San Francisco was shortened in 1900 by the completion of a spur railroad from Truckee, California, where the transcontinental railroad stopped, to Tahoe City, California. In the 1920s resorts began catering to middle-class Americans with enough disposable income for vacations. New roads to the lakeshore, such as the Lincoln Highway (U.S. 50), made vacationing there increasingly convenient. The legalization of gambling attracted more tourists to the border towns of Crystal Bay and Stateline. Development quickly filled the California side, but much of the Nevada side, still in the hands of a few wealthy landholders, remained considerably less built up. Over time the federal and Nevada state governments acquired much of this land, managed in part within the Toiyabe National Forest and the rest in Lake Tahoe State Park.

After the 1960 Winter Olympics in nearby Olympic Valley (then Squaw Valley), California, development in the basin exploded. Promoters used the long, snowy winters and dry, mild summers to sell the lake as a year-round recreation area. Construction of casinos accelerated. Although Crystal Bay has only a few casinos and high-rise towers, Stateline exploited its limited space along U.S. 50. To accommodate more visitors, the town's half-dozen casinos have erected high-rise hotel towers, which give the south shore of the lake a dense, banal, urban appearance that contrasts with the quieter, open spaces of most of the rest of the basin. The success of the casino industry has resulted in an increased number of permanent residents in the basin.

Rapid environmental degradation inspired Congress to create the joint California-Nevada Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) in 1969. Although the agency has been able to restrict growth severely, runoff from roads and building sites, automobile traffic, and air pollution continue to threaten the clarity of the lake water. Growth has slowed, but not enough to ensure the lake's preservation.

Though overshadowed by gambling, other aspects of Nevada's tourist economy have helped to shape architecture in the state. The wedding industry has surpassed the divorce industry in both Las Vegas and Reno. Nevada requires no blood test or waiting period, and the abundance of chapels for both civil and non-denominational ceremonies has facilitated spur-of-the-moment weddings. In addition to wedding chapels in most major casinos, many small freestanding chapels line the main streets of downtown Reno and Las Vegas. Small chapels can also be found in other towns. In general, these structures are not striking, their forms ranging from replications of churches to boxy decorated sheds with neon hearts and wedding bells.

Nevada is the only state in the nation that has legalized prostitution, which also contributes to the state's tourist economy, though it is not clear to what extent. Brothels have always been part of the state's built environment because the largely male populations of mining camps and towns provided a ready market. Every town had its redlight district filled with large brothels, dance halls, and rows of cribs—small houses where individual prostitutes worked. The only exceptions were company towns such as McGill and federal towns such as Boulder City. Most towns tolerated redlight districts well into the twentieth century because the state had never officially made prostitution legal or illegal. Reno had a row of houses along the Truckee River, and Las Vegas concentrated its brothels in Block 16. Both districts attracted soldiers stationed nearby during World War II. However, health concerns became so great that military officials finally persuaded local governments to close the brothels in 1943. These towns did not wish to lose the income but were willing to cooperate with the war effort, thereby ensuring continued military spending in their communities.47

Today prostitution is legal in thirteen of Nevada's seventeen counties. In 1971 Joe Conforte, founder of the Mustang Ranch and the operator of brothels in Nevada since the 1950s, openly challenged the murky state and county laws governing prostitution. He convinced Storey County commissioners to legalize prostitution, making it the first county to do so. Other counties followed suit, and in 1973 the State Supreme Court upheld the right of counties with fewer than 50,000 people to license brothels.

In general, brothels cannot operate on main streets and must be located at least 300 feet from churches and schools. Brothels range from houses within a town to complexes of trailers and prefabricated buildings set back from the road outside of town. In small towns most brothels are located along alleys or on the edge of the town grid, as in Winnemucca and Wells. However, in both towns the brothels are clearly visible from the interstate, where they advertise to truck drivers and motorists.

The rise of tourism has had a major impact on all aspects of life in Nevada, especially on economics and politics. Northwestern Nevada, centered on Reno and Carson City, once was dominant because it had the largest population in the state, but southern Nevada surpassed the north in numbers and growth in the mid-twentieth century. Though the population of the Reno metropolitan area exceeds 300,000, that of the Las Vegas area is over 1.3 million, constituting about 65 percent of the state's total of approximately 2 million.48 This huge imbalance has caused a greater portion of the state's revenue to head south to support social programs, education, infrastructure, and major construction projects.


