Historic University of Nevada Buildings Can Be Quake Resistant

October 28, 2014

A structural engineering expert says he agrees with historic preservationists who say a pair of century-old buildings at the University of Nevada, Reno, that once had a date with the wrecking ball due to concerns about earthquakes can be saved and made safer.

Manzanita Hall, a dormitory, was built in 1895, and Lincoln Hall was built a year later. They are among the three oldest structures on the Reno campus and part of a section of the university that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“These two 19th-century buildings are very attractive and of historical importance to the university, alumni and the community,” said Melvyn Green, who recently toured the structures.

“That said, they are made of unreinforced masonry, so they are a potential hazard in the event of an earthquake,” said Green, the owner of a structural engineering and historic preservation firm in Torrance, California.

“But buildings can be strengthened to resist earthquakes,” he told the Reno Gazette-Journal last week.

UNR President Marc Johnson put a stop to plans to demolish the two dormitories in June after a groundswell of opposition from historic preservation groups, alumni and members of the community.

Johnson said the buildings will no longer be used to house students after June 30, when a new 400-room residence hall is scheduled to open on Sierra Street.

Instead, they will be reinforced and converted into office space, a use that would not pose the same danger to occupants as it would to sleeping students caught in an earthquake.

Rebecca Palmer, the state historic preservation officer, brought Green to Reno earlier this month to tour Manzanita and Lincoln halls, and to discuss with university officials ways to make the structures safer.

Palmer said the State Historic Preservation Office has a fund that can provide from $5,000 to $40,000 grants for preservation projects, but applications won’t be accepted until the first week in December.

“I have a great deal of optimism about the future preservation of these two structures,” she said.

“When visitors roam around the historic core of the university, they get a real sense of stability and gravitas,” Palmer said. “It’s impressive. It has a sense of place and history, and I think it can have a very long and productive future, too.”

Reno historian Alicia Barber said representatives from other state and local preservation groups also met with university officials.

“We talked about what the community can do and encouraged them to bring an expert on reinforced masonry,” Barber said. “Mel Green wrote the code on how to reinforce structures like these, and he’s done a lot of work on similar projects.

Green said his company converted the old U.S. Mint building in Carson City into the Nevada State Museum, worked to preserve the old courthouse in Hawthorne, and currently is compiling a study on retrofitting the Story County Courthouse to make it more resistant to damage from earthquakes.

He doesn’t have an estimate on what it would cost to reinforce Lincoln or Manzanita halls, but the Nevada Public Works Board has estimated in the past it would cost $5.2 million for Lincoln and $9.5 million for Manzanita.

“We could make improvements to these two buildings and bring them up to some reasonable standards and reduce the chance of loss of life or injury,” Green said.

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