Virginia (City) is for (art) lovers

An old hospital is the center for art in the historic town

The exterior of St. Mary’s Art & Retreat Center in Virginia City.

The exterior of St. Mary’s Art & Retreat Center in Virginia City.

St. Mary's Art and Retreat Center is at 55 R St., Virginia City. For more information, call 775 847-7774 or visit

Most visitors to the historic mining town Virginia City rarely venture off C Street, with its wood plank sidewalks, lined with cheesy-but-fun gift shops, photo booths, taverns and candy stores. But off that main drag, there's more to the town than retro western kitsch. (For one thing, people actually live there.) Turning east, downhill, about midway off C Street and onto Union Street leads to a lone building, a house that's very large and looks very old. It gives off a bit of the impression of a classic cinematic haunted house—though this impression is strongly undercut by the fact that it's also adjacent to a high school football field.

The place is St. Mary’s Art & Retreat Center. The building has nearly 40 rooms, and it looks old because it is old: It was built in 1875 as a hospital for Father Patrick Manogue and the Daughters of Charity, a Catholic sisterhood charity organization. The land was donated and the construction partially funded by John Mackay, one of the silver kings of Virginia City’s Comstock Lode boom. The hospital was named Saint Mary Louise Hospital in honor of Mackay’s wife.

The hospital was state of the art for the day, with indoor plumbing, hot and cold running water, steam heating, gas lighting, marble sinks and other amenities. It was subscription driven. Members, most of whom were miners, paid monthly dues and were assured medical care. The hospital was largely self sufficient, with gardens, chicken coops and fruit trees on the grounds.

In 1897, as the mining boom was going bust, the sisters left. Not long afterward the Storey County hospital burned down, so the county hospital staff was moved into the vacant St. Mary’s. It was then operated as the Storey County Hospital for about 40 years, until the building was abandoned again after a fire. During World War II, the metal in the building was salvaged for the war effort.

The building had been vacant for at least 15 years when, in 1964, two competing proposals came before the county commission about what to do with the building. One was a proposal to demolish the building and sell it off brick by brick. The other was a proposal by Father Paul Meinecke, the pastor of St. Mary’s in the Mountains Church, to turn the old hospital into an arts center. Meinecke was successful, and St. Mary’s was reestablished as a non-profit arts center.

Meinecke was an orphan raised into the priesthood. He had a wooden prosthetic leg that used to fall off while he was mowing the grass around the arts center. This would reportedly evoke a torrent of ungodly language from him. He basically acted as director, curator and caretaker of the arts center.

“He always loved art,” says Rita Wheeler, the arts center’s current director. “He’s not here to speak for himself, but I get the sense that it was a true passion for him, art, and he was just stuck being a father. I don’t know that that’s fact, but it’s the way people speak of him and his passion for this building.”

So, from the mid ’60s on, partly funded by state and county grants, St. Mary’s offered community classes in painting, photography, sculpture and printing. Over the years, and under the guidance of a series of directors, the arts center had various degrees of success—sometimes vital, sometimes not. But, in some ways, the arts center is a precursor to the shared communal artwork spaces, like Reno Art Works, the Generator and Valley Arts Research Center, that have become integral to creative life in Northern Nevada.

A restored sitting room in St. Mary’s Art & Retreat Center.

Since the turn of the new millennium, the center, a National Historical Landmark, has expanded its programming to include gallery exhibitions. A few years ago, around 2008 and 2009, there was an excellent series of exhibitions in the fourth floor galleries volunteer curated by Reno artist Leah Ruby. Then, for the last couple of years, the arts center seemed to go mostly quiet (at least for art lovers; a couple of zealous caretakers were promoting the admittedly spooky old building as an attraction to ghost hunters).

