The Morris Hotel
The Morris Hotel Opens its Doors to the “Renossance.”
STORY & PHOTOS BY PATSY K. EAGAN | JULY/AUGUST 2014
A silent auction is underway on Reno’s Fourth Street. Off the well-worn Highway 40 and under LED lights, several items are open for bid, including Burning Man commemorative posters, massages, and a coupon for a local bowling alley. Bass lines boom from a nearby DJ stage. Revelers duck in and out to bid and buy costume pieces fashioned from the new hotel’s logo. A woman wearing a feathery bra and butterfly wings makes a purchase: skimpy briefs emblazoned with the words, “I got laid @ The Morris Hotel.” She then flies back to the party, engulfed by the glow of the art cars and pink neon.
On this half-acre plot of land in The Biggest Little City In The World, the first hotel of its kind has opened with aplomb. A residence and traveler’s hostel called the Morris Burner Hotel has galvanized the Burning Man community. At the “Monsters & Elves” fundraising event, tireless volunteers unveil their off-playa burning man camp. Each room has a creative theme, including Southwestern, Alice and Wonderland, and Cuban gangsters, to name a few.
Never been to Black Rock City (BRC)? Before making your reservation, know that the Morris Hotel experience is about volunteerism, not voyeurism. This is a DIY crash pad where everyone chips in. The rules of the house are the “Ten Principles” of Burning Man. So if you cook in the kitchen, follow the “communal effort” code and “Wash your own damn dishes!” If you book the Sparkle Pony room, you’ll be reminded about “radical self-reliance” and how you must bring everything you need (besides towels and clean sheets) to survive. Before you check out, take care of your own linens so you’ll be “leaving no trace” and helping out the staff. The cost for this experience? A $30–70 donation makes this the best deal in town.
“You won’t find this place on Hotels.com,” owner Jim Gibson says. “I don’t want this to be a full-fledged hotel.”
Gibson, who goes by his playa name “Jungle Jim,” is a former tech executive based in Gardnerville. His white beard, cut close as if for playa-ready groomability, and his jovial attitude give him a Santa Claus aura. He attended Burning Man in 2008. Similar to the many “virgins” new to the scene, he left forever changed.
Just enduring eight days in the high desert was a challenge. “When I went for the first time, it was pretty intimidating,” Gibson recalls. “I didn’t realize that there are people out there to help when you need it. This is a hard thing for people in the ‘default world’ to accept. It hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Five years later, Jungle Jim came face-to-face with the brick facade of the Morris, then a neglected resident motel that was “pretty miserable inside.” Built in 1928, it was the first building in Reno to have sheetrock and electrical conduit.
The motel—located at 400 E. Fourth Street—changed owners several times before Gibson and his brother bought the building in 2013. He and his Burning Man friends rolled up their sleeves for a major makeover. Some of the rooms were so dirty, yellow halos left by cigarette smoke stained the doorframes. The following January, the Morris hosted its first wedding party for some Burner friends.
I made my first visit shortly thereafter, when the luxurious cardinal color of the “Cuban Gangsta” suite in Room 201 still looked whitewashed and smelled of primer. All that stood in the backyard were a few over-stuffed chairs cast off from the closed Fitzgerald’s Casino, a barrel used to burn items, and a giant “M” made of rusted metal donated from the Black Rock Arts Foundation—a civic-minded organization born out of Burning Man. Despite the curtain separating the toilet from the hallway, I could see this clan had big plans for the future. Already high-quality tiling and light fixtures were appearing on the second floor. The third floor was reserved for residents who occupied themselves with the daunting task of refurbishing the hotel.
When I returned in May 2014 to volunteer for Monsters & Elves, framed art and rainbow streamers filled what was once a blank canvas. Many of the rooms resembled the function-forward design common in Burning Man camps: elevated beds with storage units underneath; rooms decorated with found materials; bedside displays of the Ten Principles. The curtained water closet was now a self-contained toilet unit lined with indigo string lights. The only constant is the din of electronic music pumping from the speakers, both in the yard and the lobby.
In other words, the Morris is just like the playa, where residents pack earplugs and say “Welcome Home” with a smile.
The Monsters & Elves event doesn’t host dust devils twisting like belly dancers in the desert, but guests kick up dust around the three music stages. Fire spinners provide visual percussion for electronica beats. Trapeze artists soar above crowds in colorful contortions. Every costume imaginable—from yeti leggings to Hindu-inspired masks—flank bar stools and parked art cars.
Stunning art installations by BRC artists like Timeless grab the eyes of passersby. Beside a wooden sculpture carved by fire, I strike up a conversation with a guy wearing a “Livin’ in a van down by the river” T-shirt. Mike L. worked on Burning Man’s temple effigy in 2010 and helped construct the metal arch adorning the Morris’ mainstage. He arrived in Reno while on a streak of bad luck and found inspiration in a town with the most Burners per capita in the world.
“Now that I work full time, I don’t get here to volunteer as much as I’d want. But it’s great to make even a small contribution to a project that’s so great,” he says.
It’s the civic-oriented “artivism” of the Morris enclave that has the city buzzing. Jungle Jim describes his relationship with the city as “delightful,” saying, “the city has been super supportive because Burning Man is an important part of the fabric of Reno. They have helped us at every turn in letting us work on the building and permitting the space for groups.”
Even more plans are in store. For now, part of the 3,000 square feet of space is rented to the University of Nevada’s boxing club. Eventually, Gibson hopes to open a casual eatery featuring a performance stage for a continuing open-mic poetry series. Food grown in the on-site greenhouse will be on the menu.
Gibson says he hopes to structure some sort of membership, where volunteers create online profiles. The more labor you contribute, the more discounts you receive. He maintains that while he created this respite for Burning Man veterans, all are welcome according to the principle of “radical inclusion.”
He also points out that the self-governing practices of Black Rock City presides over the Morris. “It’s not the business plan that I wrote on day one. We have people who arrive with ideas all the time. A lot of structure goes into planning. People here organize as a collective and chastise people when they act outside of the Ten Principles. Every day we shift our vision.”
Morris manager, Vision Bar, often greets guests in the lobby. He furnishes you with a key that activates the front door’s lock. He’ll also give you a run-down of the various suites. Some have an adjoining room with a couch for lounging; others have a kitchenette and hanging ironing board. All guests are welcome to the “Un-Dressing Room” for a shower and for pre-party preparation. If you ask him when the next staff meeting takes place, he’ll invite you to attend. It’s one way to check-in on how to help before you check-out.
Since the space is perpetually brewing ideas and renovating rooms, expect a steady level of commotion. If you don’t pack earplugs for the festive atmosphere, do so for the railroad tracks that run along the west side of the property. Also note that during special events, room rates may fluctuate and fill fast (reservations for Monsters & Elves filled up in three hours). While guests cannot stay in a third floor room, the second floor is nearly as nice. The southern side of the building also affords a view of Friday night firework shows at the Aces ballpark.
Gibson is ecstatic to see the turnout at Monsters & Elves. No doubt it infuses him and the crew with validation that this ever-evolving plan has potential. “The Morris Burner Hotel project is one of these things where the stars lined up. For anyone else to develop this site was impossible. The city didn’t want to tear it down and I saw it as an opportunity to build this community. It was a once-in-a-lifetime set of circumstances,” he says.
This summer, tune into Studio M, the hotel’s onsite digital media channel, for updates on a future developments called Virgin Boot Camp. Experienced Burners will give newcomers ideas on how to survive and thrive in Black Rock City. It’s just one way the Morris hopes to reproduce the BRC ethos in every corner of the world.