Sam McManis

Discoveries: Behold Reno’s new hot spot – Morris Burner Hotel

Beyond the threshold and into The Rabbit Hole, a.k.a. Room 210 of the Morris Burner Hotel, your perspective warps in a most wonderful way. Swirling black-on-white painted designs, bearing a touch of red, run from the walls to the ceiling, all very vertigo-inducing but strangely soothing, too. This trichrome motif extends to the bed and desk, where chairs sport fleur de lis handles and a dainty tea set awaits that night’s visiting Alice.

Or maybe you’re not into Reno artist Killbuck’s clever mashing of Lewis Carroll and the principles of quantum mechanics.

No problem, because this newly opened hotel-cum-private club – believed to be the first to appropriate a Burning Man artistic theme – just keeps getting curiouser and curiouser as you careen down the hallway.

Try Room 219, the Goddess Room, where local artists Carol Ann Rickets and Joe Marlene have enveloped the sleeping quarters in vivid purple and lavender, a full-length Gaian mural with flowing tendrils snaking across three walls, denuded branches sprouting heart-shaped fruit, and a laurel hanging over the bed for guests to add notes on a “wishing tree.”

Perhaps you’d rather hang your fedora in a more edgy milieu, say No. 201, the Cuban Gangsta Room, walls blood red and a poster touting Cohiba, cigar of choice for would-be Scarfaces. Or go in another direction and be a head(board)banger in 212, the Rock ’n’ Roll Room, where anarchy tidily reigns, with framed posters of long-forgotten punk shows from bands such as Head Grenade and Dead End Cruisers adorning the walls and instruments like snare drums and guitars and what’s left of a busted-up keyboard available for impromptu jams.

There’s also the back-to-nature Enchanted Forest Room (220), the exploded Pepto-Bismol bottle pink of the Sparkle Pony Room (211) and the tumbleweed chic of the Desert Southwest Room (207).

Still haven’t found the room that reflects your aura?

More art-inspired rooms are in the offing – or, better yet, submit your own proposal to turn a room in what once was the seediest of flophouses in Reno’s most dangerous neighborhood into an objet d’art. Nothing if not inclusive, the Burning Man personage behind the project, Jim Gibson (Burning Man Playa name: Jungle Jim), welcomes all ideas and all people. That’s the concept behind this first Burner hotel: to give veterans of the yearly convocation in the Black Rock City desert each August, and those hankering to join the fun, a place to commune year-round. For city code reasons it’s designated not as a hotel but a private club. But, in Burner style, virtually nothing is private.

Pay $30 or so a night – Gibson and staff are still debating whether to adopt a give-what-you-can policy – and anyone can get a taste of the freewheeling artistic expression at the heart of Burner culture. But don’t expect some Dionysian bacchanal. There’s no smoking allowed. Drugs and alcohol are verboten, as well. A sign posted at the front desk lays out “House Rules,” ranging from “Ask Nicely” to “No Whining” to “Remember to Laugh” to “Clean Up After Yourself.” And, in fact, there’s a five-page contract guests will sign laying out the ethos of the place. Sign at the bottom line, and then live and let live, brotha.

But lest you think it is far too structured and limiting for true Burner free spirits, and lest you think charging even a modest fee for occupancy is a clash of art and commerce goes against everything Burning Man stands for – “death to commodification,” and all that – Gibson sees it as a home-away-from-home for nomadic Burners and a way to introduce the Burner aesthetic to the Burner-curious.

“Burners are from all walks of life, from CEOs to penniless,” said Gibson, 63. “As long as they share the ethos of Burning Man culture, they are very welcome. We say: You check into a clean room and when you check out the room is cleaner. I didn’t buy a hotel because I want to run a hotel. I bought it so the community could gather and have a fun place.

“Burning Man has no say in what we do. They don’t fund us. And it’s never the intent of Burning Man to say you don’t have a right to make a living. There’s nothing wrong with a business that does OK. It’s when you start getting a business that becomes such a commodity that it’s a cash-generating machine, that’s different.”

And do the Morris Burner Hotel staff – Jungle Jim, the owner; Vision, the manager; Killbuck, the art czar; Kima Sutra, logistical chief; and Alien, in charge of extracurricular activities have dollar signs written across their pupils?

“Hah, no,” Gibson said, laughing. “It’s not generating any cash. It’s costing me.”

It is a price he gladly pays, for Gibson says he’s been blessed by his eight-year association with Reno’s tribe of Burners and wants to give back. And if it was money he sought, he would’ve kept himself immersed in his high-tech business.

“When I retired as CEO of my company, I could count on one hand the number of close friends I had,” he said. “Then I found this community. And it’s such a giving, wonderful, thoughtful, hopeful community. In business, you’re always watching your back. You never form friendships, at least, I didn’t. Here ...”

He did a generous arm-sweep around the lobby, drawing attention to the younger Burners busy cleaning and building and just hanging out at the hotel. Gibson is a stout, gregarious, white-goateed soul in a nifty straw fedora who bear-hugs strangers and is quick with a smile and compliment. He sports the year-round tan that befits a man of retirement. Residing in Gardnerville, Nev., after years on the Silicon Valley fast track, he could have bided his time on his “art” yacht (theme: “Euro Trash Disco”) or tinkering with his “art” bus, a 1950s aluminum Trailways model he pimped out in a jungle motif and takes to the Playa each summer.

