Businessman invests millions to restore Liberace’s mansion
The hints that Liberace once owned the place aren’t exactly subtle.
The mirrors, not just on every wall, but also, in tinier versions, affixed to a piano and a bar in the living room. The stage costumes — in pink and classic black — preserved in display cases in the dining room. And, in the master bathroom, an image of a smiling, cherub-flanked Liberace looking down, as if in benediction, from the ceiling that’d be really creepy if it weren’t so darned adorable.
Liberace (born Wladziu Valentino Liberace in Wisconsin in 1919) lived in the mansion, on a quiet residential street just off East Tropicana Avenue, from the mid-’70s until his death in 1987. During the years that followed, the home went into foreclosure and survived dilapidation and even the threat of demolition.
In 2013, British businessman Martyn Ravenhill bought the Liberace Mansion and says he has spent millions of dollars restoring it to pretty much the way it looked when Liberace was there. While Ravenhill has loaned the residence out for a handful of events and benefits for area nonprofit organizations, it also serves as his home and represents, he says, an effort to preserve both Liberace’s legacy and an iconic part of Las Vegas history.
Ravenhill considers the intersection of his life with the mansion nothing less than destiny. He first learned about it after watching a YouTube trailer for “Behind the Candelabra,” the 2013 TV movie that starred Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Scott Thorson, the flamboyant entertainer’s onetime companion.
“When you watch something on YouTube, at the end, they throw you to something else,” Ravenhill explains. For Ravenhill, that happened to be a video plea about saving the mansion, which Liberace created by melding two properties into one home of nearly 15,000 square feet.
Ravenhill is a fan of Liberace who knew him mostly from TV shows he watched as a kid in England and even credits Liberace with encouraging him to learn to play the piano. Ravenhill, who was living in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, found it “peculiar” that nobody was stepping up to preserve Liberace’s Las Vegas mansion and flew here the next day to take a look at it.
‘House must be saved’
He began the tour with no intention of buying. But, he says, “within 10 minutes of coming here, I just had this kind of sense of duty and responsibility: The house must be saved.”
Ravenhill paid just over $500,000 — in cash — for the property. “But, for 15,000 feet, as iconic as Liberace was, it was kind of a no-brainer,” he says.
Ravenhill had no concrete plans other than keeping the home safe and intact. When others asked what he planned to do with it, “I was unable to give anyone an answer,” he admits. “Just to save the place.”
But, even then, Ravenhill — who works in finance and says he has no particular expertise in construction, property development or even home repair — realized that a renovation would be a long-term, and pricey, undertaking. He estimates that he has invested “well over $3 million at this point.”
Ravenhill says when he bought the mansion, windows had been broken, thieves had broken in and stolen bathroom fixtures, the carpeting was moldy and the entire home required fumigation. Worse, Ravenhill says, water leaks over time had created “two huge sinkholes” that required the building to be shored up.
Attention to detail
Now, four years later, Ravenhill has re-created Liberace’s residence as closely as he could. For example, Liberace loved looking at himself in mirrors, so they’re everywhere, from wall mirrors bearing Aubrey Beardsley-ish designs in the living room to a “hall of mirrors” fashioned after that other one in the Palace of Versailles in France.
Liberace also loved gold, apparently, and gold accents are another theme, as is marble, including a set of pillars that Liberace reportedly imported from Italy.
But Liberace certainly knew how to do gaudy. For example, the ceiling of the master bedroom features a re-creation of the Sistine Chapel’s. “Liberace was a devoted Roman Catholic and he obviously couldn’t buy the Sistine Chapel, so he did the next best thing,” Ravenhill jokes.
There’s a curved staircase that Liberace obtained from a can-can bar in Paris. “For some reason, it couldn’t be dismantled,” Ravenhill says. “It cost a lot of money to get it across the ocean and then across the continent.”
