A walking tour of the University of Nevada, Reno recalls how the
Big Bonanza helped turn a dusty plain into a picturesque campus
worthy of both Hollywood and scholarship.
by Patrick McDonnell
It gazes southeast toward Virginia City, where a fortune in silver was extracted more than a century ago. If this
larger-than-life bronze sculpture of John W. Mackay, one of the four "Bonanza Kings" of the Comstock Lode, could turn
its head, it would see other legacies of Mackay's great good luck on the original quadrangle of the University of Nevada,
Directly behind the statue stands the venerable Mackay School of Mines Building. At the far end of the Quad, the Mackay Science Hall looms just east of the campus' first structure, Morrill Hall. And there is the football field-sized Quad itself, modeled on Thomas Jefferson's design of the University of Virginia Lawn.
The Mackay statue was created by Gutzon Borglum, who later carved Mount Rushmore.
Photo: Scott T. Smith
The statue of Mackay (rhymes with khaki) was created by sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who later carved Mount Rushmore. The statue-so perfectly placed to commemorate the only Comstock baron whose heirs gave something back to the state that made them wealthy-ended up on the "campus on the hill" only because state officials thought it was inappropriate for the Capitol in Carson City.
However, following its dedication in 1908, the statue helped bring important changes to the Reno campus. During the next 30 years, the Mackay clan bequeathed the university more than $1.5 million for the mining school's endowment, the Quad, an athletic field, land acquisitions, and the science hall. The result is a picturesque campus that still has the tall elms, substantial buildings, and leafy beauty that attracted Hollywood movie makers in the 1940s.
Today the campus makes for an intriguing walking tour. Strolling the grounds-perhaps on a football Saturday when the leaves have turned red and yellow-a visitor can explore museums, historic buildings, and old student haunts.
The main campus encompasses 60 major buildings on 200 acres. There are six colleges, a division of continuing education, and four independent schools, including the School of Medicine-all to serve 12,500 undergraduate and graduate students at a university now noted as much for its world-class research as its traditional fortes in the fields of agriculture, mining, and the liberal arts.
The grounds were named a state arboretum by the 1985 Nevada Legislature because of their wide variety of trees, shrubs, and flowers. The core campus, framed by ivy-covered brick edifices and the tree-lined Quad, has been designated a National Historic District. Morrill Hall, with its Victorian form and bell tower, and the Mackay School of Mines Building, with its tile dome supported by four 28-foot columns of Indiana limestone, also are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Where to start a walking tour? John Mackay's Statue is an obvious choice. Then turn to the Mackay Mines Building to begin a tour of the Quad-and beyond.
The Mackay School of Mines Building, dedicated in 1908 with the Mackay statue, was commissioned by Clarence Mackay, son of the mining tycoon, and designed by the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White. Above the stairs leading to the second floor, one sees a 24-foot model of a plesiosaur fossil, a reminder of the marine giants that swam in the ocean covering California 90 million years ago. During a $10-million remodel, engineers recently improved the 1908 building's resistance to earthquakes by lifting the foundation off the ground, installing a moat, and placing 44 Teflon slider plates and 64 base-isolation columns in the sub-basement. Mackay Mines is just the second historic building in the United States with base-isolation retrofitting.
Inside the oak main doors stands the three-story atrium of the new $3.5 million DeLaMare Library, home to more than
85,000 volumes and 24,000 government publications. Visitors can admire a large, panoramic oil of Gold Hill, painted
by Nevada artist Cyrinus B. McClellan in 1876. On the mezzanine level, the Mary B. Ansari MapLibrary offers 136,000
maps to researchers. The school's two-story W.M. Keck Museum exhibits more than 6,000 mineral samples, fossils, and
rare mining artifacts and machinery. Its design, featuring rows of oak-and-glass display cases, virtually unchanged
for nearly six decades, was taken from the Minerals Museum at Columbia University.
While exploring the basement gallery, the visitor will find two public rooms. One holds an old-time mining engineer's office with assay equipment, mineral specimens, Shoshone baskets, and photos of the Pioneer Mine near Beatty, where J.D. O'Brien served from 1901 to 1938. When O'Brien died, the contents of his office were boxed, shipped to the mines school, and reassembled. In the other basement room visitors can see a selection of the Mackay Silver Collection (other pieces are exhibited at the Silver Legacy in downtown Reno). In 1876, the Mackay family authorized Tiffany's to produce a unique silver service. Two hundred silversmiths worked two years to produce 1,350 pieces weighing 14,718 ounces. Parts of the set, used by royalty at lavish Paris and London dinner parties in the 1880s, have been displayed at university functions. Under guard, of course.
