Renowned Architects Russell Mills and Ed Parsons Historic Homes Walk

Russell Mills and Edward Parsons were two important architects living and designing homes and commercial buildings in the Reno, Nevada area. Their lives intersected, and as a result the Old Southwest area of Reno boasts some architectural gems. The Parsons/Mills walk is just one of the many historic home walks presented by the Historic Reno Preservation Society. This particular walk, presented by Anne Simone, focuses on the design styles of these two men. Anne has researched this topic so well that I want to share her wisdom on the lives of these two interesting and talented men with you.

All credit for this article goes to Anne Simone, volunteer with the Historic Reno Preservation Society.

Quick Facts:

Russell Mills: 1892-1959. Architect, a number of his works are listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Worked as a draftsman for Reno, NV architect Frederic DeLongchamps.

Design works in Reno include Veterans Memorial High School, Veteran’s Elementary School, Job Ranch in Douglas County, Sparks City Hall, Brown Elementary School, Pershing County High School, and the J. Clarence Kind House.

Background Russell Mills

Russell Mills was born in Chicago 1892. His father, a retired military man, served in the 6th Cavalry as Sergeant Major. Russell’s mother, Alma, was of French descent and worked as a nanny for a general in the Philippines, China, and Japan. Alma and her husband split up and Russell, an only child, was raised by his mother.

Because of Alma’s work, Russell traveled a great deal. The two finally settled in Oakland, California where he attended the Oakland public schools and was enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley (1913-1915). Little is known whether he graduated, or what academic program he was following, but since he went on to become a registered, and respected architect in Nevada, it seems likely that he at least attended architecture classes.

In 1924, Russell Mills married Grace Culp, the daughter of a Methodist minister. She was also from the Bay Area. They had one child, named Rusty, in 1929.

Although Russell Mills designed and built their home in Reno, he worked in San Francisco during the war years for the Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks from 1942-1945.

Young Rusty was fond of his father and said of him, “He was funny and had a good sense of humor. He loved his work designing homes.”

One of the fun parts about being part of the Historic Reno Preservation Society, is that we are always adding new details and finding out more facts about the amazing historic homes in our old southwest neighborhood. Just recently a new home was added to this tour. It stands where the park was supposed to go in on the corner of Circle Drive and  Manor Drive. However, World War Two erupted and plans for the park had to be put on hold, due to diverted funds to support the war effort. A fountain remains, marking the once hoped for public park. This area used to be covered by a field of violets back in the 1930s. Stunning to imagine. Now, it is a busy subdivision. Back to the historic home in question. Plans for the Russell Mills designed home were discovered in the attic of a nearby home of a longtime Reno resident. She graciously shared these plans with Anne and myself. So at least now we another proved home design to add to this delightful tour. Most of the home was remodeled outside and inside, and little remains of the original design. But, it stands as a remarkable tribute to Mr. Mills, and we are thrilled to add this to our tour.

We also, were invited to tour another Russell Mills designed home. I was gobsmacked! It was like walking into a time capsule from the late 1930s! Most of the light fixtures were original to the home, as were the switches. I recently had to replace two dimmer switches in my home after a mere ten years, however the ones in this home have lasted, and continue to work for the past seventy-seven years. All the door handles and latches are the same as they were the day they were installed in 1937. The kitchen is original with original stainless steel counter tops. Now here is the kicker: the bathrooms are in their original condition, including the toilets and toilet seats, which are elongated and curved. One is blue and one is green. I couldn’t believe it. The tile in the bath surround is in terrific condition, with original ground marble grout in perfect condition. These homes are treasures. I was so impressed with this one. This home isn’t on our Russell Mills Ed Parsons home tour, but is featured on our Monroe Street walk. But, whenever we get the chance to talk about Russell Mills we do, even if it is to mention the roof. As Anne always says there isn’t a roof line Mr. Mills didn’t love.

Quick Facts:

Edward Parsons: 1907-1991. Architect, the only northern Nevada awarded the American Institute Architects Fellowship. He also created the local branch of the AIA.

Design works include: J. Clarence Kind house on the National Register of Historic Places, Incline High School, University of Nevada Reno building, Fleischmann Agriculture and Home Economics building, Orvis School of Nursing, Medical School building.

Specific Restoration Projects:

Nevada State Capitol Building,Morrill Hall, University of Nevada, Reno, Bowers Mansion, Lake Mansion, Berlin Mill, Virginia City Courthouse, Belmont Courthouse, Genoa Courthouse, Fort Churchill.

