The River Inn west of Reno on W 4th Street is one of our great enigmas. How can this hulking remains of a hot springs resort still be sitting there vacant after more than 25 years, one of our great industrial archeology sites? I’ve had posts started about the River Inn for a couple of years, but there just wasn’t a whole lot of information available. Then an inquiry from renowriter came in with some new information that got me digging again.
The River Inn is built on the site of a natural hot spring, spewing 140 degree water into the Truckee from a granite bluff. Originally called Granite Hot Springs then later Lawton Hot Springs, there has been at least a roadhouse on the site since 1870. There is a generally accurate more detailed history HERE.
From the late 1920s until the opening of Interstate 80 in the early 1970s, Lawton Hot Springs was the western gateway to Reno along US 40, the cross-country Lincoln Highway. The resort continued to grow. It was a really peaceful place to wait for your divorce to come through!
By the 1970s, the resort had been renamed the River Inn and a motel and cabins had been added to the indoor and outdoor pools and baths. The property was purchased for $2.3M in 1979 by the family that controls Westlake Development Group in San Mateo (think Westlake Shopping Center and the entire Westlake district of Daly City). Then the River Inn as you see it today began to take shape.
Now we enter a period of gossip, hear-say, and urban legends. This is what I have been told or have read, but I can’t vouch 100% for its accuracy. The owners of the River Inn entered into a development agreement with some local movers and shakers to create a “world class” casino resort spa. The development group may (or may not) have been connected with Joe Conforte of Mustang Ranch fame. The casino / spa building that dominates the site today was completed in 1983 and work began on an expansion. One small problem – someone ran off with the money, nobody paid the contractors bankrupting many of them, and the whole scheme imploded. Supposedly, one of the developers ended up doing hard time for his involvement. By the time the legal mess was sorted out, 4th street was well into its decline, and the land owners just never found a feasible plan to reopen the facility.
Today, the fenced off property is used for SWAT training by Reno police, quite a sight the first time you experience it. There is a very cool portfolio of photographs from 2006 posted on Flickr.
But development attempts continue. Van Woert Bigotti Architechts, Reno’s best architects in my opinion, did a feasibility study in 2006 or so. The idea was to renovate the current casino structure, complete the expansion building, demo all the motel units, and build a 300 unit resort spa village spanning the river. There are some comments on this annotated site plan.
On the negative side, much of the project including the main building is in FEMA Flood Zone A.
The main entrance to the River Inn is over a grade crossing over the Southern Pacific Rail Road, and they are loath to allow greater access. This will require a “fly-over” the tracks from 4th Street higher up the hill to a parking structure. The trains will still sound their horns 4 times at the grade crossing and one 1/3 mile to the west of the project.
On the positive side, the Lawton Verdi sewer extension is complete, and the River Inn can connect to the city sewer system instead of septic. Reno has adopted the West 4th Street Transit Oriented Development Plan, mandating a greater level of development on the site (see the Western Gateway Post). Reno is counting on the River Inn becoming a major hub to allow the plan to be successful.
In the end? I can see the site being deed to the City / County as open space. Maybe a small roadhouse and hot springs spa would remain, sort of 1870 all over again. And that wouldn’t be at all bad.