Architect Stanford White, who designed Mackay's house on Long Island and the original Madison Square Garden, helped develop the plans for the Mackay Mines Building and the adjoining quadrangle-the Quad. Students gather here each May for commencement. It also provides a colorful, pleasant setting for small picnics, concerts, and quiet reflection. The elm trees rising 40 to 60 feet were planted in 1908.
White's firm modeled the Quad on the lines of Jefferson's design for the University of Virginia Lawn. UVA officials had sought White's help after a fire damaged Jefferson's Rotunda in 1895. However, the flamboyant architect did not see the blooming of the University of Nevada Quad. White was shot to death June 25, 1906, on the roof of Madison Square Garden in a lovers' quarrel. (The incident was portrayed in the Ray Milland-Joan Collins movie, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, and E.L. Doctorow's novel, Ragtime.) After White's death, a collaborating firm, Bliss and Faville of San Francisco, took over the Quad's design.
Borglum with son Lincoln.
Spurring its evolution, Clarence Mackay encouraged President Joseph Stubbs in 1911 to visit the University of Virginia. Upon his return, Stubbs outlined his vision for the flat and undistinguished plain of desert dirt on the Reno campus. He wrote, "We can in time make the University of Nevada as beautiful, as attractive, and as inspiring as the University of Virginia is today."
The Quad remains an intimate and quiet haven that harks back to the days of leather helmets and sock hops-an era when footballs were drop-kicked for points and bonfires roused students' spirits on Homecoming weekend. The green expanse, touched by fingers of amber leaves in autumn, is listed as a "Jeffersonian academic village" on the National Register of Historic Places.
UNR in the 1930s.
At the south end of the Quad, Morrill Hall was the first structure built on campus after the university was moved from Elko to Reno in 1885. (The site in Northeastern Nevada had proved to be impractical, as nearly half of the state's residents lived in the Reno-Carson City area.) Morrill Hall was a one-building university-housing the president's and registrar's offices, classrooms, a library, museum, and living quarters for the groundskeeper. The hall was named after U.S. Senator Justin S. Morrill of Vermont, author of the 1862 Land-Grant College Act that led to the development of the University of Nevada and similar institutions.
Morrill Hall was restored in the 1970s and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. It now houses the offices of Alumni Relations, the Alumni Association, the vice president for university advancement, the University of Nevada, Reno Foundation, and the University of Nevada Press.
Morrill Hall opened in 1886 as the first building erected on the new Reno campus after the University's
move from Elko. Morrill, which housed classrooms, offices, and a library, was renovated in the 1970s.
Photo: Sallie Pryce
Directly west of Morrill is the ivy-covered Clark Administration Building, the campus library from 1927 to 1962. It
is named for Nevada native Alice McManus Clark, wife of William A. Clark Jr., whose father was a Montana senator, railroad
financier, and namesake of Clark County (Las Vegas). Alice Clark had funded a number of U of N scholarships, and
after her death her husband provided money for a building in her name. Clark Administration now houses the offices of
the president, several vice presidents, and Admissions and Records. Outside Clark's south entrance, one can see a "Gold
Star" plaque honoring 81 university students who lost their lives during World War II.
Last fall, the university dedicated its new Honor Court on the Quad's southwest corner. The park-like court of Sierra White Granite recognizes the many students, staff, faculty, and philanthropists who have contributed to the growth of the university and the community.
North of the Honor Court stands Jones Visitor Center, the university's first library, built in 1914. Frederick DeLongchamps, a prominent Reno architect who designed the U.S. Post Office in downtown Reno and the Washoe County Courthouse, produced the plans. The building is now home to the Office of Communications and the Office for Prospective Students. In the lobby, visitors can see a collection of historical campus photos.
Across the Quad stands the Mackay Science Hall, the final major gift to the university from Clarence Mackay. The Georgian-style structure also was designed by DeLongchamps. Opened in 1930, it houses the department of geography, the Nevada Geriatric Education Center, the Graham and Jean Sanford Center for Aging, and the Office of International Education.
The main quadrangle was known as the Mackay Quad for many years. The Quad was modeled on Thomas
Jefferson's Lawn at the University of Virginia.