Yet, he has chosen to dip deeply into his retirement savings to rehabilitate a dilapidated single-room-occupancy hotel long gone to seed.

“Sometimes, I scratch my head and say, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ ” he said. “I should be down on my boat. This takes a lot of work.”

Some retirement, huh?

Well, friends say this project fits with Gibson’s character.

“He’s a guy who knows what he wants, a go-getter, but he’s at a time in his life where he wants to give something back,” said David Aiazzi, a former Reno city councilman who worked with Gibson to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles of the undertaking. “Everything is not about making money. This is his vacation, I think.”

City leaders, by all appearances, have embraced the reclamation of the Morris, a historic brick building not 10 feet from the railroad tracks that began life as Savage Plumbing in 1928 but soon became a residential hotel, getting more run-down with every decade. Surrounding the Morris on all sides of Fourth and Record streets are homeless shelters, drug-rehabilitation centers, halfway houses and a soup kitchen.

“(Fourth Street) had really really fallen into disrepair,” said Christine Fey, the city’s Arts and Culture manager. “He’s taking what is a really cool historic building and is changing it into something that breathes life into the community again. It no longer feels like a flophouse. I’m very impressed with what they are doing. They embrace everyone. We have a community assistance center around the corner, and they don’t shy away from the clients. They are inclusive, enlightened souls.”

Fey acknowledged that some people might turn a “jaundiced eye” at entrusting Burners as catalysts for change, but she says that perception stems from ignorance of the loose affiliation of arts and activists and hedonists that make up the community. She has attended 12 Burning Mans. “Every year I take City Council members, management officials, the fire chief, and everyone comes back with an entirely different view of Burning Man, very supportive,” she said.

Though Gibson put in countless hours and has organized a crew of carpentry-savvy full-time Burner workers (who occupy rooms on the third floor), it’s not as if he had a grand plan with intricately drawn blueprints.

“My brother and I had some commercial real estate sold in Bay Area and (we were) looking for another (IRS) 1031 exchange to roll over into commercial and looking at property, and I said to my brother, why not look in Reno instead of Bay Area?” he said.

That’s when the light went off – or, more aptly, the flame burned – over Gibson’s bald pate. A clubhouse for Burners. What he didn’t know until really exploring the interior of the down-and-out hotel, which still had 18 full-time occupants, was the extent of rehabilitation needed.

“When we bought this place, you could barely sit in here, it stunk so bad,” he said. “The whole backyard was a homeless encampment. So smelly. You’d walk up the stairs, and it just smelled rancid. As we got into it, we realized how deeply dirty it was. I mean, full hazmat gear was needed. We started looking in the rooms, and I mean, literally, piles of trash all the way to the ceiling. But I kept looking past the stench and the dirt, thinking about what an amazing space this would be for the Burner community to inhabit, to have a permanent home for us to enjoy and gather.”

In the spirit of inclusiveness, Gibson originally wanted the 18 residents to remain on the top floor after renovation. Some, after all, had been living there as long as 19 years. But the degree of damage done to the rooms prompted Gibson to change his mind. “So one of the gals got on the horn and called all the (hotels) in town that were comparable and set up 12 options for the residents and we took them to have a look. We relocated everybody. They come back and visit us.”

Do they want to move back?

“Some ask when they can move back in and I say, ‘Probably never,’ ” Gibson said. “It’s been built with so much Burner labor and Burner love, it’s for the Burner community. The city’s letting us become a private club as opposed to open to a public hotel. That lets us do certain things. Like, the art rooms, those aren’t things that are acceptable as a hotel, because of (city) codes. Their code says it’s gotta be painted like-color. Well, that won’t work.

“We have worked with the health and environmental (department) and Washoe County inspectors to do what they wanted us to do, with exception of the art. The art is outside their normal guidelines.”

That’s for sure. The art makes the hotel. And it’s not just the rooms that will be transformed. As Killbuck, the art czar, says, “It’s a hotel as experimental gallery, a total immersion.” To that end, every stairwell, bathroom, closet and the kitchen will be themed. The 3,000-square-foot basement already has been put to use as an Internet-based public-access TV station, and a large open space on the first floor now leased to the University of Nevada, Reno, boxing club, will eventually become a Burner-themed cafe, greenhouse and performance space.

Killbuck leads an art committee that winnows proposals for artists wanting to use a hotel room as a canvas. The response, he says, has been overwhelming.

“We’re not looking for work that is quote Burning Man art,” Killbuck said, “because there really is no such thing. But, we do have certain considerations because it is an establishment. So the art room has to be functional. It can’t be something you have to crawl around on hands and knees to get out of. We got to think of basic things, like adequate lighting for safety, easy entrance and exits, fire codes.”

There’s more latitude in the backyard, nearly a half-acre, now stacked with furniture and found objects. But Gibson envisions a mini-Playa where Burners can camp out and hold weekend art festivals and parties. He has a wrought-iron metal arch set to be erected over the space, and is even thinking about bringing his Jungle Bus up from Gardnerville to sit in residence.

That the backyard abuts a homeless shelter and drug rehab center doesn’t faze Gibson in the least. He spearheaded weekly coat drives during the winter months, plans to build a community garden out back and periodically invites the homeless in to look at the art.

“This part of town got very, very dark,” he said. “It became home of drugs and hookers. Walking up and down the street here used to be pretty scary. When we bought this place, the police were outside continuously, literally.”

Fourth Street, indeed, is much brighter, now that the Morris Burner Hotel has flamed into being.