Housing in Nevada has ranged from the simplest forms of shelter to ostentatious mansions. In general, the evolution of dwellings has paralleled that of other types of building, focusing mainly on the short term. Like Native American dwellings, the early shelters of Euro-Americans were small and easily movable, consisting of canvas tents or, if made from local materials, usually log or adobe brick cabins. If a community survived the initial settlement period, builders imported lumber from the mountains or from California, bought brick made at nearby kilns, or used locally quarried stone.

Given the transitory nature of Nevada's Euro-American settlements, nineteenth-century houses were rarely showy. Virginia City had its mansions, and those surviving from the Comstock era—most of them dating from the 1860s and 1870s and designed in the Italianate style—show a sophistication and knowledge of fashion in architecture. People who gained extraordinary wealth from the mines, however, such as James C. Flood, one of the Comstock's bonanza kings, often chose to build great houses in San Francisco. Flood's brownstone mansion, constructed in 1886, still stands on Nob Hill, where it houses the exclusive Pacific Union Club. Adolph Sutro, creator and developer of the Sutro Tunnel, a deep-level drain for the Comstock's mines, built public recreation and cultural areas such as the Sutro Baths, Sutro Heights Park, and the Sutro Library in San Francisco and served as mayor of that city in the 1890s.

Most housing was modest. Many Comstock miners lived in boardinghouses, ranging from single-family homes in which owners rented out rooms to three-story structures accommodating up to a hundred people. In Carson City the typical house had one story, with a front porch and mass-produced jigsawn ornamentation. Because of the economic cycles of the mining industry, many owners, or even building scavengers, moved houses to more promising locations. This predilection for mobility is reflected today in Nevadans' love of mobile homes and recreational vehicles. Indeed, modern mine workers frequently prefer mobile homes to more permanent dwellings because they want to be able to move their houses to the next mining job instead of being caught in a real estate collapse.

Mining towns, often built in narrow canyons or along mountainsides, were densely planned. Despite this initial density, Nevada's communities tended to sprawl outward from their centers in response to the automobile. Reno was the first town in Nevada to develop suburbs, beginning in the early twentieth century. Though the core of the town stands along the banks of the Truckee River, Reno's location in a broad valley encouraged outward growth. In the early 1900s Newlands Heights, set on a bluff overlooking the river and named for the home of Senator Francis G. Newlands—the first to be built there—became the most desirable neighborhood in the city and remains so today. All the major figures in Nevada politics and industry built mansions there in a variety of styles, employing the first group of professional architects in the state. For middle- and low-income residents the bungalow became the most popular housing form. Relatively inexpensive and designed for southern California's climate, bungalows were well suited to Nevada's early-twentieth-century suburbs. Since World War II, subdivisions of single-family houses have spread in all directions, gradually filling the Truckee Meadows.

The railroads also played a significant role in Nevada's housing stock, erecting orderly rows of identical dwellings in many towns. The federal government continued this pattern in the twentieth century. In southern Nevada, for example, the construction of Hoover Dam and then World War II brought an influx of workers who needed housing. The dwellings built by the federal government or its contractors were, in general, small and of one story. The housing erected in railroad and company towns helped establish a model that persisted in post–World War II suburban subdivisions.

With abundant land and subsidized electricity and water available in many parts of the state, suburban growth had few restrictions after the 1940s, when a postwar boom brought more people to Nevada. The growing tourism industry, as well as numerous federal projects, kept the demand for housing high. Since the 1960s, rapid growth around Reno and especially Las Vegas has resulted in the continued loss of open space to subdivisions of tract houses and ever-widening highways.

One example is Incline Village on Lake Tahoe. A single mobile-home park housed residents in the area until 1960, when a real estate developer created a master plan for a 10,000-resident community, including mansions along the lakeshore, condominiums in the flats beyond the shore, and chalets in the hills above. Limitation of the commercial strip to Nevada 28 and Southwood Road prevented the creation of a town center. The village is still privately owned, administered by the Incline Village General Improvement District rather than by a local government. Today this exclusive and affluent community has 7,000 year-round residents. Lakeshore Drive has some of the most expensive real estate in Nevada.

