A Brief History of the Reno Arch

Casinos in downtown Reno
Casinos in downtown Reno | © courtesy Visit Reno Tahoe
Lissa Townsend Rodgers

Many cities have an iconic structure, a visual symbol that immediately signifies a place. In Paris, it’s the Eiffel Tower, in New York it’s the Empire State Building, in London it’s Big Ben and in Reno it’s the Reno Arch. The Arch stands where Virginia Street meets Commercial Row, and for nearly a century now, it’s stood as an emblem of the city itself.

But, the arch wasn’t intended to be permanent, nor was it designed to celebrate the city of Reno. Built in 1926 as part of the Nevada Transcontinental Railways Exhibition, the city celebrated the completion of the Lincoln and Victory Highways. After the festivities ended, Reno’s City Council voted to keep the arch in place and announced a contest to find a new city slogan. A man from Sacramento, CA came up with “biggest little city in the world” and it was added below the “RENO” on the arch.

The Reno Arch in downtown Reno

The original Reno arch sign was a simple, metal structure dotted with neon and light bulbs. It stood for 40 years. In 1967, the original was replaced with a larger Googie-style sign that featured the city’s name on hexagonal plastic panels and a rotating starburst. The original arch went into storage. It was restored in 1994 as part of a set for the movie Cobb—about baseball player Ty Cobb—and later installed where Lake Street meets the Truckee River.

The Biggest Little City in the World sign. This version was built in 1963 and was replaced by the current sign in 1987
Original Reno Arch

This year, the Reno Arch faces yet another renovation and renewal. The city sought public input for an updated, 21st-century color scheme via meetings and online polls. The consensus was for blue/white/silver, so blue-and-white lettering will replace the current fuchsia pink and brushed stainless steel substituted for shiny gold fittings. The newest rendition is set to finish by spring 2018.

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