His home museum of oddities is weird even for Vegas

His home museum of oddities is weird even for Vegas
Lonnie Hammargren opens his home museum of the weird to the public every October on Nevada Day. (John M. Glionna / Los Angeles Times)

Somewhere in the recesses of Lonnie Hammargren's brain lies the fine line between an eccentric collector, one with a trained eye for the planet's kitsch, and someone who has lost control.

It's a boundary long ago crossed. Observe Bugsy Siegel's toilet, which Hammargren still uses, parked near large models of Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal, Hoover Dam and a looming T. rex.


"I'm a hoarder; I can't deny that word," he says. "But I'm not crazy. You couldn't be crazy and accomplish the things I've accomplished."

At 77, Hammargren is a onetime neurosurgeon and Nevada lieutenant governor. He's also the curator of a home museum of the weird: an outlandish collection cultivated on three adjacent lots in an otherwise gentrified neighborhood in southeast Las Vegas. He leads two visitors on a brief tour, like an absent-minded sociologist relating human experiments past. Some finds are knock-offs, others the real deal. Some depict the foibles of modern society.

Others, well, you'll see.

There's the hot-air balloon basket Hammargren says was featured in the 1956 film "Around the World In 80 Days," a half-scale model of the Columbia space shuttle and a 1960s space capsule used to train Apollo astronauts. (Hammargren says he spent a year testing NASA space candidates and once hoped to go to the moon.)

His Australian shepherd, Maggie, in tow, the tour guide squeezes through various rooms and patios, his artifacts vaguely categorized. Stuff is everywhere.

He whisks past signs from long-ago-imploded Vegas landmarks, harpoons, an iron lung, a Bathysphere, human skulls wearing caps. There's a model of the car from the 1960s sitcom "The Beverly Hillbillies," featuring a mannequin of Jed Clampett. In the front are dummies of Bill and Hillary Clinton. He calls it the "Beverly Hillary-billies vehicle."

Look here. A Clark Gable model jumping from a plane, a jet engine Hammargren says was built for Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose, Bing Crosby's mountain shed relocated from northern Nevada.

So where on Earth does he get all this stuff?

By just showing up at Vegas icons about to be torn down and asking for stuff, or buying them for pennies on the dollar — parts of the city's colorful history he says would otherwise be lost to the landfill.

"I don't look for anything; things look for me," he says. "A person could be leaving town and have this statue they don't know what to do with. They know I'll take it, so they just leave it here."

He's been featured on reality TV shows such as "Tanked," "American Restorations" and "Pawn Stars." In the latter, host Rick Harrison says, bewildered: "I have never seen so much stuff crammed into one house. It is bizarro."

Hammargren once asked Clark County to declare his home a public museum. Officials politely declined.

Mark Hall-Patton, head of the county's museum system, has known Hammargren for years. He took a stab at describing the collection. Imagine, here, a man scratching his head.

"It's one man's passion — it certainly couldn't be anyone's passion other than Lonnie's," says Hall-Patton, who also serves as an object authenticator on "Pawn Stars." As Hall-Patton knows, one man's keepsake is another's junk: "He has a tendency to extrapolate information on the origin of certain things that doesn't really hold together."

Every October, on Nevada Day, Hammargren opens his property to the public, charging a small fee donated to a home for homeless pregnant teens. Still, his collection has brought controversy. Neighbors have sued him for devaluing their properties. They've filled public meetings to gripe about parking jams caused by his open houses.

Then there's his wife. "She hates it all," he says. "She's a nurse. She likes people, not objects. She rolls her eyes when she sees the latest thing."

Hammargren's brother-in-law, Rick Ubriaco, who lives on the premises, says he originally thought the doctor-turned-politician was loony. "Then I realized it's just who Lonnie is. He does things his way. It's Lonnie's code. It might not make sense to other people, but it makes sense to him."

On a recent morning, Hammargren sits at his computer, perplexed. He can't call up information on a motorcycle he wants to buy at auction — a replica of the "sky cycle" Evel Knievel once used. "I was already in a state of disorganization, and then this comes up," he says.

So does he ever sell anything? Not often, but when he does, it takes a Herculean effort to extricate items from the disorder. Take the 1890s steam-powered locomotive, which had been reassembled on the property. "I had to move Bing Crosby's shed to get it out of here," he says.

Hammargren pledges to get the last laugh on his detractors — by being buried in the basement of his home museum. He keeps a tomb with a sarcophagus with a one-of-a-kind design: a neurosurgeon, in the style of ancient Egyptian art, with a nude nurse.

"I'm going to be buried in alcohol and be here for 100 years," he says. "People can come see me."

Recently, friends gathered as Hammargren tried out his own grave, an event posted on YouTube.

"See ya on the other side," one called out as he climbed inside the tomb. And another: "Good night, sweet prince." A third sang from an old Sinatra standard, "And now, the end is near …"

Finally, Hammargren inside, friends closed the lid as one shouted farewell.

"Now flush it," he says.

Twitter: @jglionna