Much of the development of the last two decades has been conducted by large California firms, and the pattern follows that of Nevada's neighboring state. Public transportation has never played a large role in Nevada, though Reno, Las Vegas, and Clark County have small mass-transit systems. Dependence on the automobile and the construction of new freeways and arterials have encouraged development far away from urban downtowns.

As in the past, the perception of Nevada as a wasteland has helped fuel this construction boom. Developers and residents alike see open space as a vacuum to be filled rather than a resource to be preserved. Despite constant concerns about the lack of water, development has continued. Las Vegas has experienced tremendous growth as a popular retirement area as well as a resort destination. In 1998 approximately 6,000 people per month moved into the Las Vegas metropolitan area. The region is the site of large master-planned communities, including Green Valley in Henderson and Summerlin, built by the Del Webb Corporation, developer of Sun City, Arizona. These continue the traditional pattern of suburban development, with restricted access, cul-de-sacs, and standardized houses. Even in smaller communities such as Elko and Winnemucca, recent economic growth has resulted in suburban sprawl, threatening the downtowns that distinguish them.

Indeed, development has been unable to keep up with demand, and houses remain out of reach for many Nevada residents. Construction of single-family homes has far outpaced that of less profitable condominiums or apartments, so low- and moderate-income housing is scarce. The mobile home has therefore continued to be a popular form of housing in Nevada. Trailer and RV parks are abundant, and in remote parts of the state, trailer homes far outnumber houses.

Ethnic Groups

Diverse ethnic groups have populated Nevada, but surprisingly few have had an identifiable impact on architecture in the state. The English, Irish, Cornish, French, Germans, Italians, Basques, Greeks, Slavs, Chinese, and Japanese, among others, came seeking work as miners, entrepreneurs, ranchers, or farmers. Like many other western states, Nevada had few African American residents until the early twentieth century, when manufacturing jobs attracted southerners to the state.

Only the Basques, Italians, and Chinese have left much of a distinctive architectural imprint. The Basques did not introduce specific architectural styles or forms, but rather a distinct building type, the Basque hotel, found in many northern Nevada towns. Usually simple wood-frame or brick structures following vernacular American forms, these hotels served as centers for local Basques. Hotel owners often helped newly arrived Basques to find work and housing and obtain the required permits and papers. Many Basque sheepherders used the hotels as home base after spending months on the range. Few of the hotels continue to function in this way, though many maintain Basque-American culture through the hearty meals of lamb and beef served family style in their restaurants.

Italians came to Nevada to work in the mines and to run truck farms and ranches to support mining towns and government centers. Many of these immigrants came from northern Italy and, unlike their counterparts from impoverished southern Italy, had the resources to buy land and start farms. In most cases, their architectural legacy was small, except for freestanding ovens for baking bread. However, in the northern and central parts of the state Italian stonemasons left enduring reminders of their work. Howard Wight Marshall's study of Paradise Valley reveals that settlers from the Piedmont region of Italy built numerous stone structures for themselves and for others. Italian stonemasons worked with hand tools, erecting buildings with either finely finished ashlar walls and thin mortar joints or rough, random-coursed walls with thick mortar joints. Italian and Swiss immigrants who moved to mining regions often found work as carbonari, or charcoal makers, and used their expertise to build large stone charcoal kilns. Examples of these structures survive in Ward, near Ely; Bristol, near Pioche; and in the Spring Mountains near Las Vegas.

Although none of their extensive neighborhoods survive except in photographs and archaeological artifacts, Chinese immigrants helped shape urban landscapes. Like other immigrants, the Chinese initially came to Nevada to take advantage of the numerous mining booms, working as miners or as laborers and entrepreneurs in businesses that supported the mining economy. Soon after, many Chinese immigrated to the state to work on the Central Pacific Railroad. They were instrumental in building the railroad over the Sierra Nevada because of their expertise with dynamite and their willingness to take on the most dangerous tasks when Euro-Americans refused. After completion of the railroad, they looked for work in mining towns and on ranches. As in other western states, they were despised by whites and forced to live in ghettos that became known as Chinatowns. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Chinese lived in nearly every Nevada town; several towns had sizable, regionally important Chinese communities. By 1875 Virginia City's Chinatown numbered over 1,000 inhabitants, making it one of the most important Asian districts in the West. Carson City and Dayton also had large Chinese populations. In Virginia City the Chinese lived down the hill from the city center in an area bounded roughly by Union, G, L, and Taylor streets. They worked as domestic help in white households, in laundries, and on the construction of the V&T Railroad. After 1869, miners' unions persuaded the Bank of California to ban Chinese laborers from working on the railroad in Virginia City and Gold Hill. They had been banned from mining in 1859. 9