Photo: Sallie Pryce
North of Mackay Science, the Laxalt Mineral Engineering Center (1983) and the Laxalt Mineral Research Center (1989),
both named for former U.S. Senator Paul Laxalt, are part of the Mackay School of Mines. The Laxalt Mineral Engineering
Center houses the Nevada Seismological Laboratory, where visitors can watch the lab's monitors track seismic activity
in the West. The lab's Web site (www.seismo.unr.edu) is extremely popular.
The six-story Ansari Business Building (1982), north of the Quad, is named for Professor Nazir Ansari and contains the Anthropology Research Museum. The exhibits in Room 528 feature student displays in the museology program and a collection of Shoshone, Washoe, and Paiute baskets. (Call 784-6704 for a tour. The museum is closed in summer.)
Getchell Library (1962), with more than 950,000 volumes, is the largest library in the state. The building was named for Noble H. Getchell, Nevada mining tycoon and Lander County state senator. Gutzon Borglum's son-in-law, David Vhay Sr., ran the Reno architectural firm that designed the library.
A replica of the Ghiberti Gates of the Baptistry in Florence, Italy, stands on the library's second-floor mezzanine. Modeled after Lorenzo Ghiberti's golden "Gate of Paradise," the bronze doors depict scenes from the Old Testament. The gates were a gift from the estate of Grace Wilson Vanderbilt, wife of General Cornelius Vanderbilt. They once stood in the family's Fifth Avenue mansion and were accepted by the university in 1948 as the result of a friendship between President John Moseley and the Vanderbilts. After arriving in Reno in 1949, the gates were stored unceremoniously in quonset huts on campus. The Board of Regents, reminded that the gates were languishing in storage, had them placed in the library upon its opening. (Grace Vanderbilt was no great fan of the gates, even on the day she first saw them in 1914, according to her son, Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., who later lived in Reno. "'Why, it's the Black Hole of Calcutta!' Mother exclaimed as we walked past the great Ghiberti bronze doors into the central great hall," Cornelius Jr. wrote. "'I couldn't possibly live here!'")
Lincoln Hall is one of two dormitories that have served Nevada students for more than 100 years. The building is a good example of the late-19th-century Eclectic style. Completed in 1896 along with Manzanita Hall, which stands on the southwest corner of Manzanita Lake, Lincoln is rich in campus tradition. In 1989, when the university refurbished the hall, workers discovered two tabletops etched with the signatures of male residents dating back to 1917. The tables, originally in the reading room, had been "lost" in the building's basement for years. One table is on display in the hall's recreation room.
In the 1940s Lincoln Hall and the campus provided a traditional college setting for several popular films, including Mr. Belvedere Goes to College, starring Clifton Webb and Shirley Temple; Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble, with Mickey Rooney; Mother Is a Freshman, with Van Johnson and Loretta Young; and Apartment for Peggy, starring Jeanne Crain and William Holden.
Van Johnson and Loretta Young talk after class at Manzanita Lake in Mother Is a Freshman (1949).
In Apartment for Peggy, student extras skated past the lead actors on Manzanita Lake. The lake was formed in 1911 when the Orr irrigation ditch was dammed. A wooden tram was constructed soon after to separate the lake from Manzanita Bowl. Steel rails and concrete replaced the wooden tram in the late 1960s. Visitors can see Canada geese and swans, fixtures on the lake since the 1930s. The current adult-swan couple are named Olivia and Sigmund.
Manzanita Hall, still a women's dormitory after a century of continuous operation, was originally called "the Cottage." Between 1896 and 1901, President Stubbs and his family lived in an apartment on the first floor. In the 1950s, basketball inventor James Naismith's widow, Florence, served as housemother there.
The university has grown northward toward Mackay Stadium-where football fans will gather on Saturdays this fall-and the School of Medicine. The newest building on campus, the neoclassical College of Education, towers over an area known as the Lower Quad. This natural bowl behind Getchell Library was the site of the original Mackay Stadium.
Visitors can attend concerts, plays, and art shows in the Church Fine Arts Complex. The campus' Fleischmann Planetarium is the state's only planetarium and science museum. The Nevada Historical Society, which is closed for remodeling till 1999, houses the state's oldest museum. The bookstore in Jot Travis Student Union has many books, gifts, and Wolf Pack wear.
Visitors also can admire Gutzon Borglum's statue of John Mackay on the Quad. Nearly a century ago, a member of the
state Board of Capitol Commissioners remarked that the statue had no place in Carson City-it would "clutter up the Capitol
grounds," he said. Today, Borglum's tribute to Mackay seems right at home on the campus the Irish miner's family helped