Details and decadence defined this illustrious Reno estate, which has risen from the ashes on the shores of the Truckee River.
By Katrina Paz
Photography by Jason Hogan of Get Your View Photography
It shouldn’t even be here, this century-old home that was created as a statement piece for U.S. Sen. George S. Nixon. It’s suffered more than its fair share throughout the decades, ravaged by fire and abandoned in the shadows of Nevada’s biggest little skyline. But just over a hundred years later, this historic mansion is reclaiming its rightful spot among Reno’s architectural and cultural treasures.
Unlike most homes built at the turn-of-the-(20th)-century, this one has received the ultimate overhaul, completely retrofitted to meet today’s engineering standards. This was no small feat given the home is just shy of 18,000 square feet with eight bedrooms, nine full baths, five half baths, and, oh yes, an elevator.
While maintaining the character and elegance of the home was integral, owners Harry and Carla Hart (and a team of builders and designers) seized the opportunity to incorporate all the modern features and conveniences today’s homeowners usually only dream of.
“It would have been faster, easier and simpler to tear it down,” says Sandi Solomonson of Chase International. “It took more dedication to do this.”
When the estate was purchased in 2002, it was essentially a shell of the home, having suffered severe smoke and water damage, but the Italian-villa exterior was left unharmed. Builder Robert Gurnea worked with the Harts for more than 15 years and continues to care for the property. He attributes the magnificence of the home to the Harts’ patience and attention to detail, and these details are everywhere. Despite the contemporary comforts of a state-of-the-art home (radiant heat with 15 zones, high-pressure AC system, fire sprinklers, and a security system), the mansion remains true to its historical style and period.
According to architect Gail Richie, thousands of pictures were taken before the renovation began and what wasn’t salvageable was recreated. Many of the sconces and the dining room’s crystal chandelier are among the original pieces that still adorn the mansion. Given the enormity of the home, the commitment to precise restoration, as well as functionality, was nothing short of an ambitious undertaking.
The entryway, which contains a restored original radiator register (for decor purposes) and a hidden coat closet that opens to the touch, leads into a main hall with gold foil wallpaper, a grand staircase, and the first of nine gas fireplaces (and the only one that’s not original). The library contains built-in bookcases with beveled glass and adjustable mahogany brackets, while the ballroom features deep-sill windows with custom drapery pockets and boiserie-finish (sculpted paneling) walls. Intricate details, such as carved swallows or daisies and tiered pendant glass, can be found in the original mantels and sconces. The “museum piece” chandelier is comprised of 8,000 gradated crystals and 24 lights.
Oak floors and mahogany run throughout the first, second and third floors, while thick solid pocket and French doors silently create privacy. The home, with its many rooms and gathering areas, still offers intimate nooks for small conversation, reading or television watching. Several of these quiet corners can be found on the third floor, which once functioned as a dorm-like servants’ quarters. The area was reconfigured with four suites, a guest laundry room, seating benches in the dormers, and the original skylights. It’s the natural light and inviting seating that make the area warm and welcoming. The servants’ staircase was also retained in the reconstruction.
Karen Abowd was the interior designer and notes that the project was interesting, but challenging. “It was great re-doing and re-thinking it,” she says. “(The Harts) were really good about thinking through the logic. They had definite ideas, but were open to suggestion.”
The master wing on the second floor includes a Juliet balcony and an office (or nursery) space, along with his-and-her bathrooms with Carrara marble flooring and mahogany cabinetry. The lady’s bath contains a vanity and dressing table, Kohler jetted tub, and a steam shower with ornate honeycomb tile. The gentleman’s side has a slab marble steam shower with glass block. His-and-her closets include custom built-ins (with a variety of pull-out shelves), soft-close drawers and cabinets, a three-way mirror and automatic lighting.
All the bathrooms are distinctly designed, most with pedestal sinks, some with innovative cabinet-style storage, claw-foot tubs, wainscoting, brass fixtures, quartz, and ornate tile and porcelain backsplashes. All the en-suite bathrooms use either soft olive, slate blue or butter yellow color schemes.
The kitchens, of which there are two—a butler’s and an adjacent main/caterer’s kitchen—can easily be sectioned off by a set of thick mahogany pocket doors. While the Subzero refrigerators and La Cornue French range are obvious, there’s more to the drawers and cabinets than meets the eye: additional refrigerator drawers, pull-out produce bins, warming drawers, icemakers, a convection oven, wine refrigerators, and a built-in steam cooker and espresso machine.