There is evidence that the Chinese practiced feng shui, the art of geomancy, shifting the orientation of streets in their neighborhoods from the main town grid to ensure the desirable siting of buildings. They also built distinct structures such as joss houses, which in China were used exclusively as temples or houses of worship serving Taoist, Confucian, or Buddhist devotees; in the United States these buildings also functioned as administrative centers and general meeting halls.

Economic depression in the 1880s and 1890s exacerbated the already uneasy relationship between the Chinese and Euro-Americans. The poor economy, as well as numerous riots and other acts of violence against the Chinese, drove most of them out of the state by the turn of the century. In some cases, Euro-Americans burned down Chinatowns to force out the residents. In other cases, these neighborhoods were abandoned and slowly deteriorated. Their loss is particularly unfortunate because some of them managed to survive more or less intact well into the twentieth century. Much of Carson City's Chinatown survived into the 1950s, when the state demolished the remaining buildings to make way for a new state office building.

Though not defined by ethnic origin, the Mormons have a distinct cultural identity that has helped shape Nevada architecture. The first white settlers in the state to establish farms and ranches, they returned to Utah in 1857. However, in the 1870s and 1880s groups of Mormons attempted new settlements in the Virgin River valley, founding Bunkerville as an agricultural collective with land held in common. The experiment lasted only two years, but Bunkerville survived. Buildings remaining from the nineteenth century include a house built for a polygamous family.

The Mormons' town plans for their communities are their greatest legacy in Nevada. In 1833, in Kirtland, Ohio, Joseph Smith and Frederick G. Williams devised a plan based on a grid, which formed the basis for all subsequent Mormon settlements. The main characteristics were “a grid pattern, wide streets, ample building lots, fenced or walled properties, church square, and open irrigation ditches.”50 The settlers named streets according to direction and number, such as 1st West Street and 2nd West Street. The order inherent in these plans helped the Mormons establish settlements in the wilderness of the nineteenth-century West. Today Mormons continue to shape the landscape through their churches and temples.

The Architectural Profession in Nevada

Given Nevada's relatively recent settlement, frontier character, small population, and economic ups and downs, it is not surprising that it took several decades for the architectural profession to become established. Nevada's historians have noted that the state served as a colony for larger, more populated states, especially California, in a number of industries, including mining, ranching, and, most recently, gambling. The architectural profession has been no different. Because of their proximity, California's architects received commissions for many of Nevada's early prominent buildings, including the state capitol, which was designed by Joseph Gosling of San Francisco, known as both an architect and a master builder. Local builders planned and erected most of Nevada's structures, using pattern books; prefabricated doors, windows, and trim; and their own ingenuity. In the twentieth century architects from Los Angeles shaped the look of the Las Vegas Strip.

By the early twentieth century only eleven men in Nevada called themselves architects.51 Frederick J. DeLongchamps (1882–1969) emerged from this group to become Nevada's most influential architect in the first half of the twentieth century. After studying mining engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno, and graduating in 1904, he apprenticed as an architect in California. In 1907 he returned to Nevada to practice and over the years designed more than five hundred buildings, most of them in Nevada. DeLongchamps's ability to master a variety of styles and to build everything from small houses and large estates to county courthouses made him extremely prolific. Many of his projects survive.

