“All Work & No Play” nonexistent for Reno artist community

It’s a typical Monday morning in downtown Reno, Nevada. Holly English wakes to her dog, Oreo, licking her nose. After lighting a cigarette and making herself a classic bacon-and-eggs breakfast, she grabs a leash to take Oreo for a quick stroll around the block. There aren’t many people out this early on a weekday, so to English, the environment around her is peaceful and welcomed. After returning to her apartment, she starts to prepare for another workday. But English has a much more alternative job than most. She doesn’t have to leave her home, yet her ideal work environment constantly surrounds her. Instead of a desk and chair, she curls up on the plush window seat that overlooks downtown Virginia Street while in the comfort of her pajamas. She sits down with a canvas and paintbrush instead of a computer and mouse.

A day like that isn’t a rare occurrence where English lives. She resides in the Riverside Artist Lofts, an artist-only community where work and living collides. Located at 17 S. Virginia St., Artspace Projects Inc. created the lofts to provide an environment where artists can live and work in a place of like-minded individuals.

“It puts you in the whole art environment,” English said. “It keeps us involved in the artist community here in Reno.”

The building features 35 lofts spread over the upper five floors and is also home to the Sierra Arts Foundation and Wild River Grille.

However, the building also boasts a colorful history that precedes its reincarnation  as a home for colorful artists. Although this piece of Reno real estate has been occupied since the days of the Comstock gold rush, In the early 1900s the property was occupied by Harry Gosse’s Riverside Hotel, which unfortunately burned to the ground in 1922. George Wingfield bought the property in 1924 with plans to rebuild the hotel. He hired Frederic DeLongchamps, a well-known architect in the west, to design the hotel. Construction began in 1926. After re-opening, the Riverside Hotel became a popular and classy destination for those coming to Nevada to obtain a quick and easy divorce.

The popularity didn’t last. Ownership turned over several times, and in 1987 it finally closed. Plans were in play to demolish the building, but fortunately there were a few people in Reno that knew about the history and potential that the Riverside Hotel had.

Holly English has her loft decorated with the many projects she has created over the years.

Jill Berryman was the Executive Director of the Sierra Arts Foundation at the time, and she saw an amazing opportunity. She reached out to the City of Reno and Artspace Projects Inc. with hopes of saving and renovating the building.

Artspace Projects Inc. isn’t a stranger to requests such as these. Although it started out as a group aiding artists in finding temporary workspace, they blossomed into a non-profit organization that developed living spaces for artists.

Along with a small team of other like-minded people, Berryman approached Artspace in Minneapolis and attempted to convince them to come to Reno. Funding was the main thing that was lacking in order for the people at Artspace to support the project, but in late 1999 everything fell into place.

In December 1999, the building inspection showed a rough and dilapidated structure. However, Berryman  and Will Law, the Artspace representative for the project, had a much different vision for the future of the Riverside Hotel.

“We saw the opportunity for bright, open spaces,” Berryman said. “We saw the design of the units in our heads, and it brought together the history of the building that is so distinctly Nevada.”

The ground-breaking for the renovations took place on Dec. 22, 1999.

“It was like a modern-day barn raising,” Law said. “A lot of people came. It was a collaborative effort to save a historic building.”

Many people attended and were quite excited to see the new persona the historic building was going to have, and for a short time the excitement lingered. But in January 2000, the project received a “stop-work” notice due to severe health risks the renovation of the building exposed. Asbestos, mold and lead were found throughout the building threatening the construction workers involved in the renovation. The project shut down for 45 days.

Although the asbestos and mold set back the projected July 2000 opening, the project was eventually able to proceed. The hype of the Riverside’s repurposing really began to highlight and accentuate Reno’s art scene while also shedding light on the historical points of the downtown and midtown area.

“Reno has a hard art market,” said Craig Smyres, a resident sculptor and painter of the Riverside Artist Lofts. “The building has helped develop Reno into an artistic destination and has opened up room for easier access to collaboration.”