Upstairs is what Liberace called the Moroccan Room, a sun room of the type popular in the ’70s, that reportedly was his favorite room for entertaining guests. Also upstairs is a feature that’s startling for its ordinariness: A weathered, dark wood floor that, Ravenhill says, Liberace purchased from “a Gold Rush bar in California that was going bankrupt.”
Ravenhill has made minor changes to the home’s floor plan, in part to separate his own living quarters from the areas visitors and guests may access. He also has maintained the ballroom which can accommodate 200 for weddings.
Ravenhill says he also has created a foundation called Friends of the Liberace Mansion in hopes of pursuing the entertainer’s passion for awarding scholarships “to help people in careers in the performing and creative arts.”
Sure, the Liberace Mansion is an impressive place. But beyond its furnishings, it’s the knowledge that the mansion once was Liberace’s dream house that resonates most among visitors.
“When people come into this house, they get excited,” Ravenhill says. “Their behavior changes when they walk through that door.”
Is that you, Lee?
Liberace might still be enjoying his old digs. Even before buying the mansion, Martyn Ravenhill had heard stories that the entertainer Liberace continued to haunt it.
“I was born and raised and educated in England, and I had my business in England, so the last thing I’m scared of is ghosts,” he says, laughing. “I think they’re fun.”
But, sometimes, he admits, “I have heard a piano playing at night, and my mind plays tricks on me.”
“Yeah, there’s an energy and a spirit there,” he says. “But it’s nothing to be afraid of.”
A grand entrance
Liberace was justifiably proud of his Las Vegas mansion. He even incorporated a video walk-through of the home into his shows at the then-Las Vegas Hilton.
The most striking part of the video: Liberace smiling amid bubbles in the mansion’s ornate bathtub that features gold swan fixtures. The marble bathtub had been damaged over the years and its swan faucets stolen. It would be among the mansion’s signature pieces that required renovation.
As the pre-show video ends, the Hilton-bound Rolls Royce in which Liberace from his home ends up onstage at the casino’s showroom. It’s MTV’s “Cribs” meets “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” and the pre-show video gave fans who never were able to stop by a good idea of what Liberace’s place looked like in its heyday.
An old yarn
A persistent story says that Liberace held a private gaming license for his home. But, like many stories about Las Vegas’ history, this one comes up wanting.
Brian Paco Alvarez, a local historian who also has been an officer of the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, says he never came across anything in Liberace’s archives indicating that he ever held a gaming license.
“One thing I can corroborate is the fact that he did have a slot machine in his house for his mother,” Alvarez says. “His mother loved playing slot machines, and there are photos of the slot machine with his mom. And it wasn’t illegal to own a slot machine.”
The Las Vegas Advisor looked into the gaming license story in 2015 and, again, found evidence lacking. The publication notes that Nevada’s “wide open” gaming law, passed in 1931, required gaming to be conducted in public view, and traced the still-unsubstantiated but often repeated claim to Liberace’s housekeeper as quoted in a 1996 newspaper story.
Here are a few highlights in the history of the Liberace Mansion:
1962: The home at 4982 Shirley St. is built.
Aug. 2, 1974: Liberace, the flamboyant pianist and Las Vegas headliner, buys the property.
Feb. 4, 1987: Liberace dies of what a coroner ruled as AIDS-related pneumonia at his home in Palm Springs, California.
May 18, 1988: The mansion becomes the property of the Liberace Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1976 that awarded scholarships and grants to performing arts students.
Feb. 14, 1989: The home is purchased by a married couple, T. Vance Turner and Jan L. Turner
Oct. 5, 2006: The Turners sell the home for $3.7 million to Terrance Lee Dzvonick.
Feb. 5, 2010: JPMorgan Chase Bank forecloses.
Aug. 23, 2013: Businessman Martyn Ravenhill purchases the home for $5oo,o00 and spends the next several years renovating it to appear as it did when Liberace owned it.
March 2016: The mansion becomes the first entry on the Clark County Register of Historic Places.