Reno, as the largest city in Nevada in the early twentieth century, became the center for the architectural profession. It was here that most of the state's architects lived and worked, including the father-son team of George A. and Lehman A. Ferris, Edward Parsons, Russell Mills, and Graham Erskine. There was plenty of work, but Nevada's architects had to compete constantly against more prominent architects from neighboring states. Local architects were also at a disadvantage because the state had no licensing requirements. The low barriers to entering the profession caused many architects to lose commissions to out-of-state competitors who could impress clients with licenses from neighboring states. Nevada finally began to license architects in 1949, when it established the Nevada State Board of Architecture. The profession was further strengthened by the founding of the Nevada chapter of the American Institute of Architects that same year. In 1954 it became the Reno (later Northern Nevada) chapter, and two years later Las Vegas established its own chapter.52

Another problem affecting the advancement of the profession in Nevada was the lack of a school of architecture in the state. Nevadans who wished to become architects had to attend school elsewhere. In 1997 the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, School of Architecture received accreditation.

Since the mid-twentieth century, the architectural profession in Nevada has matured, supported by a strong economy and rapid growth that have ensured plenty of work for local architects. The current boom, centered in Las Vegas, has provided a variety of projects ranging from casinos to libraries. An increasing number of architects based in the state have won commissions for major public buildings, and most of the casinos in Las Vegas are now designed by in-state architects. Las Vegas has moved far ahead of Reno in creating a regional architecture. Despite the garishness of the new casinos, the city now has public and private buildings that respond to the desert environment. These structures, designed by local and out-of-state architects, may become more important than the casinos in defining a regional architecture.

Historic Preservation

The concept of historic preservation is relatively new to Nevada. The exploitation of natural resources and the land has shaped the economy since the mid-nineteenth century, and history has been of little importance to most residents. Nevada's rapid growth has hindered preservation because many businesses and residents believe that protecting historic structures impedes growth. New residents far outnumber native-born Nevadans, and virtually no collective memory exists to advocate for the significance of such structures. In addition, most of Nevada's historic resources date back no further than the early twentieth century—a period that is still not “historic” in the minds of most people. Nevertheless, in recent years the state has taken some steps to preserve its cultural resources.

There were few laws concerning preservation until the state took the momentous first step of establishing the Comstock Historic District in 1969. The towns and mines of the Comstock had already been designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961, but the state's recognition provided the foundation for establishing local ordinances and a design review commission. The district is one of the nation's largest, encompassing Virginia City, Gold Hill, Silver City, and Dayton and covering more than 14,000 acres.

In 1977 Nevada established a state historic preservation office, one of the last states in the nation to do so. Perpetually understaffed and underfunded, the office has struggled to survey Nevada's cultural resources as well as keep up with federal and state regulations. Nevada continues to suffer from the lack of a private statewide organization devoted to historic preservation, though the Clark County Preservation Association has had some success in preserving historic properties in Las Vegas.

A major victory for preservation occurred in 1993, when the state legislature approved a $2.5 million bond measure to fund the rehabilitation of historic buildings throughout the state as cultural centers. In 1995 the legislature approved another $20 million to be spent over ten years to continue the program. This is the largest public expenditure to date for historic preservation projects in Nevada.

Even so, a number of factors make it difficult to promote preservation. The goals of major industries—gambling, mining, and rail transportation—often stand in direct opposition to those of historic preservation. In recent years large mining projects have been located near the sites of historic mining towns. Given the political and economic power of mining interests in the state, the most preservationists can hope for is to record historic buildings before demolition.

Likewise, the trend among casinos to remodel old structures or erect new ones has erased most traces of these buildings dating back even twenty years. Classic casinos such as the Flamingo have all been demolished. Imploding old casinos has become the latest gimmick of gambling corporations, which promote demolition, adding fireworks to ensure a memorable show. Even the famous Dunes (and its 180-foot-tall sign) was not spared; Steve Wynn of Mirage Resorts imploded the complex in 1993 to mark the opening of his new resort, Treasure Island. Other classic casinos including the Landmark, the Sands, the Hacienda, and the Aladdin have been imploded in the past few years. Given this record, preserving more recent gambling landmarks will be extremely difficult. Only buildings that are easily moved have survived the rapid stylistic and commercial changes of the Strip.

Nevada's extensive railroad resources have met a similar fate. Until its merger with Union Pacific in 1996, Southern Pacific owned the majority of Nevada's railroad structures. Despite preservationists' efforts to save and record historic depots, warehouses, and other buildings, Southern Pacific consistently opposed their efforts and demolished many of its buildings to avoid maintenance costs and liability.

