Submitted by (little) Karl Breckenridge
We’re riding our bikes out by Virginia Lake this fine Saturday morning so I’ll tell you This is Reno readers about another house that was built eight years ago, in 1941. It was finished the same year that Virginia Lake first filled to its rim. I stopped at the house at the corner of Audubon and Lakeside Drive, at the bottom of the hill down Country Club Drive. There was a nice man standing by this big house, and I got talking to him.
It turns out that his name was Luke Hancock. He was pretty rich, Dad said, and had formed the Hancock Oil Company and sold it years ago to the Pure Oil Company. He came to Reno before World War II and spent some time at the Country Club on Plumas Street before it burned. He told me that he stood on a barren bluff overlooking a big hole in the ground a mile around watching WPS crews planting trees by the dirt road ringing what would soon be Virginia Lake.
He had planned to move to the Holmby Hills of Los Angeles County, but immediately came to like Reno more. He had his architect in San Francisco change the house he was going to build in LA, to suit this site. Although his five children were mostly out of the house in 1940, he built this big 6,000 square-foot house anyway.
Luke invited me in to see his house. Even though I was only 8, a lot of things stuck out in my mind – a mansion with a grand staircase winding up to three huge bedrooms. (The little oval Arabesque window in the master bath fascinated all those who strolled around the lake until the home was totally remodeled in the early 1980s.)
It had a big kitchen on the west side of the house with an adjoining “butler’s pantry” with all the dishes and stuff. Those rooms opened up to a breakfast room with a curved wall on the south end of the house. From there, was a huge dining room.
And the walls of both rooms had what he called “fresco” art. He said that he had hired an artist to come from France to do the fresco walls – a dark woodgrain with some hanging plants in the dining room, and a bright scene of a bayou in Louisiana from a photo he had taken, of a shadowy bayou with sunlight radiating through Magnolia trees with Spanish moss hanging from them. The artist came to America in 1940 and did this house and a few others in Los Angeles for an architect named Paul Revere Williams. Pretty cool.
The living room had a big window that looked out over Virginia Lake, where the trees were now five or six years old and looked pretty nice. It was a large room with an egg-and-dart coving around the ceiling and what Luke called “parkay” hardwood floors. I looked the word up later last night and it’s parquet but that doesn’t look right.
A big front door opened to the front porch, and a driveway that went from the bottom of the hill to the front, around the side of the house and out to the street. I asked Luke why the peephole in the door was so low; he told me that it’s because he and Mrs. Hancock were both quite short, and they designed the house with the peephole, the basins and the counters and the clothes hanging rods in the closets, all low so they could use them easier.
We went down to the basement, which was a real treat – the big southeast room was just a fun room with all kinds of stuff in it, but what was really neat was the collection of dolls. Mrs. Hancock collected dolls and had over a hundred dolls from all over the world, from Europe and China also, and had a lady seamstress almost full-time to make clothes for the dolls, which were from a foot to three-feet tall. The room would have been pretty weird to be in at night! (I learned later that when Mrs. Hancock passed away, and she outlived Luke, that a collector would buy her dolls for almost a million dollars. Some of them were pretty rare…)
We went up two flights of stairs to the bedrooms – three rooms, all good sized bedrooms each with its own bathroom and tub and shower. There was a sitting room up there too, and two rooms had private balconies out over the lake.
The coolest room in the house was the library, which was on the main floor. Luke had a lot of pictures, and books, and maps, and many of them on display. A huge fireplace comparable in Reno only to the fireplace in the adjacent living room. Beveled- glass, beam trusses resting on ornamental iron corbels to the cathedral ceiling. The walls were rich, brown wood like walnut or oak, with a lot of brass fixtures and lamps and a ladder on wheels to roll around and reach books on the upper shelves.
Luke reached around a cabinet and got a crank, a long handle with a loop on one end. He said, “Watch this!” and hooked the crank around a concealed hook on one of the top bookshelves. He turned the crank, and the glass ceiling, which was kind of a green cut-glass with flowers and stuff in it, started to open. First an open hole in the center, then opening further like the iris in your eye, opening larger with each turn, until finally the sun started to beam into the room through the roof. Pretty neat.
And I can write that he and Mrs. Hancock passed away and the house sat for a long time, until only this 7-year-old kid even knew it was there! No lie – I showed in the early 1970s this sunroof, to a couple of grownups, who didn’t know anything about it. But this is 1949 and I don’t know anything about that now either.
Luke and I went out into the yard, into a garden house with a whole lot of stuff stored in it. He touched a button, just for a second, but it was long enough to start a generator that he had in the little shed. It was built by Koehler, now Kohler, and ran on propane. It had enough power to light the minimum of lights in the house, to operate the elevator (which would be dismantled in 1974), to run a couple refrigerators and the bomb-shelter which was added in 1952.
Having made friends with Luke, I returned to the house several times until he passed away. In 1952 he converted one of the three bays in the garage to a bomb-shelter, during the height of the Cold War. It had several beds, a water supply tank that was constantly being re-circulated to keep it fresh, a forced-air filtration system, a propane heat source, basins and a tiny shower and lots of books and stuff to read. He stocked it with food, which still had the labels of Washoe Market and Sewell’s Market on them. And a classic Zenith Transoceanic long/short wave/AM battery-or-AC radio – state of the radio art in 1951 and for many years to follow.
The doors were double – one looking for all the world like a jail-door with bars, the other a heavy, metal airtight door. Luke said they built them all this way because when the Russian bombers were en route, the jail door would be closed to keep panic-struck neighbors from crowding into your shelter and eating all your goodies, but would allow the concussion from an atomic blast to blow over the shelter and not collapse it. After the blast had occurred, the air-tight door would then be closed to keep the death rays out.
Hey, I’m 7 years old. It all makes sense to me….
Anyway, that was my meeting with Luke B. Hancock at his Mediterranean-villa home at the southwest corner of Virginia Lake – the home and the lake each in its infancy (pretty neat writing for a 7-year-old, huh?!) I went back many times until it sold out of the family (they had five children!) in 1974. It sold, by the way for $205,000.
And I got in a lot of trouble for taking the aerial picture with my Brownie Hawkeye and awakening half of 89509 as I buzzed over the house south-to-north too low on a Sunday morning. I say this because it’s copyrighted, I suppose, but a 2018 internet posting is the first time it’s ever been published so if you steal it, give me attribution, please (the year taken was 1975).
So that’s my bike ride for today; it’s a long haul back to 740 Ralston Street but come back later and we’ll have another adventure!!!
Or come here tomorrow –Jody Rice has a yarn and great photos of some of Reno’s old wedding chapels for the This is Reno readers. And be safe, huh?
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Karl Breckenridge was slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Now that it’s over he’s back to his usual antics, drinking coffee with the boys at the Bear and, well, we’re not sure what else. But he loved sharing his daily musings with you, so he’s back, albeit a little less often, to keep on sharing. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally.
Read more from Karl Breckenridge
Karl’s pal Jody shares the rich history of bootlegging, decorating, and engineering within the confines of the Truckee River’s banks and its picturesque islands.