History & Preservation: Reno’s Historic Wells Avenue Neighborhood

Posted: 2/24/2010 Last Updated: 2/24/2010

 Written by: Barrie Schuster


The Wells Avenue Neighborhood has a unique and colorful history. The Wells Addition, which covers the area from Holcomb to Wells Avenue between Ryland and Cheney Streets, was created around 1900 when agricultural land belonging to sheep rancher Sheldon O. Wells was subdivided. Future subdivisions such as Meadow View, McCormick’s, Southern and Burke’s Additions would eventually come together like pieces of a puzzle to form what is now commonly known as the Wells Avenue Neighborhood. The V and T Railroad ran along Holcomb Avenue until 1950 which is the neighborhood’s western boundary and trolley cars once ran from downtown, along Moran Street and down Wells Avenue.


The subdivision’s first homes, constructed along Holcomb and Moran Streets were mostly Queen Anne and Queen Anne cottage styles. By 1910, Arts and Crafts homes with wide porches were more common, and by the 1920’s, the classic bungalow was prevalent, often utilizing local brick. The Mission Revival style, which typically features stucco, arches and parapet roof lines, was also popular during the bungalow period. Some of the area’s most unique homes are recognized as being built in the Vernacular style and add an eccentric touch to the overall character of the neighborhood. By the 1940’s, small World War II era cottages without basements began to appear on the remaining vacant lots between the area’s older homes and on blocks of undeveloped land to the southeast.


The 1960’s and 70’s saw many of the original residents of the Wells Avenue Neighborhood move to the expanding suburbs, leaving their old homes behind as rentals. During this time, the city re zoned the Wells Addition for high density infill and before long, large apartment buildings began to pop up where homes had been demolished. While the residents were busy fleeing to the suburbs, new, modern shopping centers lured consumers away from the retail environment of Wells Avenue. The extreme change that this era brought had an influence on the neighborhood for years, but now the cycle has come full circle and the area’s historic homes along with the pedestrian oriented shopping experience of Wells Avenue are back in style.


Most of the original residents of the Wells Avenue Neighborhood were from the working class and many were from Italian American families. There were musicians, landscapers, stone masons, teachers, lumber mill workers and small business owners. They made their small homes beautiful and were proud of what they had. There were also a few well known residents who chose to make the neighborhood their home. Nightclub owner Philip Curti lived in the large brick Mission Revival home at 137 Burns. Jazz musician and El Patio Amusement Company owner Tony Pecetti owned three small brick cottages on top of Wonder Street hill and lived in a one bedroom home in the Wonder Street alley for almost 45 years. Model Dairy founder Charles Brooks lived in the famous two story wood shingled home at 331 Moran Street and author and educator Buck Wheeler grew up in the home at 911 Wheeler Avenue.


In many ways, the current residents of the neighborhood are full of the same pioneering spirit as the original residents. With the neighborhood’s convenient location near downtown and the Truckee River, the Wells Avenue Neighborhood has attracted new owner occupants who have moved back in to the old bungalows that were rentals for so many decades. The current residents are rebuilding the neighborhood both physically and by re establishing the community.


Local architects Jack Hawkins and Baron Hershberger and steel artist Paolo Cividino transformed a block on Cheney Street by redesigning and rehabilitating the original brick homes and constructing new, modern, energy efficient townhomes on the back of the lots. Their design features shared outdoor spaces, a community garden and an aesthetic that combines old and new in an unconventional yet complementary way. Photos and stories of the Cheney Street Project were featured in Las Vegas Architecture magazine and Reno Magazine. Jack has won numerous awards for his work on this block including two honor awards from the American Institute of Architecture, a national award for kitchen design and a City of Reno property improvement award.


The Wells Avenue Neighborhood Plan, an element of the City of Reno Master Plan, was adopted by City Council in 2008. It contains important changes for the area including architectural and landscaping requirements to ensure that the character and scale of future infill development is compatible with the established neighborhood. It also contains a neighborhood action plan with steps for increasing public safety and reducing nuisances, increasing the presence of trees, pedestrian amenities, lighting and public art. It addresses the need for a façade improvement plan for Wells Avenue businesses as well as the need for historic preservation.