In addition, the federal government, manager of more than 80 percent of Nevada's land, has not always been a good steward of the cultural resources in its care. Despite the requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act, some federal agencies in the state disregard the law, neither documenting nor protecting prehistoric and historic properties in their care. Given the lack of a large local constituency supporting preservation, these agencies know they can approve projects without following federal regulations. In addition, the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmark programs of the National Park Service have had difficulty in evaluating Nevada's resources and their significance in the context of architecture in the state. Few reviewers in the Washington, D.C., headquarters of these programs are familiar with Nevada architecture, and they often deny listing in the register, using criteria based on the study of eastern American architecture. Furthermore, many of Nevada's significant buildings, such as casinos, do not meet the National Register's age criteria, and therefore must be recognized in some other way.

Nevada has always been a pro-growth, pro-business state. Developers often consider historic preservation an obstacle to growth. They demolish historic and potentially historic buildings as quickly as possible to ensure that a project will proceed unimpeded. Finally, Nevada suffers from having few local governments that promote preservation through ordinances or planning. Only three municipalities, Carson City, Reno, and Las Vegas, and the Comstock Historic District, which includes Virginia City, have ordinances and design guidelines for historic districts, and local review commissions have few means to enforce these codes. Political and economic pressure for increased development and the desire of owners to alter their property as they see fit have resulted in districts that have lost much of their historic fabric.

Though Nevada has far to go in ensuring the preservation of many of its historic sites, there were successes in the late 1990s, particularly private initiatives. One example is the Golden Gate Hotel in downtown Las Vegas, the oldest extant hotel-casino in the state. In the 1950s the building's owners covered the Art Deco exterior with a modern facade. In 1990 a new generation of owners removed the modern sheathing, returning the Golden Gate to its earlier appearance and emphasizing the building's history.

Nevada has tremendous potential for developing a heritage tourism industry by preserving and promoting its historic sites. Hoover Dam, for example, attracts over one million visitors per year, though many of them view the site as an engineering feat rather than a historic landmark. Other sites such as Nevada's numerous ghost towns could be better marketed and interpreted to attract the public. An example is Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, in south-central Nevada, where the old mining town of Berlin has been protected and preserved in a state of arrested decay.

Given Nevada's continued growth, such success stories will likely remain exceptions to the prevailing rules of development. The state continues to draw fortune hunters who leave new ruins for the next wave of immigrants. Until Nevada builds a constituency that cares about the past, monuments of material significance will be routinely destroyed without opposition.


1. Russell R. Elliott, History of Nevada, 2nd ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), 20.

Ibid., 22.

Donald K. Grayson, The Desert's Past: A Natural Prehistory of the Great Basin (Washington, D.C.: Smith-sonian Institution Press, 1993), 36.

Ibid., 37–38.

Ronald M. James, The Roar and the Silence: A History of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1998), 11. The equivalent figure for 2000 and all other equivalents in this volume are based on the Composite Consumer Price Index in John J. McCusker, How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States (Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 1992), 323–32. As the index covers prices only to 1991, prices for 2000 have been adjusted, using an average of 3 percent inflation per year from 1992 to 2000.

Wilbur S. Shepperson, Restless Strangers: Nevada's Immigrants and Their Interpreters (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1970), 13.

Charles H. Carpenter, Jr., with Mary Grace Carpenter, Tiffany Silver (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1978), 51.

Eric Stoehr, Bonanza Victorian: Architecture and Society in Colorado Mining Towns (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975), 10.

Kingston Heath, “False-Front Architecture on Montana's Urban Frontier,” in Images of an American Land, ed. Thomas Carter (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997), 22.

J. Ross Browne, A Peep at Washoe and Washoe Revisited (1863; reprint, Balboa, Calif.: Paisano Press, 1959), 181.

Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of Nevada, Colorado and Wyoming, 1540–1888 (San Francisco: The History Company, 1890), 224; Michael W. Bowers, The Sagebrush State: Nevada's History, Government, and Politics (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1996), 21–22.

Elliott, History of Nevada, 405.

