January 5, 2015 - 10:32 am
What a difference a year can make! Need proof? Look at Liberace’s former mansion on Shirley Street or ask its owner, United Kingdom businessman Martyn Ravenhill.
Last year at this time, the longtime Liberace fan was excited about his August 2013 purchase of The Showman’s former 14,939-square-foot home out of foreclosure for $500,000. He was preparing to take on the challenge of preserving the mansion and the acclaimed pianist’s memory.
But there was a major issue: two sinkholes under its master-suite wing.
A year later, Ravenhill’s enthusiasm remains after celebrating the holidays in the private residence. The sinkholes are history, and 2015 looks to be the year of the mansion’s restoration.
Journey to Shirley Street
Ravenhill is a Liberace fan — one who only saw him perform on television and never live. The telly was enough to inspire him to learn how to play the piano and to eventually purchase Liberace’s part-time Las Vegas home.
“It has been an adventure. Two years ago, if you had said that I would be here owning Liberace’s mansion in Las Vegas, I would have told you that you were crazy,” Ravenhill said. “I am a great believer in destiny, and we find out afterward why. I am really looking forward to learning the ‘why.’ ”
There are two other “why” questions: Why did Liberace’s former residence end up in foreclosure? And why would a businessman from across the pond want to buy and restore it?
Wladziu Valentino Liberace, the iconic piano virtuoso known for over-the-top costumes and opulence, created his luxurious living space at 4982 Shirley St. in 1974 with the purchase of neighboring homes in this average-looking neighborhood located between the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and McCarran International Airport. He combined the homes to create a supersized mansion with ornate chandeliers, imported decorative items, murals, mirrored walls, stained glass, pianos and ample room for entertaining.
After Liberace’s 1987 death, there were changes of ownership as well as changes to the home. At one point, it was used for events, weddings and even proms. After being purchased in 2006 for $3.7 million, the mansion went into foreclosure, lost its sense of grandeur and fell into disrepair.
The foreclosure made headlines, and Ravenhill learned of it through an unlikely source: YouTube.
“I saw that it was for sale and that it was in really bad shape,” Ravenhill said. “I called and was told that it already had an offer and was not for sale. I asked ‘Who bid on it — a person or a company? Is it officially sold?’ ”
He discovered the deadline for escrow and followed up to see if the sale actually went through. When it fell through, Ravenhill was on a plane to Las Vegas, toured the home, placed an all-cash $500,000 offer and, as they say, the rest is history.
“I did not realize the magnitude of the place until I saw it. It is almost 15,000 square feet. In England, you can purchase a studio flat for about $500,000, and here I could get a 15,000-square-foot home owned by Liberace for the same amount,” Ravenhill said.
He knew that repairs were needed, but it was after the purchase that the sinkholes were discovered, which could explain some cracking walls.
With the foundation issues, it could have been easy to just bulldoze the home and start from scratch, but that would go against Ravenhill’s intent to purchase the home in the first place. Without repair, that section of the two-story home would have likely collapsed within 48 months, according to Ravenhill.
Real Estate Millions previously toured the home in August in the midst the foundation being repaired. At that time, flooring was torn up and dirt filled the master bedroom, master bath and enormous walk-in closet. Sunlight from the outside could be seen along the bottom of the walls.
Now, the dirt, trenches, and gaps between the wall and foundation are no more, and the restoration is on track.
Bringing Back the Glamour
“When you take a look at Liberace, he was a very different type of entertainer, and there is no one to compare. He had a personal touch, and I think that he had that little spark, that glitz and that glamour like no one else,” Ravenhill said.
“Liberace, to me, is like the face of Las Vegas. Liberace brought magic to the stage, and I grew up believing that Las Vegas is the place of dreams and magic. The house has that glitz and a magical feeling to it.”
Glamour there is. Upon entering its ornate doors is the grand staircase that was reportedly imported from France. The home features 18 chandeliers, some original to the home. There are eight marble pillars and multiple stained-glass windows. Images of Liberace and musical notes are incorporated throughout.
Mirrors are used on walls and in the design of the bar in the grand living room. Ravenhill pointed out that a mirrored wall in the grand living room features etchings similar in style to English illustrator Aubrex Beardsley.