There’s also the city view bar off the ballroom with floor-to-ceiling windows. One can imagine Sen. Nixon sipping an Old Fashioned with his banking buddies at the 11-foot curved bar with custom foot rails. The adjacent sun-soaked morning room also features floor-to-ceiling windows, along with an original in-floor peacock fountain and porcelain tile flooring.
Through the years, the mansion has hosted tea parties, recitals, garden gatherings, weddings and intimate galas. The lower level/basement even includes a game room with a wet bar and restored pool table light, as well as an 1,800-bottle wine cellar and tasting room. The cellar is reminiscent of Old World Italy with arches, an open beam ceiling, diagonal wine shelving, a Venetian glass chandelier, a hidden storage closet and an impressive oak table that, due to its size, had to be constructed in the cellar itself.
The interior of the home is exquisite enough, but the views and and the grounds complete the experience. The mansion sits on just over 2 acres in one of the city’s most eclectically upscale neighborhoods overlooking the Truckee River. Every room offers a view of downtown (which is within walking distance) or the river and Peavine Mountains. The many patios and terraces offer front row views to summer rafters and winter storms creeping over the hills.
A circular driveway with a glass porte cochere (covered entrance) allows for both grand and convenient arrivals (there is no garage), while manicured grounds create a park-like setting, complete with a wisteria-draped arch in the side garden. The creative and methodical landscaping accommodates every season so that even as the deciduous trees give way to chilly winter months, shrubs with winterberries begin to bloom.
It’s the century-old ash tree, standing just outside the front entrance, which anchors this now-modern home to its rich and colorful past. Its branches reach up and out, sturdy and strong, and it is sure to have many stories to tell of the socialites and dignitaries that have driven through the front gates and the children that have climbed its limbs. It was planted when the home was built and is so integral to the home and the community that it is measured and cared for annually by the Arbor Association.
“The Nixon Mansion is really one of the most significant homes built during the early days of Reno and has a colorful history,” Richie says. “It was a great honor for me to be part of the team to bring it back to life.”
Built in 1907 for Sen. George S. Nixon, the mansion exuded stately elegance for more than 70 years before a fire devastated its interior in 1979.
A native of Newcastle, CA, Nixon was a Nevada banker who served in the state legislature before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1905. Sadly, Nixon only got to enjoy his home for a few short years before passing away in Washington D.C. in 1912 from meningitis. Afterward, the house had very few owners over the years, staying in the “family” so to speak, when the daughter of Nixon’s one-time colleague, Sen. Francis G. Newlands, purchased the home in 1920. The estate was later purchased by Dr. John Iliescu in the ‘70s. The doctor had the mansion rezoned for mixed residential/commercial use and was planning to operate his practice from the home.
The infamous fire happened on Christmas morning, reportedly caused by the Christmas tree.Dr. Iliescu tried to drag the burning tree (displayed in the main entry) from the home and suffered burns to his arms in the attempt. While he was unable to move the tree very far, the bones of the house were left intact, leaving opportunity for a renovation. However, that wouldn’t come quickly; it was left vacant and neglected for 23 years before the Harts purchased the home in 2002 and set about returning it to its former grandeur.
Architect Gail Richie and builder Robert Gurnea began by completely stripping it down to the bare framing. Richie notes that although it was originally well built, they had to reinforce the structure to bring it up to code.
While the entire home is now adorned with lustrous mahogany and marble, it’s the ornate chandelier in the dining room that is still a focal point for those who visit the home. It was one of the many salvageable pieces that survived not only the fire, but decades of neglect and countless trespassing looky-loos. The chandelier, along with approximately 100 sconces and light fixtures, was taken to the Lamp Doctor in Carson City, where Norman Greenspan and his wife spent six months repairing the pieces.
“They were so badly burned that when they brought them in my shop I told them they had to take them back,” says Greenspan.”There was too much soot on them.”
Once the items were pressure washed, the couple was able to begin their work. Nearly 800 of the 8,000 crystals were melted and replaced—one strand at a time—then they were all rewired and rehung. Greenspan, who normally repairs everyday household items, says they had to use an engine hoist to lift and work on the 200-pound chandelier.
After taking the house down to its bare bones and polishing the last solid brass sconce, the mansion has regained its dignity and elegance. The restoration is being properly recognized too, having recently been honored with the City of Reno’s Historic Preservation Award. It was also acknowledged with the National Heritage Award last year from the Associated Realty of Americas for preserving and protecting historic properties.
“I always remember driving by (the mansion),” Gurnea says. “It wasn’t good to leave a house that long. We wanted to make it nice for the neighborhood.”