RIP for Las Vegas brain surgeon/pol who lived in his own ‘hoarders’ museum

Lonnie Hammargren

Life-size long-ago campaign poster of Lonnie Hammargren in the street gutter at his home a few days after his death

Boy was the life of Lonnie Hammargren a terrific story. Like a terrific movie.

In a medically underserved state he had been one of Nevada’s first neurosurgeons–sometimes  controversial, eventually giving up his practice citing huge insurance premiums, perhaps due to publicly noted malpractice settlements/complaints. He was elected Nevada lieutenant governor–but subsequently came in third in a Republican primary bid for governor due to little party support.

Lonnie was also a nationally known hoarder, living in three adjoining Las Vegas houses he bought to store his thousands of collected items. In later years the “Hammargren Home of Nevada History,” as a sign called it, was opened to the public a single weekend a year, to the annoyance of some neighbors in the upper-class neighborhood–until after he lost one house to the bank amid mounting debts.

Slowly, Lonnie faded from view personally. But some of his collecting–a Batmobile in the front yard, military figurines on the roof, a towering green Tyrannosaurus Rex replica in a back yard easily seen by passing motorists on a busy street–remained visible to help let the world know this was a venue of something–and someone–really weird.

So perhaps it was fitting that a few days after Lonnie–as everyone called him–died last month at age 85, a life-sized poster of him in doctor’s garb from a long-ago political campaign lay in the gutter of the street in front of his compound, from where it had blown. The poster is in the nearby photo, which I took. For seven years I have walked past Lonnie’s spread nearly every day during the morning constitutional with the dog. Lonnie and his long-suffering second wife Sandy lived just a few blocks from the New To Las Vegas world headquarters.

The weathered, partly damaged poster on the ground, which was removed by day’s end, immediately triggered a thought. That was of the shattered snow globe as the troubled, financially distressed Charles Foster Kane–also an excessive collector–utters the mysterious word “Rosebud” while dying before flashbacks at the start of the celebrated 1941 Orson Wells movie “Citizen Kane.” Nearly two hours later, movie-goers learn (spoiler alert for the eight people out there who haven’t seen the film) that Rosebud was the brand name of Kane’s childhood snow sled and that he still had it at the time of his death at his jammed-with-junk estate called Xanadu.

That poster wasn’t Lonnie’s Rosebud. But as it turns out, I might have seen his Rosebud a few years ago. Stay with me on this.

I only met Lonnie on rare occasions. Once was after the funeral of an ex-regent on the elected Nevada System of Higher Education board who happened to be my across-the-street neighbor. Lonnie was a tall, pleasant, soft-spoken mustached man whose demeanor belied his controversial, often argumentative personality. More frequently, I exchanged a simple greeting as he shuffled from the front door in his robe to pick up the daily newspaper as I passed by walking the dog.

On a weekend day in the fall of 2019–I think that was the year, but I could be off–I went to one of the last openings of the Hammargren Home of Nevada History, in the Paradise Crest neighborhood. The event long had been held on a weekend near October 31, which is Nevada Day–when Nevada became a state under a deal rigged by Abraham Lincoln to aid his 1864 re-election bid during the Civil War. Someone at the door was collecting admissions supposedly going to charity but let me in free because he liked my dog.

Two of the three homes, and all three backyards, were open. Hundreds of people jammed the insides and the rear, looking at countless items piled on the ground and hanging from walls and ceilings like a Middle East souk with too much inventory (FWIW I used to live in Cairo, Egypt). Sure, there were things that looked like objects from other cultures, a lot of old vehicles besides the Batmobile, and interesting artifacts like an old Venetian gondola. I recall frames of mounted butterflies. But I judged much of what I observed to be sort of essentially worthless: signs, memorabilia and oddities from old Las Vegas businesses and the like. There was little or no labeling explaining the provenance of anything.

Lonnie sure could have used a professional curator. The problem was that he was his own curator.

Still, Lonnie mixed easily with his visitors, who seemed happy to be there, and certainly enjoyed the attention. But I knew from personal conversations in the ‘hood over the years that many, but not all, nearby residents were not too thrilled about the garish, almost vaudevillian operation. The middle house of the three had been refaced years ago with a huge fiberglass facade replica of a Mayan temple–plunked down in the older, well-to-do neighborhood of traditional homes and visible every single day. Lonnie also clashed over the years with county regulators on land use and construction permitting issues.

Born on Christmas Day 1937 in Harris, Minnesota (population then: 600), Lonnie Lee Hammargren earned five degrees from the University of Minnesota, including, in 1964, a doctorate in medicine. After a stint in Vietnam as a flight surgeon, he returned to study neurosurgery at the Mayo Clinic. In 1971 he moved to Las Vegas, then an area with only 250,000 residents, barely one-tenth today’s population. He specialized in pediatric neurosurgery, working at many hospitals. Lonnie grew wealthy, well-known and popular, and was once featured on Robin Leach’s TV show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

Lonnie operated on thousands of persons of all ages, including prominent athletes and celebrities. Among the most notable: Roy Horn, the magician from Siegfried & Roy attacked onstage by a lion in 2003. Lonnie, though, drew criticism for revealing what some thought were too many details.

