Reno Train Station

For some reason I’ve recently developed an attraction to trains and train stations.  There’s something about the rail that connects people, and I find that fascinating.  I don’t mean the obvious physical connection between locales, rather I mean the connection among various generations.

When I’m on a train I feel like I’m taking a path that was traveled by people before me, and that’s meaningful.  I noticed this a few months ago when I was riding the New York Subway.  It was strange because I always ride the Subway in NYC.  For some reason, however, this trip lingered with me for a few weeks.  After that very unremarkable and completely routine trip, I borrowed a book about Subway from the local library and listened to a few podcast episodes about the topic.  Surprisingly, my interest quickly spread to learning about other train stations.  For reasons that I have not yet been able to identify, I started to feel inspired by these places. Given that I’ve developed such a deep reaction in that regard, I figured that I’d start to blog about the stations I visit.

I’m starting these train-themed blog posts in Reno, Nevada.  Why? Because this week I happened to have been in Reno for work and the train station was right next to my hotel.  I mean, I walked out of the door to the hotel and I was literally standing right in front of the train station.  I took that as a sign.


Photo from Amtrak’s Great American Stations website

To a certain extent it’s unfortunate that I chose Reno as my first train blog. That’s because the Reno Amtrak station makes me angry.

The Reno station is similar a lot of other stations in one regard.  There is an historic structure attached to a newer structure.  Most stations are like that for an obvious reason; train tracks across the country were laid generations ago by rail companies like B&O or Northern Pacific Railway.  After years of consolidation we have the behemoth that we call Amtrak today.  In Reno, like most cities, the original rail company built a station structure ages ago and there were additions along the way, including a facility that was needed to make it functional by today’s standards.  According to the website Great American Stations,

“The Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) station is the fourth one to stand on the downtown site. The first depot, built in 1869, burned down in the Reno fire of 1879. The second station opened a decade later, but it too succumbed to fire and was destroyed. The third station was bought by the SP in 1925, but the company chose to replace it the next year with a larger structure designed in the Mediterranean Revival style then popular with the SP.”

The nice part is that Amtrak saved the original station. The unfortunate part is that today the original station is a dump.

The old Southern Pacific station is a very basic looking structure. It’s purported to be built in the Mediterranean Revival Style, and while I’m sure that’s technically true, it doesn’t seem to have much style at all.  Don’t get me wrong, it looks like it was once — and could have continued to be — a lovely little building. But years of unnecessary neglect has made it a sad structure.  I’ll tell you the truth — it photographs a lot better than it looks in real life.  Maybe that’s why I don’t see much of any sort of style in it today.

The original station looks like it consisted of one large waiting area and bathrooms. There are large windows in the main hall, most likely to maximize the amount of light during an era when electricity either wasn’t available or was expensive. There are a few other doors that are now padlocked, but I’m thinking that they used to lead outside to the tracks.  It’s tough to tell because the tracks were all put underground in a massive public works project a few years ago.  I read that in the a makeshift museum they created in the new portion of the building.  “Museum” is a generous description for sure— it consists of a few glass display cases with newspaper clippings and some artifacts discovered during the excavation of the tunnel.

The ticket counter seems to have been located in that large waiting area. I say “seems” to have been located there because there is a big opening on one wall that has an arch at the top, but it’s covered up by sheetrock.  They basically inserted a smaller sheetrock wall into the opening, but they left a little gap at the top, so you can see that this was an opening at one time.  It’s centrally located in the room, so logic dictates that it was the ticket counter. It’s a shame, because when you peek around the edges of the sheetrock it seems like it might be interesting back there.  I just don’t understand why they couldn’t have used just the smallest bit of imagination with the space.  My gut tells me that it’s probably used for storage now.

The current ticket counter is located in the adjoining, new structure that was built by Amtrak in 2005.  They tried to build that new building to match the older one.  When you look at the facility from the outside the two parts of the station resemble one another, but it’s abundantly clear that whomever designed the new structure didn’t give much of a crap.  Sure, it is similar to the older portion, but it’s made out of that faux stucco garbage. It’s basically just a cheap attempt to add more space to the facility while giving architectural lip service to the historic part of the facility.  Oh, and regarding that faux stucco— it should be illegal to ever use it.  It always looks fake and cheap.  Always.