However, the current slate of exhibitions, and a well-received opening reception, seem to mark the beginning of a new, energetic chapter in the life of the arts center. Right now the gallery is hosting exhibitions from University of Nevada, Reno emeritus art professor—and Virginia city resident—Edw Martinez, prolific, well-known painter Erik Holland, and international fashion photographer Frances Melhop (see “Tip the scale,” Art of the State, May 30). There’s also an in-progress exhibition from Barbara Holmes, the center’s current resident artist, and a couple of group exhibitions, including work from the Dusty Roads, a group of mostly rural Nevada artists centered on the arts center.

It’s a fairly diverse collection of exhibitions. The arts center seems to function as both a small-town community arts center and as a regional destination for more academic artists. The center’s also used for a variety of rental programs. In addition to art workshops, it’s used for other community activities: yoga workshops, weekend retreats, weddings, family reunions and, more unusually, paranormal investigations. But the current focus seems to be on the art exhibitions.

A gem to unearth

Mimi Patrick, president of the arts center’s board, founder of Dusty Roads group and a former director of the center herself, credits the center’s current wave of renewed energy to Wheeler, who only took over the position of executive director last summer, starting Aug. 1.

“A lot of the energy is coming directly from Rita, because she has so much,” says Patrick. “She’s willing to take on so many different projects. There’s so much happening all the time.”

Wheeler’s personality seems simultaneously sweet and ambitious—an unusual combination. When she talks about St. Mary’s early days, as a hospital in the 1870s, she says “we” like she was there.

“I was here in spirit,” she explains with a laugh. “I really do feel connected to this place.”

Originally from Iowa, she moved to Susanville, Calif., a few years ago, and then moved to the Virginia City area two years ago to manage the Gold Hill Hotel. After her position was eliminated at the hotel, Patrick approached her about the position at St. Mary’s.

Though Wheeler’s background is in hotel management rather than arts administration, her enthusiasm for the facility definitely extends to its mission as an arts center. She doesn’t want to just run a weird old hotel with better-than-average art on the walls, but an actual arts center that serves diverse needs—an artist’s residency in a couple of potentially edgy art galleries and an accessible small-town community arts center with art workshops, yoga classes and exhibitions of student work. And in Melhop, an artist who also serves on the board, she has a volunteer creative director with international art connections to help curate the space.

Work from Frances Melhop’s exhibition <i>Down the Rabbit Hole</i>.

“I want us to move forward, and [I’m] not saying that the artwork hasn’t always been quality, but I really want to take it up to a higher quality, diversified art center,” says Wheeler. “I feel like we set the bar as mediocre for ourselves previously, and I want to take it up to a different level.”

For the future, Wheeler is revamping many of the individual galleries in the center, and giving them distinct missions. One gallery will be called the “Incubator Gallery,” and it will focus on work by young, emerging artists. The fourth-floor attic gallery is now called the Edge Gallery. In addition to the work by the resident artists, it will feature more provocative, potentially controversial or explicit artworks.

Patrick says that part of the reason the focus has reshifted back toward art exhibitions is that some of the last few years were focused primarily on restoration work.

“The focus changes on the building according to needs, and for a quite a while we were focusing on restoration and getting a lot of things fixed that needed fixing and bringing systems up to code,” she says. “Putting the heating system in so we could keep the building open year-round was a major, major thing. That takes an enormous amount of time and energy to do that kind of thing, so other projects, like the exhibitions, and the work with Leah Ruby, would fall by the wayside.”

There’s still a lot of restoration work that needs to be done on the nearly 140-year-old building, most pressingly a new boiler. (They’re currently accepting donations to help with restoration efforts. For more information, call [775] 847-7774.)

Wheeler also decided to open up the building for individual room rentals. Though this might seem like a step moving the building toward being a hotel, and away from being a community arts center, it’s also a recognition that the facility appeals to an unusual assortment.

“I truly feel that the more people we expose to the building will also love it as much as we do,” says Wheeler. “There are so many unique aspects of the building, whether it’s the history, or the art, or even those people who come here for paranormal reasons. There’s an attachment when we get them here.”

