‘Place Dictates History’ at the Levy Mansion

By Patty Cafferata

Back in July, I had the opportunity to observe and participate as a historian in the Nevada Humanities Salon: The Poetry Movement. The event that evening yielded a standing room only crowd at the Levy Mansion (Sundance Books and Music in Reno) for the Salon discussion followed by an on-site dance performance.

The other Salon panelists, who were chorographers and a poet, discussed how dance movements can follow or complement the written word, i.e., a poem. The dancer illustrates the words of the poem. The chorographers selected the poems for their stories and then selected the perfect place for the dance at the Levy Mansion.

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An old adage “Place dictates history,” was demonstrated that night when the place, the Levy Mansion, and poetic words dictated the dance. The chorographers matched not only the words of the poem, but also the room or the garden for the dance. The spaces and features of the rooms or yard for each individual performance were integral to the poet’s story being told through dance.

On the space, the Levy Mansion is a unique house in several ways. As a historian and author, I often select a particular building to tell the history of Nevada. I research the architectural style and floor plan. If the building is still standing, I tour the inside and walk around the outside of the structure to study the details of the style and floor plan.

Then, I investigate who built or arranged to build the structure. In the case of the Levy Mansion, William and Tillie Levy contracted to have their house built. A long-time merchant, William moved to Nevada from Prussia before 1900. Around 1887, William and his brother Morris opened the Palace Dry Goods House in downtown Reno on Virginia Street.

In 1906, William was successful enough to build their mansion on the corner of California Avenue and Granite Street. The home originally faced Granite Street (now S. Sierra St.). The classical revival house is a three-story wood frame building. Two of the most unique features are the portico with six Ionic Greek columns, and the skylight over the staircase in the reception hall open through the second and third stories through the roof.

The 112-year old house is rare in the state because it was not burned down in one of the many fires that consumed Reno. In the 1940s, the house was moved back on the lot and turned to face California Avenue. Additionally, another unusual facet is that “Tinker” Levy, William and Tillie’s younger daughter, lived in the house for 72 years. After she died, a series of businesses occupied the structure, including the current Sundance Books and Music.  

At that Salon: The Poetry Movement, the old adage, “Place dictates history,” the attendees at the Salon learned that, “Place (also) dictates dance.”

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Patricia Cafferata is an attorney, author, historian, and a life-long resident of Reno, Nevada. Cafferata served in the Nevada Assembly, and when she was elected Nevada State Treasurer in 1982 she became the first woman elected to any constitutional office in the state. Cafferata has also served as district attorney of Lincoln, Lander and Esmeralda counties. She has written eight books on Nevada history, including Christmas in Nevada. Additionally, she co-authored her mother’s memoirs, Barbara F. Vucanovich: From Nevada to Congress and Back Again. Patty participated in the Nevada Humanities Salon: The Poetry Movement.

Cheyanne TreadwayThomas