As his medical practice grew, so did his political ambitions. Lonnie served on the State Board of Education and in 1988 was elected a higher education regent, often a stepping-stone for aspiring Nevada politicians. In 1994 voters elected him lieutenant governor–in Nevada a largely powerless position unless the governor croaks (which actually has happened five times since Honest Abe worked his statehood magic)–as a Republican.

After serving one term, Lonnie ran for governor in 1998. But he didn’t make it past the Republican primary, badly trailing two other candidates, including the eventual winner in the general election, Kenny Guinn. Press accounts from the time said some GOP regulars viewed Lonnie as too eccentric. He later mounted unsuccessful runs for the state Assembly and, again, the higher education board and lieutenant governor. He said he gave up his medical practice in 2005 after annual malpractice premiums hit $275,000, although according to state records he remained licensed as a physician until 2017.

It was soon after his unsuccessful run for governor that Lonnie started throwing open his compound to visitors. The mostly annual event became catnip for local media and occasionally the national hacks as well, dropping in as they sometimes do to observe unusual customs of far-away natives in their natural habitats. “House Packed with Stuff Is Annual Draw in Nevada,” read a 2008 headline in The New York Times above a story that recounted some of the holdings. They included “Big Bertha,” a black 10-foot-tall model locomotive that Lonnie himself built, and what The Times bluntly called “unadulterated junk.”

It was only a matter of time until the popular long-running A&E network reality documentary series “Hoarders”–which focused on folks afflicted with what is called “compulsive hoarders disorder”–came calling. The 15-minute segment aired in 2016. The opening card: “Compulsive Hoarding is a mental disorder marked by an obsessive need to acquire and keep things, even if the items are worthless, hazardous, or unsanitary. Up to 19 million Americans have hoarding disorder. This is one of their stories.”

It was some story.

Here are some of Lonnie’s comments to the camera on his premises:

I’m a kid from a small town who made it big in the big town … I’ve got signs, shirts, bones, airplane pieces, satellites, canes, a lot of things made from animal parts and bodies, motorcycle pieces and parts. I have at last 50 mannequins. I have the model of a three-quarters size space shuttle. I’ve got a real Apollo spacecraft. It’s full scale, It was one they used for testing in California … I have a model of the first atomic bomb that as exploded in Hiroshima.”

When I had money, I didn’t worry about what something cost. I loved it. Then I bought it … I estimate over time that I’ve spent about $10 million on things I collected. Wasn’t a lot for me at the time. Like Frank Sinatra, I did it my way.

I don’t have enough money to continue paying my mortgage. If I don’t pay the mortgage, I could lose my house.

In the style of reality TV, Sandy attempts to stage an “intervention” with Lonnie to get him to sell some of his stuff. Assisting are two series regulars: David Tolin, a clinical psychology specializing in the treatment of hoarding disorder, and Matt Paxton, an “extreme cleaning specialist” and auctioneer. They point out to Lonnie that selling prices could be impacted by the lack of documentation.

Lonnie goes around the property and agrees to sell a few things. A dent is barely made. Caption: “Lonnie’s grand total for 27 items was $4,112.” One item was what was said to be red boots once owned by Liberace, which Paxton bought for himself.

Personally, I found the whole segment compelling but a little sad to watch.

According to public records, the house in the middle with the Mayan facade had been held for years in the name of something called the Nevada History Trust and the Astronomical Society of Southern Nevada (there was an observatory on the property), with Lonnie as the sole trustee. The following year, he indeed lost the next-door house on the right to the bank, but the new owners who bought from the bank did not rush to clear everything out.

Long-ago clippings tell how Lonnie used to joke about his death. In 2007 he staged an “Awake Wake” for himself, a mock funeral with a New Orleans-style funeral parade (Lonnie was a great music lover) before burying himself for an hour in an Egyptian sarcophagus in his garage. I am not making this up.

But as time went on, Lonnie’s health did decline. Three months before his death, wife Sandy and another person replaced Lonnie as trustees of the Nevada History Trust. Public paperwork filed with the Clark County Recorder of Deeds said Lonnie was being treated for dementia in a care facility and was “deemed legally incapacitated.”

Besides his wife of 33 years, Lonnie leaves behind three children from his first marriage and five grandsons. A celebration of his life will be held July 22 at the Clark County Government Center.

Lonnie’s own Rosebud? According to old news accounts, he caught the collecting bug while capturing and mounting butterflies as a kid in Minnesota. I’m guessing that was the same framed collection of flying insects I saw during my one-time visit with the dog to the jammed-with-junk Hammargren House of Nevada History.

That’s not too far off from Charles Foster Kane–somewhat inspired by the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst–keeping his own childhood snow sled from more innocent times until the very end at his jammed-with-junk Xanadu.

Again, like a terrific movie.

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