Whenever I try to measure the worth of a building being developed today, I ask this question: Will someone want to preserve this building in 100 years?  When it comes to the Reno Amtrak station, there are two ways to answer that question:  First, no, because there is nothing remarkable about the building. Second: The point is moot because this boring-ass box is not going to make it to 100.

In addition to it’s outward manifestation— that of a plain older-but-historic building attached to a newer, unremarkable, bland, glorified shed — this building represents something deeper as well:  government ineptitude.  The old building is falling apart.  The exterior paint is peeling excessively.  There are leaks everywhere.  The toilets are broken.  There is graffiti on the mirrors in the men’s room.  It’s just a shithole.  For a train system that struggles with attracting riders, they don’t give people a whole lot of reason to want to be in that building.  I think that if they were truly dependent upon market forces for their survival, they’d find a way to keep up basic maintenance.

If it’s so dilapidated, then why did I use the phrase “unnecessary neglect” earlier?  Listen, I understand that Amtrak has budget issues and that major projects just aren’t feasible.  And I understand that that’s probably why they created such a boring new wing.  But you don’t need to break the bank to use some imagination in design.  And you don’t need a new bond issue to maintain a relatively tiny facility like this one. It just needs someone to care.  Sure, now the maintenance issues have added up, but the type of things that are wrong with this building most likely deteriorated over time.  It wouldn’t have been so expensive to fix the one toilet when it broke years ago.  The chipping paint was probably manageable when it first started to peel.  But the years of neglecting the most basic maintenance issues have now created a relatively costly situation.  And that’s what makes me mad.  It didn’t have to be that way— all you needed was people who cared enough to address the issues when they were manageable.  And that is why I think this station reveals the government’s ineptitude.

Let’s look at the bright(er) side. The older building has a little charm.

Just a little.

The building is sort of quaint. It has an almost utilitarian feel to it— like they built a simple box because that’s all that was required.  A waiting room and bathrooms.  That’s all people would need as they waited to board the train.  And you can envision how the tracks must have been placed right alongside of that older main room for easy access. Simple, almost elegant.

Okay maybe “elegant” is pushing it.  I don’t know if this was ever a beautiful station.  There is some detail here and there, and there are sturdy wooden benches that have stood the test of time.  But the accoutrements aren’t all that interesting, and it’s basically just a large room. But it is quaint.  And I think we can learn a little something from the way the building is laid out on the site.  to some extent, it gives us a glimpse into an earlier time.

The station isn’t set back from the street much at all.   It looks like the structure goes almost all the way to the lot line.  That alone gives you a sense of how different the area must have been when it was first built.  Like it was part of a stereotypical western downtown where everything was purposefully placed close to each other.  Today downtown areas have a different feel because of modern zoning laws.  Laws today require developers to include bigger sidewalks and larger building setbacks for their structures so that tall buildings don’t create a cavernous feel and cast ominous shadows across the entire area.  Go to Wall Street in New York City to see what I mean. The tall, older buildings in the financial district have no set backs and the entire Wall Street area is devoid of sunlight as a result.

So one might see this building as a throwback. A reflection of a time when people built sturdy, simple structures that accomplished their goal with little flair. One might consider that a noble, humble approach that’s diametrically opposed, for instance, to something like the ostentatious Union Station in Washington DC. And it’s because of that sentiment that I think: in 100 years people will want to save this building.  Well, half of it, at least.


A note about the pictures: Some of the photos are mine, but a few of them were taken from the web.  Also,  the awesome video is from a site called Manusfilms that I found on YouTube.  I didn’t include my own photos exclusively because I didn’t really know I’d be blogging about this until after I left Reno and I started to write about the trip in my journal.  In the future I’ll make sure that all of the photos are mine.  But for today, I supplemented my pics with other people’s work and I thank Manusfilms for their great work.