Forgotten details uncovered in historic home
Appeal Staff Writer
VIRGINIA CITY – From inside the walls of Chris and Carolyn Eichin’s Victorian home, a story has emerged about a family whose fortunes were built on a Comstock-era saloon and an opera house.
Brought into the light for the first time in generations: several newspapers dated from the Comstock era, a ladies comb, the business card for a local doctor who practiced at that time and other oddities.
But those aren’t the only things the Eichins are uncovering. Using historical records, they discovered that a prominent businessman built the home and boarded a local journalist, who eventually would head the capital city newspaper, the Morning Appeal, which over time has become the Nevada Appeal.
The Eichins hope to retire comfortably in the home and prosper off it as a historical bed and breakfast. To get it to that point, they’ve sunk into it a small fortune.
The Eichins’ partially remodeled home at 58 N. B St. is located in the small tourist town northeast of Carson City. Old West gift stores and small family-owned museums are crowded along C Street, the main street, like a herd of cattle around the water trough.
It’s this Virginia City that captures the imaginations of the Eichins.
Using inheritance money, Carolyn and Chris, who live in the Bay area, purchased the home for $189,000 in November 2004, according to Storey County records. When completed in about a year, the beige-colored home with red and white trim will open as the B Street House Bed & Breakfast.
Since they bought it, the couple has driven to Virginia City on average once a month to spend a weekend working on the house. Starting the day off at 3 a.m., they arrive at a hotel and then head over to the house to work. Why do they do it?
“Stupidity,” Chris said, then laughed. He’s originally from Switzerland and has a lilting accent.
“We’re just goofy,” his wife of three years said. Perhaps goofy about history.
She taught Nevada history at a small college while living in Southern Nevada. One thing she knew about her new home: The house had a previous address, 29 N. B. St. The old number was still on the house.
Using 19th century directories, Carolyn traced back the owners of the home to one well-known name, at least, his last name is famous in the area: Henry Piper. The oldest brother, John, is more well known for running the opera house and a long string of bad luck he endured.
“This was an upper-middle-class family,” Carolyn said. “Henry Piper was a saloon owner.”
About five doors south of their home is the Piper’s Opera House, which is undergoing its own estimated $6 million restoration, including the restoration of the old saloon.
“John Piper counted on Henry to help him manage and run the saloon,” said writer and opera house historian Andria Daley. “Henry Piper lived just down the street.”
Just past three well known buildings, including the Miner’s Union Hall, in a sophisticated part of town where many prominent people lived, Daley said.
Carolyn found out from an 1878 directory that Samuel Post Davis also lived in the home, most likely as a guest or boarder of the Piper family. Before becoming the editor of the Morning Appeal in 1880, he was a reporter for the Virginia Evening Chronicle. He was also the editor of the “History of Nevada,” published in 1913. Davis was elected state controller in 1898, according to state archivist Guy Rocha.
“He was a historian and he stood up for what he believed in,” said Carolyn. “There’s something about being a Nevadan and also being individualistic and a free thinker. His style of journalism was to look for the truth and point fingers at crooked politicians.”
Now that she knew who had lived in the house, she could figure out what year it was built. The Eichins found a March 30, 1878, copy of the Territorial Enterprise inside the door of their home. They also found an August 1879 copy of the Daily Stage, another VC newspaper that reported on entertainment, in the wall between the dining room and kitchen.
Around the same time, Chris was making his own discoveries. The home was built without a foundation, so the contractor had to raise the home about 18 inches and pour the cement foundation.
“When we raised the house up we found that it was built on the burnt rubble of the house that had burnt in the great fire,” he said.
That fire was in October 1875 and it destroyed a large portion of the booming city.
The Eichins recently discovered another piece of the puzzle, an interview with Charles Piper – Henry Piper’s son – written by the Berkeley Gazette in 1942. In that article, Charles mentions being born in the B Street house in 1876.
Other artifacts have been unearthed in the renovation process. Some they don’t save.
“I found a cigar butt in the wall in the hallway outside the parlor, but I threw it away because I couldn’t see myself saving a cigar butt,” Carolyn said.
By 1890 Henry Piper was working at the Carson City Mint, where he was accused of stealing $50 of crude bullion. He was later convicted and had to pay a $300 fine.
“There was a bit of a scandal around him,” said Nevada historian Susan James. “He was accused of embezzling and his brother John had to bail him out.”
Through the years the home has passed to many different owners. In that time, it’s fallen into disrepair. The Eichins estimate that they’ve spent upward of $400,000 on their 2,400-square-foot retirement home and business, a remodeling effort headed by Jim Collins Construction. The wood siding on the south side rotted and had to be replaced. The roof is new, as is all the paint, plumbing and wiring.
The home has three rooms on the second floor. The room overlooking Virginia City will be named for Sam Davis. The middle room will likely be named after a personality linked to the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, who had owned the home at one time. The reconstructed rail and steam engine will chug into the city by 2010, bringing passengers who will want to stay the night in the historic town. The third room doesn’t have a name yet, just a color – rose red – and a view of the mountains.
They came looking for a place to retire and found a house with hidden treasures and a little bit of fame.
B Street home will appear on HGTV
Hollywood came to Virginia City in early April to shoot a segment for Home & Garden TV.
Chris and Carolyn Eichins and their home will appear on the cable TV program “If Walls Could Talk” in a few months. The basis of the show is uncovering artifacts from a historic home that tell a story about the past.
“We had to take clean artifacts and dirty them up again and then put them back in the wall to uncover them again,” Chris Eichin said.
The Eichins answered an ad in the local newspaper and were selected to be on the show.
Carolyn Eichin said they did it to promote Virginia City, not just their bed and breakfast. She said the city has a lot of history, her home is just one example.
• Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at email@example.com or 881-1212.