Russell R. Elliott, Nevada's Twentieth-Century Mining Boom: Tonopah, Goldfield, Ely (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1966), 228–31.

Robert D. McCracken, A History of Beatty, Nevada (Tonopah, Nev.: Nye County Press, 1996), 154.

Nevada Division of Mines, Major Mines of Nevada 1996 (Carson City: Nevada Division of Mines, 1997), 23.

James W. Hulse, The Silver State: Nevada's History Reinterpreted (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1991), 114.

Ibid., 180.

John Radzilowski, “Same Town, Different Name,” Invention and Technology10:3 (winter 1995): 20–21; H. Roger Grant and Charles W. Bohi, The Country Railroad Station in America (Boulder, Colo.: Pruett Publishing Company, 1978), 1–3.

John R. Stilgoe, The Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 193; John F. Stover, The Life and Decline of the American Railroad (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 98.

Grant and Bohi, Country Railroad Station, 22–23; Janet Greenstein Potter, Great American Railroad Stations (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1996), 23.

Richard Adkins, Steel Rails, Desert Vistas: Nevada Railroad Resources (Carson City: Division of Historic Preservation and Archeology, 1992), 10.

Elliott, History of Nevada, 116.

Terry G. Jordan, North American Cattle-Ranching Frontiers: Origins, Diffusion, and Differentiation (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993), 247.

Elliott, History of Nevada, 121.

Howard W. Marshall and Richard E. Ahlborn, Buckaroos in Paradise: Cowboy Life in Northern Nevada, exh. cat. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981), 25.

William A. Douglass, “Basque-American Identity: Past Perspectives and Future Prospects,” in Change in the American West: Exploring the Human Dimension, ed. Stephen Tchudi (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1996), 184.

William A. Douglass, “Basques in Nevada,” in Towns and Tales, Vol. I—North (Las Vegas: Nevada Publications, 1981), 64.

Andrea Graham and Blanton Owen, Lander County Line: Folklife in Central Nevada (Reno: Nevada State Council on the Arts, 1988), 20.

Elliott, History of Nevada, 290.

Ronald M. James, Temples of Justice: County Courthouses of Nevada (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1994), 161.

Bowers, Sagebrush State, 20.

The first widespread effort was the much publicized Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, which began with Elko County livestock owners who were angry at increased regulation by the Bureau of Land Management to control overgrazing and pollution on federal land. Though the rebellion failed, Nevadans in Nye County renewed the effort in the 1990s, attempting to gain control of public land within the county's borders. See Bowers, Sagebrush State, 118.

William D. Rowley, Reclaiming the Arid West: The Career of Francis G. Newlands (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 103.

Eugene P. Moehring, “Public Works and the New Deal in Las Vegas, 1933–1940,” Nevada Historical Society Quarterly24:2 (summer 1981): 107.

Ibid., 107.

A. Costandina Titus, Bombs in the Backyard: Atomic Testing and American Politics (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1986), xiii.

Elliott, History of Nevada, 285.

Mella Harmon, “Divorce and Economic Opportunity in Reno, Nevada, during the Great Depression” (master's thesis, University of Nevada, Reno, 1998), 41–44.

John M. Findlay, People of Chance: Gambling in American Society from Jamestown to Las Vegas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 119.

Ibid., 119.

William D. Rowley, Reno: Hub of the Washoe County (Woodland Hills, Calif.: Windsor Publications, 1984), 76–79.

Alan Hess, Viva Las Vegas: After Hours Architecture (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993), 20.

Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (London: Penguin Books, 1971), 124; Alan Hess, Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1985), 109.

Hess, Viva, 43.

Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965), 8.

Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1977), 87.

Elliott, History of Nevada, 313.

“Population Trends,” Nevada Statistical Abstract, Nevada Department of Administration, prepared by Budget and Planning Division, updated 29 December 1999; cited at, 21 January 2000.

Ronald M. James, personal communication with author, 13 August 1998.

C. Mark Hamilton, Nineteenth-Century Mormon Architecture and City Planning (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 31.

Maurice J. Nespor and Hyde L. Flippo, “Architects in Nevada: A Brief History” (manuscript, 1997, photocopy), 1.

Ibid., 4–5.

Writing Credits

Julie Nicoletta

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.