A group of eight residents came together after meeting at the public hearings for the Wells Avenue Neighborhood Plan and eventually formed a group called the Wells Addition Neighborhood Group. This group evolved into the Wells Addition Neighborhood Watch which focuses on the neighborhood west of Wells. They have met once a month for the past two years and have a large membership. They have embraced community involvement and have been successful at reducing crime and blight by partnering with local law enforcement and code enforcement. They worked with the Public Works Department of the City to create a special assessment district for new sidewalks, have done a lighting study to facilitate the installation of thirteen new streetlights and worked with City Staff to legally limit the number of liquor stores allowed within the Neighborhood Plan boundaries. They even have their own newsletter. The West of Wells neighborhood e- newsletter is a collaboration from neighborhood watch members which features current events, meeting updates and history.


Over 100 trees were planted in the neighborhood by volunteers last spring during the Roots for Wells tree planting project. Grants were obtained to purchase trees that were planted along the residential streets in the landscaping strips. The City of Reno Urban Forestry Commission oversaw this project to ensure the best planting locations and tree species were selected. On April 24, 2010, 50 more trees will be planted. The International Fiesta on Wells, a family oriented festival and parade, is in its third year and will happen on June 13, 2010. The Wells Avenue Merchants and Property Owners Association is one of the most organized and active merchants groups in the city and have met regularly for many years.


Anyone who hasn’t been down Wells Avenue in awhile should come back and see the transformation that is happening. The Reno Little Theater is currently constructing their new theater on Arroyo at Wells. El Mundo Latino western and bridal wear store purchased and restored the abandoned building at Arroyo and Wells which formerly served as a furniture store and grocery store, and Taco John’s, located at Cheney and Wells for the past 30 years just constructed a brand new building, reaffirming their long standing commitment to Wells Avenue. Other new additions to the neighborhood include the Rainshadow Charter School and Paul Mitchell Hair Academy.


We are lucky to have many long time residents and business owners who can share their first hand experiences with the neighborhood over the years. This mixture of old and new has helped the residents appreciate the connection of past, present and future. There are numerous businesses that have been open along Wells Avenue for more than 25 years including Rapscallion’s, Taco John’s, Pettin’ Place, Truckee Meadow Herbs, Reno Antiques, Bill Glazer Hair Salon, PJ’s Restaurant, Lucke’s Saloon, Ryan’s Saloon, Corrigan’s Pub, Juicy’s Hamburgers, Lee Joseph Pool Supply, Mr. Barber and others.


The Wells Avenue Neighborhood is in the process of being surveyed for possible designation as the city’s next conservation district. The City of Reno, through its recently adopted Historic Plan, has identified the steps for this process, which includes an architectural survey of all structures within the boundary of the proposed district. A conservation district does not regulate what a property owner can do with his property but is intended to recognize an area’s unique architecture and history and foster a sense of community pride. The city’s only other officially designated conservation district is Powning’s Addition. Members of the Wells Addition Neighborhood Group began the survey last year and this spring, the UNR Planning Club will continue to work on it . Mella Harmon will provide training to help the group recognize and identify the various architectural styles found in the area. The survey will focus on a four by ten block area that contains some of the neighborhood’s most beautiful homes. The proposed boundaries will be Ryland and Vassar from north to south and Holcomb and Locust from west to east. This establishes Wells Avenue as the central axis of the district. The residents hope to include as much history as possible with the survey. Anyone with any memories, stories or photos of the former residents of the Wells Avenue area are encouraged to contact Barrie Schuster at junipersage@hotmail.com or 775-544-6744 so that the legacy of the Wells Avenue Neighborhood can be preserved for future generations to appreciate. If you would like to subscribe to the West of Wells neighborhood newsletter, please email dagnyck@gmail.com.


The author, Barrie Schuster, a local Realtor and history enthusiast, moved to the Wells Avenue Neighborhood six years ago.


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