Nevada Museum of Art plans major expansion. That means relocating two historical Reno homes

See a time lapse view of the historic Humphrey House move through downtown Reno on April 7, 2019. Jason Bean, RGJ

Cue another round of historical Reno homes hunting for a new place to live.

In September, the Nevada Museum of Art bought a parcel of land next door to its downtown Reno location as part of a planned 50,000 square foot expansion. Sitting on that land are two historical homes that were previously owned by four generations of a Nevada family.

"We have no plans to demo those houses, I can tell you that," said museum executive director and CEO David Walker in an interview.

Those houses are next door to the Levy Mansion, which is also owned by the museum (that mansion is home to Sundance Books and Music). The independent bookstore is not going anywhere, Walker said.

Right now, the museum is inside a 70,000 square-foot, four-story slate-black structure that’s surrounded by an office building, the historical buildings and two streets.

"You see the building comes to a very blunt end (on the south side). That was not so much by design, but at the time the owners did not want to sell," Walker said of the newly acquired parcel.

Temporarily, the museum plans to rent out the properties, but long term the homes will likely have to find new addresses. The homes — at 448 Hill St. and 131 California Ave. — most recently were law offices and a real estate company.

"We’ve been contacted already by several parties in the community who have inquired about the future of the large house," said Walker of the Howell House on Hill Street.

MAP: Location of the two historic homes that will need to relocate when the Nevada Museum of Art expands:

The museum, however, needs to grow with the population of Nevada, as it is the state’s only accredited art museum, Walker said.

Without obstructing views of the $6.2 million rooftop Nightingale Sky Room completed in 2016, the museum plans to expand both its 3,000-square-foot permanent collection and its 2,000-square-foot Center for Art and Environment, an archive of creative works focused on telling the story of human and natural habitats. Officials also want to grow the in-house classroom space used for arts education.

The upcoming expansion — which also includes building a sister facility in Las Vegas — will not take place for years, Walker said, and will require much fundraising before any plans or timelines become concrete.

So what’s the history?

Both the Howell House and the house on California Avenue were owned by the prominent Howell family, originally of Tonopah.

The Howell House — completed in 1916 — was first owned by Maude Howell, widow of an influential Tonopah bank examiner, and her mother, Rose Haines, according to original householders’ directories.

Maude was the "personal director" of academy-award winning Englishman George Arliss, according to 1930s reports from the Reno Evening Gazette. Arliss starred in silent films and alongside young Bette Davis.

Soon after her husband died of a heart attack, Maude Howell, pregnant with her daughter Betty Adele, moved from Tonopah to Reno with her three sons, Eugene, Jack and James, according to the Historic Reno Preservation Society. James later moved to Hollywood to work in the "motion pictures industry," an article in the Reno Evening Gazette reported.

Maude had the adjacent home at 131 California Ave. built in 1928 to keep close her son, Eugene, according to the Historic Reno Preservation Society. Eugene, a respected National Guardsman, and his wife, Neal, moved into the more spacious Howell House after Maude and Rose died. Neal sold the Howell House in 1977 to David Sinai and Associates, which is why some know it as the Sinai Building.

Preservationists hopeful for a happy ending for the homes

Debbie Hinman, of the Historic Reno Preservation Society, said she’s glad to hear that the museum wants to re-home the houses, but she’s also a bit doubtful of the prospects since neither is on the Historic Register. The Register protects local buildings that are deemed historically significant enough that they are protected under municipal code.

"I’ve seen failures, and that kind of colors my perspective," Hinman said. "I appreciate the fact that (the museum has) good intentions, but, when that parcel sold, I thought, ‘Uh-oh, here we go.’"

In the past few years, Renoites have struggled to preserve endangered Victorian and post-Victorian fixer uppers. It can take years to find buyers, though the houses are often sold for little more than $1. The commitment to remodel the homes, and successfully move them, however, is more burdensome than buyers realize, Hinman said.

In the Gateway District just south of the University of Nevada, Reno, for instance, a dozen historical homes are threatened with demolition if they are not spoken for by early June.

Until recently, it appeared that all but two of the homes were destined for tear-down. The University of Nevada, Reno has said the area between Interstate 80 and Ninth Street and between Virginia Street and Evans Avenue is part of the university’s master plan. Nine of the 12 homes may be saved, according to a document obtained by the Reno Gazette Journal.

One of the homes, the 1908 Humphrey House bungalow, was rescued earlier this month but it was a clumsy affair that had to be postponed initially because the house exceeded weight limits. Hinman, who used to do walking tours of the Gateway District said she’ll be doing her last tour of the soon-to-be-disbanded dozen houses next month.

"We’ve lost so much history," Hinman said. "But I think it’s important to remember the legacies of families like the Howells. It makes a community more interesting when you see the comparison of the old and new, rather than homogeneous buildings that all look the same."

Hinman said the West is not like the East Coast, where cities have historical homes "on every corner."

Houses such as the Howell House are what we have, Hinman said, and "give us an idea of the people that made this town.".

Growth and history have conflicted before in Reno

Walker noted that museum officials have facilitated the rearrangement of Reno’s urban landscape before in order to expand.

In 2001, the museum auctioned off two mid-century houses on Hill Street that originally hosted women seeking temporary Nevada residency for quickie divorces.

Northern Nevada HOPES, a nonprofit organization that provides outpatient services to HIV-positive patients, bought and relocated a two-story, 1940 house. It now serves as HOPES administrative offices on West Fifth Street.

A social worker and hobbyist renovator planned to relocate 434 Hill St., built in 1928, to a lot in Old Southwest Reno, the Reno Gazette Journal reported in 2001, though it is unclear whether the house was transplanted successfully. A third house, at 428 Hill St., did not get auctioned off and was demolished.

The land on which those houses sat is the foundation for the current museum building.

"At the end of the day, we understand the value of these older homes," Walker said, adding that "they don’t make them like they used to."

Jenny Kane covers arts and culture in Northern Nevada, as well as the dynamic relationship between the state and the growing Burning Man community. She also covers the state’s burgeoning cannabis industry (Check out her podcast, the Potcast, on iTunes.) Support her work in Reno by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.

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