Wheeler seems to have some understandably mixed feelings about the building’s reputation as a paranormal attraction. On one hand, she herself leads paranormal tours of the building—and, in fact, she insists that she lead all such tours, and she’s able to present some very compelling, or at least entertaining, evidence—but she doesn’t want St. Mary’s to just be an old hospital for people to wander and try to talk to ghosts.

“The only way that I feel good about that is being able to tie any spirits or entities who may reside here in with the history of the building,” she says. “I really want to focus on bringing the art and the history of the building to life. We have a lot of paranormal people who come to visit us, and over the last couple of years that’s kind of overshadowed where we’re going. The caretakers that were here, that was kind of their side business.”

Rita Wheeler is the director at St. Mary Art & Retreat Center.

Allison Young

“It’s pretty phenomenal being in this building, too, by myself at night sometime,” says Holmes, the current resident artist. “I thought it would be kind of scary, but it’s not at all. It’s totally peaceful.”

The artist residency program is a collaboration with the Capital City Arts Initiative, which secures the grant funding and approaches the artists. The residency program is just two weeks long, which Holmes, who’s based in Oakland, Calif., says is not nearly long enough.

“It’s terrific to be here and to focus on something for a period of time,” she says. “That’s an opportunity you don’t get all the time as an artist. you’re usually torn in six different directions all at once, so residencies are really crucial to generating new work and experimenting a little bit.”

Ruby says the center is an ideal place for a longer art residency, specifically one that focuses on themes of the American West.

“It’s a perfect place for an international art internship that focuses on the Western experience,” she says. “The epitome of the Western experience is that building. The fact that it’s haunted makes it even better. Everything about it is so good.”

Holmes’ ongoing work at the center is focusing on the history of Virginia City.

“In reading about the history of the place, I was realizing that there’s a whole lot of lumber underground here [in the old mines],” she says. “They basically clear cut the forest of the Sierra and put it underground here. There’s a famous quote by Dan De Quille that talks about, Virginia City being the tomb of the forests of the Sierras. So I was dealing with that idea in my head and trying to figure out how to represent that in the gallery space offered to me.”

She has been visiting old tree stumps around the region, specifically near Spooner Lake, where much of the timber in Virginia City was originally felled, and using a process derived from Chinese ink rubbing, making prints of the surfaces of the stumps.

A reception of her exhibition of work will be on July 12 at 5 p.m., a reception that will also include the center’s next round of bimonthly exhibitions, also including work by photographers Nancy Raven and Nancy Good, new works by the Dusty Roads group and an exhibition of high school student artwork.

Wheeler cites as one of her biggest accomplishments so far the creation of the Paul Meinecke Gallery, named for the founder of the arts center, on the first floor of the building in a room that was formerly used for storage. Well lit and bare walled, in many ways, it’s the most traditional gallery space in the building. (Of course, a big part of the appeal of the fourth floor Edge Gallery is that it’s not a traditional gallery.) The current show of ceramics-based sculptures by Edw Martinez is the first exhibition in that space.

“I think it’s important that people know the history of Mr. Meinecke,” says Wheeler. “It brings up conversations like, ’Who was Paul Meinecke and why would you name a gallery after him?’”

Interestingly, there’s one expression that was used, in separate conversations, by everyone interviewed for this story to describe St. Mary’s Art Center: “A hidden gem.” It’s an especially apt metaphor given the historic mining legacy of Virginia City.

“The fact that it’s an adaptive reuse of an historical building into a space for art is pretty unique,” says Patrick. “It could have been turned into a museum, it could have been torn down for the bricks, but the fact is that Father Meinecke had some vision to see the potential of the building. And there’s still huge potential to come. As more things happen there, it changes. We’re now getting people into the building. We’re getting tourists coming down off of C Street to look at the building and look at the art. And that’s a wonderful change.”