Culture

Inside the Home of the Man Who Collects Everything

Former Nevada lieutenant governor and neurosurgeon Lonnie Hammargren has spent decades and millions collecting everything from roller coasters to movie props to spacecraft.

by Justin Caffier
22 March 2017, 8:08pm

Dr. Lonnie Hammmargren is a man of a bygone era. Like Teddy Roosevelt in both disposition and appearance, Hammargren might seem weary of the world, were his sprawling property—half-art house, half hoarder's nest—not a tell that he finds it endlessly fascinating. Bouncing from service in the Vietnam War to NASA flight doctor to Vegas boxing surgeon to lieutenant governor of Nevada, Hammargren's life story may be the only thing more varied and compelling than the treasures in his home.

Hammargren has been collecting all manner of memorabilia and tchotchkes in his Las Vegas three-house compound, dubbed "Castillo del Sol," since he bought his first place on the property in 1972. On a recent episode of A&E's Hoarders, he revealed his impulse to collect has cost him upward of $10 million over the decades, and now, 79 and feeling the sting of debt, he and his wife, Linda, are looking to downgrade from their cluttered castle to the smallest house on his property. Usually only opening his home to the public on Nevada Day, Hammargren agreed to give me a private tour of Castillo del Sol before they "simplify a bit," as he puts it.

Lonnie at a piano that previously belonged to Liberace

We started off at the house's main entrance, and I got my first taste of the duality of Hammargren. Within the space of a few minutes, Hammargren yelled at someone on his cellphone, described an old colleague as "a prick, there's just no other way to put it," and then played "The Johnson Rag" for me on Liberace's old piano.

Words can hardly describe just how jam-packed full of stuff every nook and cranny of the Hammargren home is. The rooms and shelves, teeming with knickknacks, make the jumbled scenes from those old Scholastic I Spy books look downright minimalist. Hammargren is a man who clearly hasn't read Marie Kondo. While your average hoarder might have old newspapers or clothing piles stacked floor to ceiling, Hammargren has filled his property with movie props, landmark models, and spacecrafts.

A pre-9/11 NYC skyline

Hammargren led me around towering structures, up and down stairs, and across gangplanks and catwalks, all of which he'd built himself. The entire place was a testament to that "if you want something done, do it yourself" ethos. Indeed, Hammargren's entire life story seems to have been the product of a series of goals that he simply set his mind toward accomplishing.

I quickly picked up on Hammargren's political sense of humor as we meandered about. He owns dozens (if not hundreds) of latex masks, and they were arranged with mannequins and dummies in all sorts of displays that mocked (mostly Democrat) politicians. The scenes he'd constructed had the toothless satirical bite of circa 1950s MAD Magazine, when the periodical still emulated the comic-book format.

Comparative Catholic and Mormon historical timelines in front of a Taj Mahal model

Hammargren's political leanings may be right of center, but they are rooted in science and policy, not faith, and he makes no bones about that. He showed me the chapel his home contains, despite the fact that he doesn't "believe in Christianity or any religion" as "all are just about equally phony." He did, however, acknowledge that Buddhism is pretty chill.

Hammargren's love for science shines most bright when the topic of space is broached. On top of his work with NASA, he's befriended cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, built a model of a space shuttle that he once convinced Buzz Aldrin to sit in, and the jewel of his entire collection is a legitimate Saturn rocket capsule. For some reason, he's filled this historical treasure with a bunch of old CRT TVs.

Only second to Hammargren's love for the cosmos is his love for Nevada and Las Vegas. Signs from Vegas's mobster heyday pepper the house. A roller coaster car train, plucked from the ride no longer atop the Stratosphere, sits on his roof, full of dummies, collecting desert dust. He doesn't care for this new billionaire-owned Vegas. He'd rather talk about Evel Kneivel jumping the fountain at Caesar's Palace and his ongoing friendship with Evel's son Robbie.

I asked him how he acquires all of these items without breaking the bank. "At this point, they usually come to me offering," he said. And if he wants something that isn't immediately offered up? "I tell them it's costing them money to store the junk, so they might as well just give it to me."

Every item in the Hammargren home is so pregnant with backstory it makes your head spin. I could have easily spent the rest of the year going over every scrap of paper, bauble, and looming statue in Castillo del Sol, cataloging the origin of each. I'd taken enough of Hammargren's time, however, and maybe it was better to view the collection as the beautifully messy forest this man's unique life had created, rather than focus too much on temptingly bizarre trees.

Before I left, I asked Hammargren if his impending move means he's done collecting. "I told my wife I'd stop collecting," he said. "But, then again, I also lie."

A statue of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

A neglected C-3PO

The observatory

A project in progress

An original 1966 Batmobile

The cars of the Stratosphere roller coaster

Tagged:
LAS VEGAS
DESERT
museum
hoarding
Lonnie Hammargren