Background Edward Parsons

Edward Parsons father, Arthur Rose Parsons, was a metallurgical engineer, graduating about 1900 or 1902 from Leigh University in Pennsylvania. He built mine mills in Delamar, Goldfield and Tonapah for a mining company in the east. His mother, Laura Shier Parsons, attended UNR for at least two years, but records are unclear whether she graduated or not. Laura’s father was a pharmacist in Pioche, Delamar, and Milford, (perhaps Caliente). Arthur and Laura had two sons. The family lived in Tonopah where Arthur oversaw the mining. Edward Parsons younger brother went to Annapolis and had a military career. He made his home on the east coast.  Arthur died of silicosis disease  when Edward was eight years old. Laura died of pneumonia when Edward was about fourteen years old. Edward’s parents left money for the two boys. The paternal grandfather arranged to have the parents estate put in a trust fund, which covered the college funds for both boys.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in architecture, Edward Parsons looked for a job in Pennsylvania, but this was during the time of The Great Depression and work was scarce.  This prompted Edward to look for work in Reno, Nevada and join his aunt and uncle there. He was in Reno three days when he landed the job with Frederic DeLongchamps. While in college Edward had designed side jobs Dan Kirkoff. Dan Kirkoff was the architect for Mrs. Willliam Johnston from the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Mr. Kirkoff was commissioned by her to build French Provincial-style homes that we now see scattered around the Old Southwest Reno neighborhood. Now that Edward Parsons had returned to Reno he helped Frederic DeLongchamps finish up the Reno Post Office design. Edward was unsettled and went back and forth from Reno to San Francisco.

Edward Parsons then joined with Russell Mills another notable architect. Russell Mills at this time worked for Home Owners Loan Corporation as a reconditioning supervisor and gave Edward an assistants job to inspect work under construction. Edward later said of Russell Mills, “He was a splendid person…had a charming personality.” Russell Mills and Edward Parsons teamed up to desing several homes at Lake Tahoe, around Carnelian Bay where Russell Mills had a home of his home with wife and child.

Meanwhile Edward Parsons met Helen, his future wife, while playing Bridge in Reno. He later saw her again in San Francisco where she attened Mills College. After her graduation she was renting an apartment in Divisidero area of San Francisco, from Julia Morgan, the famous designer of  San Simeon, where she had a studio and taught music. In September, 1938 Edward married Helen and they returned to Reno, eventually moving into the home Edward designed and had built in 1948, at 950 Marsh Street. The couple remained in that house and celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary there.

When Edward Parsons went out on his own he began to number his designs. The Jack Halley house on Pueblo and Humboldt starting with #1. He was on #100 when he was drafted. Before the war he had designed a new cell block for the Nevada State Prison, a continuation of the original cell block that Frederic DeLongchamps had started years before. Due to the war the project couldn’t be completed because materials were diverted, however,  after the war, the cell block was completed.

Edward Parsons considered Reno, Nevada his home. He is the only Northern Nevada architect to be awarded the American Institute Architects Fellowship. Edward was known for his work in historic preservation and for creating the local branch of the American Institute of Architects.

Original wrought-iron design by Russell Mills

Original wrought-iron design by Russell Mills

1939, design by Edward Parsons

1939, design by Edward Parsons

Edward Parsons and Russell Mills

Edward Parsons and Russell Mills J. Clarence Kind House

Russell Mills and Edward Parsons design collaboration.

Russell Mills and Edward Parsons design collaboration.

Young People Still Care About the Holocaust, or Students Are Awesome!

Recently a young junior high school student handed me an article about a Holocaust survivor who had given a speech at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Apparently, this survivor’s family had made their living with a successful Krakow based chocolate factory. When the Nazis invaded, his family fled Poland, left the chocolate-making business, and their affluent lifestyle behind.

All completely fascinating and tragic.

One thing this survivor said really struck me as inaccurate. He indicated that today’s kids didn’t care about the Holocaust, that it doesn’t register with them. I disagree. He is of the opinion that the children only paid close attention to him because he illustrated his story with a tub of chocolate. Now this is even more of a discredit to students and young people today. Perhaps it was his experience when telling his story to others, or the slant of the journalist who wrote this article. I can’t say. But, I was starting to feel insulted for “today’s kids.”

I realize the tub of chocolate helped this particular survivor get through the rough nights and hard life he had to endure as small child. As one student said, “It was his happy place.” We all need that happy place from time to time to endure. But, I think the kids were interested in his story because they want to learn about the Holocaust. Simple and true.

