(All photos: Dylan Thuras)
Las Vegas, with its bright lights and constant whirl, can feel like another dimension. Visitors to the city can stay in an “ancient” castle, take an elevator to the top of a half-scale Eiffel Tower, or eat from a buffet line in an Egyptian tomb. But perhaps the most idiosyncratic of Las Vegas’s many spectacles sits far from the strip in a leafy residential neighborhood.
Even for residents of Las Vegas, used to the pageantry of their surroundings, the home of retired neurosurgeon Lonnie Hammargren can be difficult to wrap their minds around. This house is not a museum, nor a mere collection. It is a lifelong obsession. It is an incomparable wonder. It is a panoramic window into one man’s overflowing creative mind.
Sitting among manicured lawns and suburban ranch homes is a three-story Aztec temple. There’s a Batmobile parked in its driveway, guarded by a ten-foot-tall pharaoh. Inside is an explosion of objects that are by turn incredible, funny, and alarming.
Known as the “Hammargren Home of
Nevada History,” the “Castillo del Sol,” and the “Principality of Paradise,” this is the 12,000-square-foot estate and endless collection of Lonnie Hammargren. While many collectors specialize in one kind of object, Hammargren embraces. .all the objects. Over time, his stockpile of the strange and unusual grew so large that he had to purchase the houses next door to make room for them. The three houses have become an endless maze of collectables: priceless artifacts, museum pieces, tchotchkes, and total junk, all arranged in loose thematic groups that perhaps only Hammergren himself can truly understand.
Standing here with a portrait of himself drawn by a visitor to the collection, it would be easy to see 78-year-old Hammargren as simply an eccentric with a collector’s eye and hoarder’s habits. But just as the collection has a story, so does the man.
Hammargren was born on Christmas in 1937 in a cottage behind an inn (like someone else born on Christmas, he likes to point out) in Harris, Minnesota. As a young man attending the University of Minnesota, he rose to the top of his class. Like everything in Lonnie’s life and collection (wives, homes, moose heads) one was hardly enough, and he eventually graduated with five degrees.
While his original aim was to become an astronaut, Hammargren was happy to settle for being a brilliant neurosurgeon in the short term. After becoming certified in neurosurgery, he was granted a fellowship at the Mayo Clinic. Hammargren volunteered for Vietnam as a flight surgeon, flew in over 100 missions, received the bronze star, and was given five Air Medals for valor proving once again, that for Hammargren, one of anything is several too few.
Hammargren moved to Nevada in 1971 and became one of only two neurosurgeons in the state. A talented surgeon, Hammargren was in high demand. Over the years, he has performed brain surgery on hundreds of people, including a number of stars. His most famous patient was undoubtedly Roy, of Siegfried & Roy, after Roy was attacked onstage by his tiger. Hammargren also had a political career, twice serving as Nevada’s Lieutenant Governor.
Between his brain surgeries and politicking, Hammargren was acquiring new pieces for his treasure trove. Whenever a Vegas casino, restaurant, or institution of any kind was being destroyed, Hammargren would show up and see what he could take off their hands. Whenever an entertainer decided they had enough and wanted to pack it up, Hammargren was there, happy to drag off any unwanted stage props.
Lonnie Hammargren is less a “collector” and something closer to a bower bird, a kind of nest-maker, driven by a compulsive love of all things kitschy, Las Vegas, Nevadan, curious, unusual, and strange. What makes something belong in his collection is less about its inherent monetary value and more about how it makes Dr. Hammargren feel. Anything large or small that amuses, interests, or intrigues Lonnie can end up on display in the sprawling estate.
A lover of American history, presidents, and tiny versions of huge monuments, a small Mount Rushmore combines those interests into one pure joy.
While Lonnie Hammargren didn’t become an astronaut, he did serve as the flight surgeon for the astronauts on the Apollo mission. His love of all things space has continued through his whole life and shows up in pieces throughout the house. This, for example, is an authentic Saturn rocket capsule, once used for training.
The space capsule is filled entirely with old electronics. The more time you spend in the house and with Lonnie himself the stranger it all becomes. What looks like junk has an amazing story, what looks like a priceless object was pulled from the trash.
As fascinated with the deep sea voyages as he is with space travel, the pool serves as a kind of mini Mariana trench, home to submersibles and bathyspheres of all sorts.
Chief among Lonnie’s obsessions are Nevada and Las Vegas history. This is part of the old Showboat casino sign and bandstand.
A full-scale, fire-breathing dragon lunges out of the house, next to an large pink egg Liberace emerged from during his Easter shows. One can be forgiven for failing to even notice the blacksmith shop.
Long forgotten Las Vegas acts such as Frankie Moreno live on in Hammargren’s collection.
Seated in, what he claims to be, the original Beverly Hillbillies car, mannequins of Bill and Hillary become the “Beverly Hillary-Billies.”
In fact, mannequins populate the entire house.
Cosmonauts and astronauts alike float around in the multiple space themed paintings found around the house. Why this particular painting has been relegated to the back yard is unclear.
Somewhere midway through the house words begin to fail you. Best described in refrigerator poetry this is “moose with foot.”
A full sized T-Rex and elephant cavort in the backyard.
Bits of the tops of the collection can be seen from the adjacent highway leading to many a curious passersby.
Beneath the house is a dungeon used for halloween parties and scaring children. This is also where Lonnie has said he wishes to be buried.
Props from a long-defunct haunted house.
Though Teddy Roosevelt is Hammargren’s favorite president he has a soft spot for both Lincoln and Reagan.
Why Lonnie’s office has been turned into a scary dentist office went unexplained.
Hammargren plays a number of instruments including the piano and accordion.
Part of a collection about his love of music, the Elvis head sings on command.
There is never just one of something.
Elvira sits nearby the wedding chapel which includes a full-scale Gondola salvaged from The Venetian.
Part of a Western themed casino, this display was rescued by Hammargren, who felt a caveman was missing.
Dinosaurs are another of Lonnie’s favorites. The second floor includes a full scale brontosaurus skeleton – minus the head which he has replaced with an E.T. mask.
More pieces rescued from a Western themed Casino.
A true Nevada convert, Hammargren was twice elected Lieutenant Governor. Though mostly a ceremonial role, Hammargren took his political career seriously and ran for Nevada governor in 2000 (though he did not earn the backing of the Republican party).
Hammargren has set up his own astronomy station on his rooftop, which complements the planetarium he’s built inside.
The roof remains one of the only places with any available space. Hanging off the edge and looking down over the neighborhood is a mannequin standing in a roller coaster holding an African staff. There’s also a full-sized plywood space shuttle up there…
To try and wrangle what Hammargren has created into a narrow definition would be a mistake. Among the wild glamor and strangeness of Las Vegas, he has singlehandedly created something unexpected and completely original. The collection, like Lonnie Hammargren himself, is truly one-of-a-kind.
Hammargren opens his house to the public every October on Nevada Day and has been doing so for over 20 years. For the last three years he has been saying it would be his last. Hope that he makes it four.
These posts are a partnership with TravelNevada. As you may suspect, the state that’s home to Lonnie, camel races, cowboy poets, neon museums and Burning Man is not really big on conformity. Head here to get started on your adventure.