Chamber News & Views: The engaging history of the Ormsby House
It was certainly great news on Sept. 7 when Kim Fiegehen, representing owners Al Fiegehen and Don Lehr, appeared before the Carson City Board of Supervisors to inform them the long-shuttered Ormsby House has been in escrow since the end of August.
Not only was the mood euphoric — albeit cautious — there was a collective sigh of relief that this venerable and historic name predating Nevada Statehood could once again grace one of the largest private structures in our community and become again the very heart of this historic city.
Those who were here prior to 2000 remember the Ormsby House as a vibrant and happening “go-to” place. Just about every large meeting was held in the second-floor ballroom. The restaurants were full and people flocked to and fro. That’s how I remember the hotel/restaurants/casino.
Newer residents have only seen this empty building in the various stages of exterior remodeling and though the outside appears finished, there’s still lots to do inside, though it is well underway to being the premium hotel envisioned when remodeling began. Room sizes were enlarged taking the rooms from 200 down to 100, the second-floor meeting area will be state-of-the-art with a kitchen on the second floor to assure food is served hot, plus there are a series of smaller break-out rooms. The main floor is yet to be fully determined, but there is promise of a great restaurant and upscale casino.
Many a Carson City resident was once employed at this Ormsby House and the stories are many and engaging, but it is the history of both hotels — the earlier one and the current one — that is the most engaging tale of all. I will forewarn you that the research took me to many sites — some contradictory — and I had to piece timelines together along with historical vignettes. I’ve tried my best to link the history of this name to the two hotels that bore no relation to each other.
Here’s my stab at recreating the history of the Ormsby House name, for this was just a name, not specifically a long-standing piece of Carson City real estate.
For those not familiar with early Carson City history, the first Ormsby House was built by Major William Ormsby in 1859, five years before Nevada joined the Union. Originally from Greenville, Pa., the Major emigrated to California in 1849 to try his luck during the gold rush. Unsuccessful at mining gold, he became an agent for the Pioneer Stage Line in 1857, moving first to Genoa and then to Carson City to build a hotel bearing his name at the corner of what is now Second and Carson Streets. The Ormsby House soon became a stop on the Overland Stage and Pony Express routes.
Unfortunately, Major Ormsby was denied the opportunity to greet guests at his hotel, for he died one year later in 1860 while fighting the Paiute Indians during the Pyramid Lake War.
According to a historical information sign stored within the Ormsby House and unearthed by historian Scott Schrantz (aroundcarson.com) John Kooser took over the hotel after Ormsby’s death, and in 1892 enlarged the hotel soon to become “the” place to rest. Ten years later, the hotel expanded once again.
Mining declined and between 1880 and 1900, so did the fortunes of the hotel. The name was changed to Park Hotel and was closed during the 1920s, the first of many subsequent closures. Thus, when you follow the timeline, the Ormsby House name was not used for at least 72 years. Read on.
The now seriously blighted “fleabag” Park Hotel was purchased by Dominique and Teresa Laxalt in the early 1930s. They demolished the eyesore, signaling the end of that era. Today, the original site is occupied by Coldwell Banker Select Real Estate.
In 1972, former Nevada Governor Paul Laxalt decided to build a hotel at the corner of Fifth and Carson Streets, and named his new hotel Ormsby House to carry forth the name associated with one of this state’s first hotels — the name must not have been trademarked — and the name associated with the property first purchased by his parents at Second and Carson Streets, the early site of the original Ormsby House.
Thus, there were generations of Carsonites who had never seen the Ormsby House name on any building until this time.
Laxalt wasn’t a hotelier for long, selling the property to Woody Loftin, who owned a casino in Hawthorne and was partners with Clark Russell and Robert Cashell — former Lt. Governor and Reno Mayor — in the Mother Lode Hotel — later renamed the Best Western Carson Station and now the Wyndham Garden Hotel/Max Casino.
Upon Loftin’s death in 1985, the successful hotel/casino operation transferred to his son Truett who is credited with building the multi-story garage. Well, as luck would have it, the economy took a turn, California Indian Gaming was putting a dent into Nevada gaming and the Ormsby House could not weather the downturn, thus filing for bankruptcy protection in 1990. A foreclosure was declared in 1993, followed by yet another shutdown.
In 1995, former Las Vegas developer Barry Silverton reopened the hotel and within two years, the hotel/casino was in bankruptcy/foreclosure once again. This time, the state stepped in threatening to close or take over the operation because of continued accounting violations and non-payment of bills. Silverton defaulted on the $5.5 million loan from Cerberus Partners, who then took over the assets in September 1997 and hired Bob Cashell to become general manager. Of course, the hotel/casino was again for sale, though this time it stayed open during the process.
Are you following all this?
Now to the present, On Sept. 15, 1999, current owners Don Lehr and Al Fiegehen bought the beleaguered property and kept on Cashell. Just over one year later, in mid-November, the doors were shuttered and have been shuttered since. The task of remodeling the hotel was daunting, for under every wall, there seemed another obstacle that needed to be brought to today’s standards.
The next chapter? We can only hope the Ormsby House once again becomes the heart of this city — as it was until 1900 and again in 1972 — giving us another place to gather, dine and meet. The Laxalt’s did not need to name their hotel after the original Ormsby House, but it is good they did, thus keeping a part of our very early history alive.
Now you know the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say.