Repulsive Racist or Unscrupulous Tycoon: Who Exactly is On This Box?

In partnership with Our Town Reno, Charles Riggs and Reyden Morett strapped on their detective caps, grabbed their mini-notebooks, equipped a comically large magnifying glass, and investigated a question meant to be asked. Who is on the signal box below? Is it really white supremacist Francis Newlands as officially stated?

At the intersection of South Virginia St. and Holcomb Ave. sits a mysterious piece of public art acknowledging a bearded man, but who is he? And why is he worth remembering?

Dotting nearly every street corner across Reno and every other city in America are metal utility boxes that house the heartbeat of towns of all sizes. These metal boxes provide the electric pulse energizing stoplights, traffic meters, etc., all while connecting buildings to the power grid. They’re essential. Essential but ugly.

To alleviate the public eyesore, cities pay local artists to paint the boxes. Reno is no different. The city’s “Art Signals” program was initiated in 2008 and provides artists $500 plus time and materials for their talents and efforts.

One such box caught our eyes. The piece depicts an older bearded man flanked by two words, “land” and “water,” with nothing else to distinguish who the person is and how they’re connected to the words.

The piece is clearly acknowledging/monumentalizing this figure. But why? Who are they, and what did they accomplish? And how does it connect to “land” and “water”?

The signal box art is described on The Public Art Archive as a painting of Newlands. The Public Art Archive is a non-profit with the goal of creating an accurate database cataloging public art around the world. But, our investigation reveals there may be discrepancies in the description.

After some digging on the city of Reno’s website, where they catalog every display of public art, the webmasters tagged the man as former Nevada Senator Francis G. Newlands, an instrumental figure in irrigating the West and an avowed racist who held truly despicable beliefs that don’t align with contemporary America.

But how could it be Newlands? Someone who championed abolishing the 15th amendment (The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude), someone who flaunted his bigotry, it seems highly improbable the city would approve his likeness to be blasted publicly on a utility box. Reno ain’t Dixieland.

“Newlands had a viewpoint about the future, and everyone at the beginning of the 20th century had a viewpoint of what the future should be, but he did not include people of color in political participation,” William Rowley, an emeritus history professor at UNR with expertise on the American West and extensive knowledge of Newlands told us. “He was no great advocate for democracy as we know it today.”

Bin Bin Erwin, a southwest Reno community member, took an interest in Newlands name and his name’s usage for the Newlands Park and its memorial on California Ave. two years ago. She was surprised to hear a signal box identified as honoring Newlands was also present in Reno.

“It’s one where I’m just a little surprised how it got approved,” Erwin said. “I think 2017, they probably didn’t even realize the actual character of this gentleman.”

The giant plaque memorializing former Nevada Senator Francis G. Newlands at Newlands Park in Reno. Erwin is willing to meet reluctant neighbors in the middle, hopeful they’d at the very least accept the idea of a plaque placed alongside the memorial detailing the other side of the story.

The park is a portion of land gifted to the city by the Newlands family 100 years earlier. The gift also stipulated a public memorial (above) needed to be erected. The memorial is a gaudy concrete plaque that poetically paints Newlands as a pioneer with no mention of his racism. Erwin received backlash from her mostly white neighbors, who thought she was tussling with storied history, with plenty more angry comments on social media.

“It became such a negative point for the people who think I’m making horrible changes to the neighborhood, and that wasn’t what I was doing at all,” Erwin said. “This person did some good things, but some of the other stuff about his character was just kind of tucked away, and no one wants to see that part of it. Change is really difficult, especially in the old southwest.”

The city listened to activists and discussed changing the name. But efforts eventually fizzled out, and the momentum slowed despite the Black Lives Matter impacted summer of 2020 when many started to question whether certain historical figures are deserving of public recognition regardless of abhorrent misdeeds or repugnant ideas.

Erwin details the reception she received from her neighbors and how other communities on the East Coast are dealing with the same fight to remove the Newlands name from public facilities.

The city of Reno have stated they’re hamstrung by the original deed, unable to change the name of the park or alter the colossal concrete memorial that must weigh hundreds of pounds.

According to Anjeanette Damon, who originally reported on the effort to rename the park for the RGJ: “The deed says it shall “forever” remain a “public park and playground,” the legal document is also clear that the land is meant to honor Newlands.”

In a 2020 meeting between the Historical Resources Commission, Human Rights Commission, and Recreation and Parks Commission, prompted by the activist efforts to change the name of Newlands park, the city reaffirmed its stance on staying away from renaming. “The renaming of any facility is strongly discouraged. Parks or other facilities named by deed restriction cannot be considered for renaming,” its guidelines indicate.

Newlands Park is a small recreation area with beautiful views mainly used by residents in the old southwestern neighborhood it resides in.

With the signal box, though, according to official documents, there is a piece of public art approved by the city of Reno portraying a vile bigot, and one of Nevada’s greatest shames smack dab in a diverse community on Wells.

