It has been said that you cannot judge a book by its cover. The same goes for homes. The outside might not accurately convey what’s inside. This is the case with the biggest home on Shirley Street, where sitting beside average homes is a mansion where the world-renowned pianist Liberace lived.
Its new owner, Martyn James Ravenhill, is transforming the 14,939-square-foot residence from a neglected piece of Las Vegas history to the grandeur of when Mr. Showman lived on the street just south of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The English entrepreneur and lifelong Liberace fan purchased the mansion in bankruptcy for $500,000 in August 2013 knowing that restoring the mansion would require a lot of work.
Ravenhill said he plans to invest $1.5 million to $2 million on top of the purchase price to restore the property.
The Liberace Foundation for the Creative and Performing Arts will spend $200,000 to install Wladziu Valentino Liberace’s things back into his home by the end of the year, said Jonathan Warren, chairman of the foundation. If the foundation secures a Clark County special-use permit, it hopes to open the restored mansion to limited tours. Warren also said the foundation will announce the opening of the Liberace Museum “somewhere on the Strip” next week. The Liberace Museum was closed in 2010 after operating for 31 years at 1775 E. Tropicana Ave.
“I grew up thinking Liberace was wonderful,” Ravenhill said in an email from England. “I was inspired by him from an early age. I learnt the piano because of him. I thought he was much more than just a camp figure. He set trends that continue today.”
In 2013, Ravenhill noticed on YouTube that the Las Vegas mansion owned by Liberace was in foreclosure and in a lackluster state. Hearing that the property was for sale, he flew to Las Vegas the next day to take a look.
“Suddenly, there I was walking around this place. Opening the door felt like home. There was a strange feeling of nostalgia to me. You could feel the history in the place as well,” he said. “As we were walking around, I already knew that I had to buy it to mark my 50th birthday. I have come to the realization that you have to do things while you can and seize the moment.”
Ravenhill’s purchase has gained national attention. A couple of weeks ago, the Liberace mansion’s restoration hit national news when the “OK!” television show, along with the Las Vegas Review-Journal Real Estate Millions section, got an insider look at the mansion.
Restoration, Not Renovation
Zar Zanganeh, a Realtor with Luxe Estates &Lifestyles who was interviewed by “OK!,” is quick to point out that the Liberace mansion is a restoration project, not a renovation, and focused on keeping “the home authentic” to when Liberace lived there part time from the 1970s until his 1987 death.
“The focus is to bring the mansion back to its original glory when Liberace lived here. We are keeping the original features of the home and returning some areas that other owners changed back to its original style. We’re focused on keeping the home as authentic as possible, and it will even feature items original to the home,” said Zanganeh, who is a member of the Liberace Foundation advisory board along with Ravenhill. “It’s wonderful that the owner, Martyn, has given so much access to the foundation to really preserve it back to the way it was.”
Liberace’s decision to move to this typical-looking neighborhood does not seem to be in tune with an iconic piano virtuoso who was known for over-the-top costumes and opulence.
In 1974, he created his own luxurious living space at 4982 Shirley St. by buying neighboring homes and then building them into a supersized mansion featuring ornate chandeliers, imported decorative items, ceiling murals, mirrored walls, stained glass, pianos, a swimming pool adorned with tiles designed as piano keys and ample room for entertaining.
Some Las Vegas natives tell tales of his home being a favorite on Halloween night because the entertainer handed out full-size candy bars. There is also the legend that on Christmas he would load up his car with gifts and hand them out to kids in poor neighborhoods.
Former Las Vegas publicist Mary Anderson-Harris, who lives in Burbank, Calif., remembers when her younger sister and a friend, walking home from elementary school, knocked on Liberace’s door.
“They rang the bell, he answered the door, and was very charming and gave them both autographed photos,” she said in an email responding to a Facebook request for local Liberace stories.
After Liberace’s death, the mansion lost some of its luster during ownership changes. Various changes were made to the home, some of which cannot be undone, such as enclosing what was once the backyard, filling in the swimming pool and turning that area into a banquet-style room. At one point, the home was used for events, weddings and even proms.
After being purchased in 2006 for $3.7 million, the mansion went into foreclosure and fell into a state of needing repair.
Foundation, owner Committed to Preserving Liberace Mansion
Ravenhill said he is committed to restoring the mansion and hopes to have it done by the end of this year.
The first part of the project focuses on the home’s main component and the second part focuses on fine-tuning and interior design elements.
The most noticeable area of restoration activity during the Review-Journal’s visit was in the master-suite wing where dirt is exposed in areas of the master bedroom, master bath and enormous walk-in closet.
After these major projects are complete, the restoration effort will focus on re-creating the home’s grandeur through interior design.
The Liberace Foundation and design consultants Paulina Biggs Sparkhul and Warwick Stone will be involved in the project’s design component and incorporate items original to the Liberace mansion into the home.
Many of these items were featured in the now-closed Liberace Museum and are currently stored in labeled crates in the large climate-controlled banquet room where Liberace’s swimming pool once was.
Both are experienced in working in the celebrity realm; Stone is a memorabilia curator with the Hard Rock Hotel, and Sparkhul’s experience includes working with the new owner of Michael Jackson’s last Las Vegas residence (known as Hacienda Palomino or “Thriller Villa”) as a design consultant.
“We, the foundation, are not really involved in the actual restoration of the mansion, but what we are involved in are the artifacts that will be installed in the mansion,” Warren said.
“The Liberace Museum has about 15,000 cubic feet of items currently stored at the mansion. Cars are stored elsewhere, and a few items, including a piano, are currently on exhibit at The Cosmopolitan,” Warren said.
Among the stored items that will be incorporated into the home are seven pianos, statues, paintings, home furnishings, costumes and furniture.
The Mansion’s Future
The Liberace mansion is not open to the public. The mansion is secured, and a property manager lives on-site.
According to online Clark County property records, its land use is designated as a single-family residence. Warren said if the county approves a special-use permit, the home will be open to the public on a limited basis.
For Ravenhill, his focus is on keeping Liberace’s dream and legacy alive.
“For now I am doing all I can to save, preserve and restore the property,” Ravenhill says. “I hope in the future to find a way to open up the doors and share this wonderful piece of Las Vegas history because, as the man himself might have said, I am not going to the trouble of preserving all the treasures simply to keep them behind locked doors.”