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Tourists and history buffs are again flocking to the spiffed-up former residence of Comstock silver king John Mackay.
Photo: Charlie Johnston (above), Matthew B. Brown (below)
A tour of The Mackay Mansion Museum reveals many nuggets of Virginia City history. Perhaps the most fascinating is learning of a system of underground tunnels that once led from John Mackay’s home to a number of businesses in town.
After a four-year hiatus, the museum reopened for tours on May 1. We are lucky enough on this day to be escorted around the property by the man behind the mansion’s renaissance, Octavio A. Cresta, and his publicist, Wendy St. Martin. Cresta shows us what appears to be an average white wall in a storage room on the mansion’s bottom floor. Behind the sheetrock, Cresta says, is access to the tunnels, once used primarily by deliverymen for transportation of goods and messages.
Cresta’s temporary acquisition of the property is indicative of how communication has changed since the 1800s. Consider how he got the idea to lease the 150-year-old mansion until 2014.
“I ran into Brian Bills, the owner, through craigslist and fell in love with the property,” Cresta says. Craigslist.org, a popular classifieds website, connected Cresta to a key piece of Virginia City’s past and a popular worldwide history attraction. “We’ve had a great response [to the mansion’s reopening]—hundreds of people have come through,” Cresta says on a sunny June day. “We just had a group of journalists from all over the world—Germany, Canada. It’s getting great reviews.”
Leasing the classic home was the perfect opportunity for Cresta to mingle his Incline Village antiques business, Uniquities, with the home’s original decorations. “I brought some of the antiques from my gallery,” says Cresta, a 24-year Nevada resident. “I had to fix and clean up the whole house and paint in several areas…the whole parlor was redone.”
Cresta’s tender loving care shows from the inside out. The lush, landscaped grounds and party terrace can accommodate up to 400 persons for reunions, concerts, cultural events, and fundraising galas. The grand gazebo has provided a wonderful ambiance for numerous weddings held at the Mackay Mansion throughout the years.
The mansion’s mystique, however, is within the home. A stroll through its confines is eloquent, rugged, and a little bit spooky all rolled into one. When you walk into the stylish rooms, you get a feel for how absurdly rich Mackay was. The title of “Boss of the Big Bonanza” came with it a then-unfathomable net worth of about $100 million (by today’s standards, Mackay would be worth more than $2 billion—the same as Oprah Winfrey).
Mackay moved into the mansion, originally built in 1860 as the Gould and Curry mining offices, after his residence was destroyed in the city’s Great Fire of 1875. He relocated to the International Hotel in 1877.
The Grand Parlor on the middle floor of the Italianate-style mansion claims the original fireplace and overhanging mirror, the frame of which is plated with gold. Benches, chairs, dressers, chandeliers, tables, curtains, frames—all are 1800s-style and either original mansion pieces or dating to that era.
The narrow, steep “hanging staircase” leading to the third floor gives you a genuine taste for how architecture has changed over the years. There is an old phone in one of the rooms and an equally old toilet on display—for gazing at only. Old newspaper articles mentioning Mackay are framed for reading in the hallway.
On the museum’s bottom floor, the dining room is decorated with a set of gold plates and goblets of the day, as if Mackay or George Hearst—father of William Randolph Hearst and the home’s original owner—were set to entertain guests in a matter of hours.
The museum has its share of rustic items, from an old fire-fighting wagon to myriad household items of the period (stoves, sewing machines, laundry soap, etc.). Our tour ends outdoors at the site of the home’s original Chinese laundry; it amazes me that the structure has withstood so many grueling Nevada winters. The original assayer’s office, independent of the mansion, is still standing and in good condition.
According to Cresta, the office-turned-home-turned-museum first opened for tours more than 50 years ago. Like many old Nevada buildings, there are rumors of the paranormal associated with the Mackay Mansion.
The most famous story concerns actor Johnny Depp. While filming the movie “Dead Man,” Depp stayed in Mackay’s former bedroom. He supposedly saw a ghostly apparition in the form of a little girl dressed in white, which other people have claimed to see in the house. There is also speculation of a floating elderly lady, a colonel, and a woman who ambles up and down the staircase.
Are the ghostly tales true? On his website, Cresta invites you to the mansion to judge for yourself.
Fourth Ward School Museum
Erected in 1876 to house more than 1,000 students, this school graduated its last class in 1936. Today, art exhibits, oral history lectures, and scholar-in-residence programs are available for visitors and residents.
LEC #1 Comstock Firemen’s Museum
Founded in 1979 by Virginia City’s volunteer Fire Department, this museum displays 19th-century firefighting equipment. Liberty Engine Company No. 1 is still an operating volunteer unit.
Piper’s Opera House
Built in 1885 and still in use, Piper’s Opera House has undergone extensive restoration. Show attendees at Piper’s can watch for ghosts who are said to attend many of the performances. Read a story about Piper’s here.
St. Mary’s Art Center
Dating to 1876, the building was originally established as the St. Mary Louise Hospital by the Sisters of Charity and Bishop Patrick Manogue. Today, the art center offers year-round lodging and art instruction, including watercolor, acrylic, oil, pastel, and photography.
St. Mary’s in the Mountains
Virginia City is home to a number of beautiful churches reflective of late-19th-century culture. St. Mary’s was rebuilt by Bishop Manogue following the Great Fire of 1875. Currently, the church holds weekly mass and features a museum displaying numerous artifacts and photographs. Read a story about the church here.
Storey County Courthouse
The Storey County Courthouse, built in 1876 after being destroyed in the Great Fire of 1875, is the state’s oldest continuously operating courthouse. Built in Italianate style, the two-story seat of government houses a two-tier jail containing the Silver State Peace Officers Museum.
Visitors can board the historic Virginia & Truckee railway in Carson City and arrive in Virginia City the way folks did in yesteryear. The Virginia City depot is located a short walk from The Mackay Mansion Museum.
The Mackay Mansion Museum
291 South D St., Virginia City
Tours: Daily, 10 a.m-6 p.m. thru November
WORTH A CLICK