By Jimmy Olsen
A spectral finger from the Ghost Ship in Oakland has reached out to Reno to threaten the existence of the Morris Burner Hostel, a whimsical outpost of Burner culture in the world’s biggest little city.
A fire in the combined artist collective/performance space/residential building claimed 36 lives in December. The tragedy set fire marshals and city inspectors all over the country to scrutinizing buildings and enforcing codes. When they turned up at the 43-room hostel at 400 East 4th Street in downtown Reno, they found the sprinkler system in the Steampunk Saloon and Ballroom was lacking, according to Jim Gibson.
The bar was closed, pending a $50,000 upgrade, cutting off a major revenue source for the Morris. But the bad news did not stop there. Transportation officials required that a performance stage in the building’s back lot be temporarily removed while they upgraded utilities on either side of the hostel, part of a plan to improve connections between Reno and Sparks. That shut off the other major source of income for the hostel, which was compensated to the tune of $35,000, but the yard in the back will be torn up for at least three months and may never again be suitable for outdoor performances.
The performance spaces accounted for the bulk of the hostel’s income. The 13 currently available guest rooms on the second floor are typically filled on weekends but visitors are few during the week. An additional dozen residents occupy the top third floor on a longer-term basis. The hostel is run as a private club, requiring a minimum $20 membership, with a berth in a dorm-style room costing an additional $15-$20 a night and deluxe suites running about $100. Room rates depend on the membership type.
The facility was originally built as the Bonney Hotel in 1931, directly on the country’s first transcontinental highway. For its time, it was one of the finest hotels around. After many name changes, it was sold in 1949 to E. F. Morris, whose name still graces the establishment.
The building’s transition from a hotel to a hostel dedicated to the art, the culture and the 10 principles of Burning Man, is a tale of two Gibsons. Don Gibson was leaving the 2007 Burn when he realized that his brother, Jim, would find Burning Man to be a wonderful experience.
The next year, Jim came to the Playa with his Jungle Bus art car and immediately fell in love with the people, the art and the principles. Eventually acquiring the Playa name Jungle Jim, Gibson worked on the Temple of Transition in 2011, and started looking for ways to spread Burner culture. The brothers bought the Morris for $425,000 in 2013, according to Washoe County records. Opening as the Morris Burner Hotel, Gibson later changed the name to the Morris Burner Hostel. As a hostel, the Morris encourages higher turnover rates that mean it can expose more people to Burner culture.
Following the Burner ethos, the hostel is mostly run by volunteers. As you approach the front door, you notice it is locked. You need to ring the doorbell and wait for a volunteer to usher you in. On the ground floor is the remarkable Steampunk Saloon and Ballroom where artistic events were held. The 10 Principles are prominently displayed just inside the door of the bar. A small sign across the room reads “Hippies use backdoor – no exceptions”.
The second floor has the guest rooms, decorated in individual themes by Black Rock City artists. It is reminiscent of walking the streets on the Playa and visiting theme camps, each with a different and unique style. The Sparkle Pony room is quite obvious, while the DaVinci’s Workshop room is stylish; the Booby Bar room is inspired by the legendary Terminal Village bar, which existed on the Playa from 2007 to 2011. The pride of the rooms is the Temple Suite, inspired by the magnificent 2011 Temple of Transition.
The Hostel supports local artists as well as volunteering for food and clothing drives for the homeless. Its presence has helped to revitalize its neighborhood. There is a wonderful black and white mural on the front of the building. It is a memorial for Marshall Compton, a Burner, artist, token hippie and a contributor to the Temple of Transition.
To keep the business going, there is a GoFundMe campaign to raise $10,000 as the hostel works toward getting the sprinkler issue in the bar resolved. More than $7,300 was pledged by mid-August. Reopening the bar would bring in much needed cashflow, but the situation is tricky because there are different rules for hotels and hostels and for bars, private clubs, and cabarets.