Photo by Francis + FrancisCanceled: Hammargren’s collection won’t be open to the public this Nevada Day after all.
Video: The Hammargren House
It was supposed to be a celebration, the last time the public would be invited into former Nevada Lt. Gov. Lonnie Hammargren’s home. But now a number of factors have worked against the 72-year-old retired neurosurgeon, forcing him to call off his Nevada Day extravaganza, and perhaps close his doors to the community for good.
Hammargren’s home, which has grown since 1972 from a single-family residence to a rambling, 17,200-square-foot structure, is, depending on whom you ask, a treasure of Nevada’s history and Hammargren’s life or a nuisance and the Valley’s worst eyesore, as Las Vegas Review-Journal readers voted it in 1997.
The multi-level home on Ridgecrest Drive in the Paradise Crest subdivision, near Sandhill and Flamingo roads, is packed with items Hammargren has accumulated throughout his long life, starting innocently enough with a butterfly collection from his childhood in Minnesota. The stuff has taken on a life of its own, though, since Hammargren moved here in 1971 to become Nevada’s first licensed micro-neurosurgeon.
“A lot of this stuff that I have is what’s left of Las Vegas when they close up things,” he says. “I preserve the things that people throw away. Otherwise it would be junk.”
Hammargren, an amateur astronomer, started the expansion of his home in 1975 by building a second-floor planetarium. Eventually, the growing collection led him to buy the house next door in 1986, and the one next to that in ’89. Now the home is a maze of staircases—including one used by Liberace in his Las Vegas show—and walkways. It’s hard to tell exactly where one floor ends and another begins, but the maze seems to lead to the rooftop observatory where Hammargren has markers to chart the sun’s position on the solstices and equinoxes.
But that’s just a hint of the wonders the house contains. He’s got one of Liberace’s pianos, a stained-glass dome from the Dunes hotel-casino, a replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine, a full-scale model of a dinosaur used in Hollywood in the 1930s, a model of the Taj Mahal, a 9/11 memorial complete with a model of the New York City skyline, motorcycles from daredevils Robbie Knievel and Gary Wells, and a gondola that he says is the third-oldest in existence—and his most valuable item. The facade of the home features a full-scale re-creation of the governor’s palace in the Mayan city of Uxmal in Yucatan, Mexico, and the house on the far right—which was his original residence—features a quarter-scale replica of Chitzen Itza.
The items in his backyard, some of which can be seen from Sandhill Road, include a dragon used in EFX at the MGM Grand, a model of the Statue of Liberty, a locomotive engine, a model of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, a 1927 Model T once owned by Redd Foxx, a half-scale model of Stonehenge, two replicas of the space shuttle and an actual Apollo capsule used in splashdown testing. He has a replica of Hoover Dam flanked by boulders taken from near the actual dam and built by former dam workers 25 years ago, now complete with its own bypass bridge.
“I had my bridge done two years before they did,” Hammargren says.
His career has been almost as interesting as his home. He flew more than 100 missions as a flight surgeon in Vietnam before going to work for NASA. He wanted to be an astronaut but couldn’t pass the vision test. As a neurosurgeon, he operated on everyone from boxers to motorcycle showmen.
He began opening his eclectic collection—recognized by the Department of the Interior as a branch of the Smithsonian Institution in 1993—to the public on Nevada Day (Oct. 31) 17 years ago as a campaign ploy after announcing his candidacy for lieutenant governor.
“It was partly PR at the time,” he says. “I’ve got too big an ego, and in running for political office it seemed like the easiest way to get people to know me.”
The open house was canceled last year for just the second time largely because of complaints by some neighbors, most prominently Barbara Robinson, who has lived next to Hammargren since 1988. (Robinson could not be reached for this story.)
Hammargren appeared in Clark County District Court on Dec. 30 because of the complaints, and then before the Clark County Commission on Jan. 20 to apply for a special-use permit for a museum and to request 16 zoning waivers. His applications were denied, though Hammargren was told he couldn’t be prevented from holding public gatherings at his home.
Guy Rocha, who served as Nevada’s state archivist for 28 years before retiring in 2009, says Hammargren’s house is interesting, but not necessarily a museum.
“It’s not so much about Nevada history,” he says. “It says more about Lonnie Hammargren and his personal tastes and interests. And there are people who will always be curious to see that house, but not because they’re going to learn a lot about Nevada’s history in there.”
Hammargren had hoped the legal issues were behind him when he announced that he’d open his house for Nevada Day one last time this year. But the recent rains postponed his preparation, and health issues in his family, legal complications and conflicts with neighbors persuaded him to cancel the event.
“I didn’t want to be in-your-face with the neighbors,” he says. “It’s not like I’ve given up forever; it’s called regrouping. Better to play the second half of the game.”
He wants to have that last open house while he’s still above ground. But even when he’s not, Hammargren plans to stick around. There’s an Egyptian-style sarcophagus waiting for him underneath his home, where he wants to be interred.
“The law in Clark County says you can be buried on your property, so I am going to be buried here,” he says. “One hundred years from now they can dig me up if they want, but I will have the last laugh on the neighbors because I’m staying right here.”