Or is there?

In an odd twist, the artist who painted the man on the box, Paul Fenkell, said the painting wasn’t of Newlands but of a different former Nevada senator, William Sharon.

The two are connected though. Newlands married Clara Adelaide Sharon, Sharon’s daughter in 1874.

Sharon was one of the original robber barons who accumulated a vast fortune in the new West with the Comstock Lode. Sharon was famously an absentee Senator who held domain over Nevada even though he primarily resided in San Francisco.

“A San Franciscan Nevadan,” Rowley said.

Even though Newlands has a much stronger connection to “land” and “water” than Sharon, Fenkell says he associated Sharon with northern Nevada’s recent “boom.”

“He’s not chosen as a hero, but a character of the times,” Fenkell said. “People in the West, over time, have always been out here on their hustle, their dealings, everyone has their ‘out here trying to make it,’ and it’s not always the greatest story. I don’t think it’s about him or in-depth if he’s a great guy or a horrible guy. Some of the things in his story, of why he came to the West and why he came to Nevada and what he did here is similar to some people in development today.”

Further reasoning by Fenkell as to why Sharon is depicted next to “land” and “water.” Rowley doesn’t see the connection, pointing out that Sharon was more of a banker who made a fortune through mining than a developer.

Still, as far as the city indicates through their website and the Public Art Archive, an organization they work closely with, the man on the box is Senator Newlands. When the design was initially pitched, the public art committee may have approved Sharon, and when it was cataloged, it somehow became Newlands.

But that raised another question. Why would the city ever approve a painting with Sharon? Despite how Fenkell sees it, Sharon was a politician who did more to fill his pockets than represent Nevada’s citizens and is widely considered one of the worst senators in American history. Sharon essentially bought his way into power.

“He probably obtained the presidency of the Bank of California under questionable circumstances after the death of Ralston,” Rowley said. “He sold mining stock probably under false circumstances. In other words, there was an aurora of dirty business practices surrounding his career. Some would call him clever, but others would call it cheating other people, and when he got elected as a senator for Nevada, he hardly ever attended the senate. He was just enjoying the privileges of one of the most exclusive men’s clubs in the United States.”

No matter which one, Newlands or Sharon, neither are worth romanticizing, idealizing or memorializing. Newlands couldn’t accept the outcome of the civil war, and Sharon was one of the original unscrupulous wealth hoarders, using dirty tricks and borderline criminal activity to build his fortune. Both aren’t anyone to look up to.

Ultimately, who’s the bearded man depicted on the box?

“Newlands always prided himself on not having a beard,” Rowley said. “To be clean-shaven was a mark of the new progressive men of the 20th century in contrast to the older generation of the 19th century. And William Sharon was very much a bearded man of the 19th century Gilded Age when mining barons who dominated the Comstock could pretty much do as they may in Nevada.”

After some sleuthing, it seems the man on the box is William Sharon, and the city made a mistake cataloging the information. Fenkell admits he sees where the mixup could occur since the piece of art depicting Sharon was vague and not linear.

The impetus of our adventure was a clerical error―a clerical error that prompts many questions. What should public art represent? Should it be a tepid cookie-cutter representation of an area with boring general local themes, or should it be an electric jaw-dropper jolting the observer and sparking conversation while holding a mirror to our community? Should we acknowledge controversial figures as long as we provide the full scope, or should there even be public monuments/namings for them at all?

“This is very complicated,” Rowley said. “It’s not something that you can just sort of go, ‘oh yeah, this is good, and that’s bad, and we should throw out this and establish this and such.’ Like history, it’s very complicated, and monuments tend to simplify history. And that’s why they’re really not history.”

Monuments are not history according to Rowley. He cites the infamous “Lost Cause of the South” where monuments to long dead Confederate figures were erected as backlash to the civil rights movement.

“Monuments occur after the fact and are erected by groups who commemorate or honor certain aspects that the promotional group wants to glorify or honor or denigrate (whatever) often well after the events occurred,” Rowley said. “The monuments become symbols or promotions of causes to which the promoters are attached.”

So, is the painting of Sharon sitting adjacent to a used car dealership a monument praising him or a simple acknowledgment of the times? It’s difficult to ascertain, and therein lies the conundrum. Of course, the nature of art is up to the artist. Do they subtly tell a nonlinear story forcing the observer to think? Or do they beat the viewer over the head with the message?

When it comes to public art, it’s probably safer to craft an unmistakable message friendly to regular people walking the street. Save the abstract stuff for your gallery.

In the end, the Reynolds Sandbox reached out to the city of Reno for comment but has yet to hear back. Sources have told the Sandbox the public art committee plans to have the box repainted in June. We are unaware if that’s due to our inquiries.

Reporting by Charles Riggs and Reyden Morett for the Reynolds Sandbox and Our Town Reno

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Reynolds Sandbox

Showcasing innovative and engaging multimedia storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab in Reno.