In my limited experience, and my father-in-law’s vast experience, we find that the kids today do care about the Holocaust, it does register, and it impacts their lives forever after learning about it.

Recently I had the privilege and honor of speaking at a local high school about my father-in-law’s Holocaust experience. Since he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease it is hard for him to say what he wants to. I’ve become his voice. My father-in-law joined me at this presentation and we stood before a full auditorium of students. This was an after-school presentation and a lot of the students had prior activities scheduled that they couldn’t miss, still there were many students who sat in quiet rapt attention. Afterward, we opened the discussion to the audience for a question and answer session. I am always touched and impressed by the thought-provoking questions of these young people. When I told them that I had been hearing from some people that children today don’t care about the Holocaust I saw heads nodding in disagreement, and on some faces the look of outright indignation. No, this is not true. I find more and more students are just as interested in the Holocaust as I was when I was a student many years ago.

In today’s world kids see hardship, displacement, war, and tragedy. Kids are blended in from other countries with American students. They come from various cultures and backgrounds, so it is possible that the stories of the Holocaust resonate with them on a personal level.

Let’s show trust that the young people of today care about the Holocaust. And don’t hold back from teaching it to them, or talking about it out of some fear that they won’t hear the message. They really do want to know!

Cutting Room Floor Excerpts: On the Farm (Polish Village)

On the Farm

Shortly after my Bar Mitzvah, life on the farm became more active as winter was replaced by spring. Seedlings planted in winter began to grow and there was much work to do on the land. Important crops to the farmstead were mostly grains: rye, wheat, barley and oats. The other major crop was potatoes, which were planted in the spring.

The Biernat’s owned approximately three acres of land which was located in different parts of the village, all of it a little distance from the hut where we lived. On a typical American farm there is a homestead with the land stretching out from it, but in a Polish village, the farmland was divided in a different manner. The land was portioned and handed down to each successive generation. Various crops were planted and there was plenty of work, rows had to be plowed, seeds planted and carefully watched over, weeds would have to be pulled, and everyone pitched in to help.

A reliable horse and plow were needed. When other villagers were enlisted in the labor they might have the horse, another might have the plow. In this way everyone worked together. In time the favors were returned to fill whatever need someone else might have. Since Roman Biernat didn’t have a horse, he provided some form of labor to another villager and they provided him with a horse. This was an excellent exchange system.

As my contribution to living in the hut with the Biernat family it was expected that I should work on the farm. I was willing and ready to work. So reading and writing were put on hold and I learned how a Polish farmer plants his grain and potatoes. As head of the household, Roman sowed the grain. He wore a large apron with a front pocket. Inside the pocket he kept the seeds, sometimes these were oats or barley. He reached into the pocket, grabbed a handful of seeds and flung them over the readied soil.

During World War Two the Polish farmers paid taxes, not in money, but in specific amounts of grain to the German government. This was paid during the harvesting time. Pigs were also considered government property and each pig on the farm had to be registered. It was illegal for any farmer to slaughter a pig, but occasionally the farmers came together and managed to hide one from the German officials. When it came slaughtering time the neighbors shared the meat. Usually this was done inside a villagers hut. This happened in the Biernats hut while we were living there. Not only was it disturbing to witness the animal’s demise, but afterward it was a bloody mess where we lived and slept. As Jews it was especially upsetting because a pig is considered an unclean animal to eat, by Jewish law we didn’t want any part of it.

Other times were more enjoyable and less violent, like when we ventured into the dense forest and picked wild blueberries. I filled my basket and my mouth with the sweet and refreshing fruit.

Once a month a small bag of flour was distributed to all the inhabitants in the region. We’d have to get our rations from the nearby village of Niegowic. This was a task that the girls of household were usually sent out to do,  but since there were only two boys living in the hut, me and Janek, the errand became mine. I stood in line five hours before the mill opened its gates. I dared not leave my place in line because once the gates opened villagers flooded in with their flour sacks and once the flour was gone, that was it, no more flour for anyone. I stood patiently waiting while all around me chatty girls entertained each other with their stories. They seemed to be enjoying themselves while I became painfully aware of my Jewishness and loneliness. I especially couldn’t speak to the girls in this village because I was concerned I would be identified as a Jew. Also, because I was from the city, I didn’t speak like a Polish peasant, so I didn’t want to stand out as different. Normally shy and timid around girls, the only girl I could ever speak openly to was Anita. This made me more lonesome for her companionship and homesick for Krakow.