The master suite is reached by walking down a mirrored hallway reflecting light from chandelier-, candelabra-style wall sconces.
Liberace had commissioned a ceiling mural in the master bedroom and bath. The bedroom’s mural depicts the Sistine Chapel. It reportedly took two years for Stefano Angelo Falk, a descendant of Michelangelo, to complete, while the bath mural features cherubs, clouds and an image of Liberace. Additionally, a mirrored floor-to-ceiling fireplace is off-center in the bedroom, with a mirrored bar along its back side. The bath features a marble spa tub under a chandelier and mirrored ceiling, shower, fine finishes and a decorative fountain.
Significant changes to the first level of the home include the creation of two separate living quarters. One is accessible through the master bath in what was once Liberace’s master closet and “red room.” The other is in an oft unused space adjacent to the grand living room; it features ornate blue tile original to the home and an area that was once known as a “gambling room.” (Liberace had a residential gambling license back in the day.)
Also, on the first floor is an open room that a previous owner had turned into a ballroom, where once had been an outdoor swimming pool and backyard. Currently, the room is storing a treasure-trove of items from the closed Liberace Museum — pianos, artwork, lavish costumes and decorative pieces. This space will be used for entertaining.
So far, Ravenhill has spent more than $1 million on the restoration. Among the multiple contractors with whom he has worked is Brian Armstrong with Nu Tone Construction.
Next Steps in Restoration
Next steps include completing cosmetic details and placing furnishings on the first floor and landscaping before Ravenhill opens the mansion for a private event: a Feb. 28 fundraiser for Opera Las Vegas.
The to-do list for the second floor includes preserving the atrium-style “Moroccan Room” and finding replicable copper tiles for it, restoring a bar area, furnishings and accents, and a costly roof replacement. Ravenhill is also researching options and seeking a partnership for solar panels.
Liberace’s design choices reflected an eclectic style that combined high-end glamour with lower-price deals.
“I am going to furnish it as closely as I can to the way Liberace had it. A large number of his furnishings had been sold, but we will replicate it the best we can,” Ravenhill said, adding that the Liberace Foundation will display some of its items in the home.
“Liberace had a unique design taste. For example, he would have some wonderful silver pots and art sitting next to something from the dime store and it didn’t flow. … I am removing the clash and trying to focus on the antiques and the style of furnishings that he would use.”
Among the unusual items that he is in search of is a “stuffed” (taxidermy) peacock. He has located one in Guadalajara, Mexico, but says “if anyone has a stuffed peacock out there, let me know.”
The Future of Liberace’s Mansion
Liberace’s mansion is a private residence with an on-site caretaker and security. It doesn’t have a special-use permit. The fact that the home is not open to the public does not seem to deter curious passers-by and Liberace fans from driving by to get a peek.
“I welcome ideas and solutions. If anyone has a story to tell or knows secrets about the house and things like that, I would like to learn about it because I do hope in one point in time to open up the doors to others,” Ravenhill said, encouraging ideas to be shared through the Liberace Mansion Facebook page.
He hopes that interest in Liberace will go beyond Shirley Street.
The Liberace name has been in the news with last month’s announcement that the Liberace Foundation is working with Hologram USA to create a Liberace hologram that could be used in a full-length live show; the date and location of the show were not released.
Ravenhill has several ideas of helping preserve Liberace’s memory.
“I am hoping to have a street or a road named after Liberace in Las Vegas and to have it on GPS. Why isn’t there one dedicated to his memory?”
Another idea is to partner with a television station and hold a music contest for scholarships in the mansion’s ballroom. “I would like to move forward with the Liberace legacy and that is to provide scholarships to music students. It would be very good for the community and help keep his dream alive.”
“It has been a magic-carpet ride, and I have met so many people and seen much interest in what I’m doing,” he said. “It is all coming together and living here is a treat as well getting used to the nuances. … I am really looking forward to finding Liberace’s ghost, if there is one.
“What I really want is to keep Liberace’s legacy alive. If you say to somebody that is (younger than) 40 years old ‘Abbott and Costello’ or ‘John Wayne,’ they stare at you. It is sad that these things are slipping by and I don’t want that to happen to Liberace,” Ravenhill said. “I am trying to keep his memory alive.”