As word of the project spread, interest in the space, which was intended to house artists in a creative community, grew. The Sierra Arts Foundation and Artspace began accepting applications and with that, the interview process began.

Martina Young, a professional dancer and board member of the Sierra Arts Foundation, had been with the process since the early discussions of the renovation. She submitted an application and participated in an interview for consideration.

“The interview was a conversation with Artspace administrators,” Young said. “There was a discussion about my work and an opportunity to share the vision I had as a Riverside artist resident.”

Numerous other artists also shared similar visions. They received around 250 applications from artists wanting to live and work in the lofts.

An outside view of the Riverside Hotel. Photo courtesy of Sierra Arts Foundation.

“It was a very formal and interesting process,” Smyres said. “For a lot of artists it was intimidating, but criteria were simple and non-critical. It wasn’t about how good of an artist you were. It was just about if you were a serious and real artist. But I had been involved in the process, and I knew a lot of people that were in the project, so it wasn’t so much a nervous experience as it was a celebration.”

The hopeful artists were just as excited as the group in charge for the grand opening of the spaces. On Oct. 17, 2000 the lofts officially opened their doors for residency. The celebration consisted of performances by local artists and the welcoming wishes of the surrounding communities.

Since moving in, the artists have personalized their working and living space to their full advantage, and the artists that occupy the spaces are even more interesting than the lofts themselves.

Martina Young moved to Reno from Los Angeles many years ago. She became the Director of Dance at the University of Nevada and joined the Nevada Arts Council Residence Program. She resigned from her position at the university in 1994, but became the first resident to move into the Riverside Artist Lofts. Young has been occupying her loft for 14 years.

“The lofts provide an in-house, up-close and personal community interaction informed by the always and already present awareness that you live by,” Young said. “It cultivates a certain kind of valuation in life.”

As a professional dancer, she wanted a space to rehearse her craft. She had a special wooden dance floor installed to assist in creating the ambiance she required. She calls her studio “The Lighthouse/Studio 5 O 2.”

“Before moving in, I was contemplating returning to Los Angeles,” Young said. “However, I had a particular vision for my loft as more than just my personal living space. It was envisioned as encompassing a communal space for cultural and political meet-and-greets, an intimate and alternative performance space for unique and challenging work, and a workshop laboratory for aesthetic inquiry.”

Craig Smyres had a much different idea for his loft. He, too, has lived there since the grand opening in 2000, and as a sculptor, things can get much messier and require a much different environment.

“It’s a workshop,” Smyres said. “It’s not a real home-y place. It’s much like a garage and I sleep right next to my work.”

A view into the studio of resident-artist, Holly English.

For multimedia artist, Holly English, she appreciates the inspiration she gathers from constantly being in an art-focused place. The strands of yarn and random paintbrushes on the furniture complement the bright and abstract canvases that line just about every inch of her wall. Her loft is decked out in her own personal work as well as a few collaborations from others in the building.

“It’s a close-knit community of eclectic people,” English said. “There’s so much to learn from the people around me. The things that people produce around here are amazing to see, and it’s constantly changing.”

The unique community provides benefits for the artistic community of Reno as well. The Riverside Artist Lofts has brought focus back to the river as the heart of the art community.

“It’s brought back life to the area,” Smyres said. “Socially there’s a lot more going on. It’s great for collaboration. There are so many different specialties in the city. The community has expanded exponentially. The Generator in Sparks and the artistic shops on Dickerson Road have brought in a bunch of artists from Burning Man. The publicity is bringing a much more physical presence to the artists here. The visitors of the city have a much more accessible way to see the art scene that nobody knows that Reno has.”

If the past is any indication to the future of this historic and remarkable building, there is a bright outlook for the Riverside Artist Lofts.

“New artists come through all of the time,” English said. “The building has been fixed to last for quite a few more decades which means that the community will be flourishing for a few more decades as well.”

With another long smoky breath out, she puts out her cigarette and walks to the window.

“A building like this goes away just about as easily as the hard-assed artists that live in it,” English said. “We won’t be disappearing any time soon.”