Four kilometers away, in the next town, was a kosher butcher. Someone in the village gave us a chicken in exchange for tailor work by Dolek. Mamusia sent me to the village of Gdow to have the chicken slaughtered kosher style with a special knife and bled properly. A number of Jews lived in Gdow, some of whom had come to my Bar Mitzvah. Once in a while Mamusia sent me to the butcher for a chicken. Mamusia sent me to the village so frequently on various errands that I became familiar with the route, I knew every step there and back.

A priceless book to me was the Farmer’s Almanac. I read it deck to deck. I found a section about herbs and leaves and learned that nettles where edible when cooked. There were plenty of nettles around the hut, and because I wore short pants at the time, I was stung by those annoying plants often. The little hairs on the leaves of the plant inflicted an irritating rash. One day after my herb research I asked Mamusia to cook the nettles.

Her eyes widened. “Joziu, where did you learn about cooking nettles?”

“In the farmers book. It said they taste like spinach when cooked. We have so many of them around here, I want to try it,” I said.

“You go pick them, I won’t risk getting stung.” She lifted her eyebrows.

I turned, and skipped off to gather some nettles, they will go great with eggs.

When I returned with the nettles, Mamusia took them with tongs in one hand and shears in the other and cut them up right into the cooking pot. “It’s the heat that destroys the venomous part of the plant hairs,” I said. She looked dubious. I tasted the cooked greens and they did indeed taste like spinach. “Here, try it, they’re good for you.” Mamusia touched her throat and shook her head. She trusted me enough to cook them, but not enough to eat them.

The Farmers Almanac contained useful information about herbs, fruit, and the weather. There were certain leaves that could be brewed into a tea. I learned how to identify edible berries. I collected the berries and leaves and experimented with them. Most of what I learned stuck in my mind so that I could call it back from memory if I needed it.

On the farm I liked playing with the animals. The cow was friendly and had just given birth to a calf. The calf was silly and inexperienced. She often wandered into places she didn’t belong. She found a patch of nettles and ate them. My skin puckered with goose bumps. How could she stand the sting? The mother cow stood mutely and watched her calf munching at the nettles without a care. The Biernat’s had given me my own tiny plot of soil to grow vegetables. I planted beans and other greens and surrounded the area with a primitive stick fence. I was proud that I would soon present Mamusia with food I had grown. One day, the stupid calf wandered over to my plot. She stuck her head over the stick fence and ate everything within reach. I stamped my foot in frustration and shouted at the calf, but the Biernat’s and other villagers laughed at my unhappy situation.

The Biernat’s also had a white cat. She became my dear friend. She was pregnant and ready to give birth. Because I liked her she spent a lot of time with me. Maria Biernat laughed at me. “Look out for her Josef, or she’ll be sneaking into your bed to have those kittens!” she said. Janek was the recipient of that gift. Later, the old man, Roman, took those kittens and drowned them. This news upset me and I often wondered how he could have been so cruel.

Life went on in the village. helping the other farmers with the chores took up a lot of my time. There were fields to plow, planting and weeding to tend to, plus milking the cow, and churning the butter. Maria made the butter and I would have to keep the white cat away, whose favorite pastime involved licking the churn.

August was harvest time. This was hard word work, but I readily participated and worked beside the villagers. The grain was bundled by Roman and pitched onto a flat-bed wagon with two ladders on either side. Then it was brought to the barn where there was a threshing floor. Four people worked rhythmically in a circle removing the grain from the stalks. I could see maintaining the rhythm was a challenge. Gradually I learned how to imitate the workers. Together we beat the grain with wooden flails seconds apart from each other, which required good coordination. After the stalks were removed what was left over was used to roof the peasant huts. The grain was then poured in bags and hand sifted.

Overall, I found life on the farm interesting. So many things fascinated me. Everything was new and so different than life in the big city of Krakow. From spring until the harvest time in late summer it was a steady stream of hard work. No matter how strenuous the labor, I did what was asked of me. As I learned and assisted with the work, the Biernat’s became friendlier toward me and treated me as one of them.

The fields and forest were pleasant to me. I came to look back at this time in the village as the happiest time of the war. The Polish farm and village were peaceful, yet structured. If we could have survived the war there I would have been very happy.

–Excerpt from THE ALTERED I: MEMOIR OF JOSEPH KEMPLER, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR available on Amazon.com, Google Play books, the publisher direct LeRue Press, Reno, Nevada, and Sundance Books and Music in Reno, Nevada.

Hope you enjoyed this cutting room floor excerpt. To read more from THE ALTERED I click here.