The first “first family” to occupy the mansion was that of acting Gov. Denver S. Dickerson and his wife, Una, who moved in in July 1909.
The marvelous structure was designed and built by George Ferris and Co. of Reno. Basically a two-story mansion in the Southern Colonial style, the unbelievable building was constructed for the sum of $40,000, which had been authorized by the 1907 Legislature and signed off on by then-Gov. John Sparks (hence the Sparks connection to the mansion.)
In September 1909, June Dickerson was born in the mansion, purportedly the only child ever born there.
To date, the mansion has been home to 18 of Nevada’s governors. Over the years it has been renovated several times, with minor renovations in 1959 and more considerable restoration work in 1967. In 1969 the Legislature approved $78,750 for remodeling but most of the upgrades, furnishings and decorating were accomplished with $200,000 in private donations.
In 1999-2000, the most significant reconstruction was initiated by Gov. Bob Miller and first lady Sandy Miller with the entire project financed by private donations.
A timeline on the mansion shows that it was first opened to the public in January 1910. In 1976 the structure was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
For this writer, one of the earliest visits to the mansion occurred during the term of Gov. Paul Laxalt when I was invited to Carson City to play tennis with the governor. He provided a guest bedroom and shower facilities as a changing room from “civvies” to tennis attire, after which we drove over to his private residence in Carson City that sported a tennis court and swimming pool. Following the match we returned to the mansion, showered and had a fine lunch on the back porch.
Another early visit to the grounds occurred in 1969 and that occasion was the inaugural governor’s dinner to support the Athletic Department at the University of Nevada, Reno.
At that time, iconic NFL coach George Allen was the featured speaker. Over the years since then, the “Guv’s Dinner” has featured many notable speakers, including Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Theismann, Charles Barkley and Roy Williams, to name a few.
Today, the governor’s mansion is the sparkling centerpiece of historic Carson City where many other beautiful early 20th century private mansions still abound and are inhabited by lucky residents who live in the opulent style of a bygone era.
Incline No Lake?
The once-pristine waters of Incline Lake, stocked heavily with fish for its private owners to catch, are no more. The tiny body of water was drained off last year when it was feared the relatively small dam that first created the lake in 1942 was not safe from seismic damage. Now, whether to restore the lake or let the area revert to its once verdant meadow is one of the series of controversies still surrounding the future of the once private enclave that was obtained by the U.S. Forest Service in 2008 for $46 million. The previous owners of the property, Incline Lake Corp., had set a value of $75 million on the property but accepted the $46 million based on a “friendly condemnation” hearing that is scheduled for U.S. District Court determination.
Whatever its future, the individual private “cabins” that used to surround the lake are now gone forever and the area will someday be open to the public as a recreational park. Hikers and wintertime cross-country skiers are unanimous in their desire to see the lake never return.
The Incline Lake private getaway was established by a number of wealthy northern Nevadans more than six decades ago and over its lifetime it was visited by many of the most powerful and influential “movers and shakers” in the country. Too bad no one kept a master guest list of the hundreds of celebrities who visited the lake where — it was said — every time a visitor caught a trout, two of equal size were immediately put back into the lake.
Another attraction for years was the powerful telescope located at one of the residences that, because of the altitude and lack of surrounding lights, could peer deep into space — much further than its contemporaries of equal size and located at lower elevations.
As a one-time visitor to Incline Lake — when the Reno Prospectors Club had an outing there courtesy of Pete Barengo, one of the owners — I was impressed with the “cabins,” which were of stately size and design. Many of the guests on that occasion opted for angling, while others of us looked for “fish” at the gin rummy tables. After a hearty lunch and numerous adult beverages, the party broke up. Since I was riding with Barengo and his buddy Larry Devincenzi, we opted to proceed on to Crystal Bay and to visit the Cal Neva Lodge for additional unneeded refreshment. It was there, with dusk approaching, that Barengo had the brilliant idea of going to Tahoe City and taking us out for a ride in his hand-constructed cabin cruiser. The lake was fairly choppy and getting out of the dock area was a ricochet adventure. Once out in the rolling waters, Barengo suggested that I try my water skiing skills. Finally, with the aid of powerful flashlights, they fished me out of the bone-chilling water. On the way back to Reno, Devincenzi told me the most interesting thing about Barengo’s boat.
He built it in his basement in Reno and when he was finished it was too big to get out of the basement doors, so he had to saw it in half and then glued it back together!
Needless to say I never went on another cruise in the Barengo watercraft.
Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.
Editor’s note: Harry Spencer’s column is sometimes a mix of reporting and opinion. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.