Harolds Club Mural

In 1949, Harolds Club commissioned a mural honoring the pioneers of the Old West. The design was created by painter Theodore McFall, and the mural itself was constructed by artist Sargent Claude Johnson of San Francisco, California, then fired into porcelain by Mordecai Wyatt Johnson at the Paine-Mahoney foundry in Oakland, California. Late that year the work was installed on the exterior of the casino. Except for the Reno Arch, the Harolds Club mural was for many years the most prominent feature of Reno's Virginia Street, rivaled later only by Harrah's forty-one-foot-long wall of air that kept the elements out and eliminated the need for doors. Today the mural is all that remains of the once powerful casino.

The Harolds mural was huge—seventy feet long by thirty-five feet tall, composed of 220 forty-by-forty-eight-inch panels. It showed a wagon train encamped for the night around a campfire near a waterfall. On a nearby bluff, Indians wearing loincloths and feathered headdresses stalked the pioneers. Lighting inside the mural gave the appearance of crackling fire and flowing water. Above the mural, red neon letters proclaimed "Dedicated in all humility to those who blazed the trail"—a restatement of the Old West theme that the Smith family had created for their establishment.

For fifty years the mural looked down on Reno's main street, even after the Smiths sold out in 1970 and the club passed from owner to owner. After Harolds closed in 1995, the mural remained in place as a reminder of the days when Harolds was the largest and most famous casino in Nevada. In 1999, when Harrah's bought the property to implode it for a plaza, the mural was dismantled and placed in storage.

A group of citizens then conducted a successful fundraising effort to restore the mural, but when the community discussed where to display it, a serious debate arose over the depiction of the Indians. Many people found the warrior Indians offensive and didn't want the mural located in a prominent place, while others said it deserved a high profile because it reflected American history and was an important part of Reno's past. The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony was asked for its opinion but the group refused to take a position. Tribal chairman Arlan Melendez did say that while he was not personally offended, the mural looked more like an old movie set than real history. He noted that northern Nevada tribes did not attack wagon trains and did not wear colored loincloths, but, he added, at least the mural did show that Indians were living in Nevada when the settlers came.

The Reno City Council at first considered placing the mural downtown, either at a proposed Reno Events Center (since built) or as part of a Fourth Street historic preservation and revitalization effort. In the end it went to neither place, and sufficient reasons can be found besides political correctness: the events center had a modern style that required equally modern art, and the Fourth Street plan remained an uncompleted vision. Still, in the end, the council placed the mural at the Reno Livestock Events Center, a considerable distance from the central city where, one assumes, it could be seen but not seen too much.

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