The building that now houses the St. Mary’s Arts Center has roots in a time of extraordinary prosperity. The Comstock was booming in the 1870s: John Mackay and James Fair had been on the trail of something gigantic, and in late winter, 1873, they found what would be known internationally as the “Big Bonanza.” Their discovery of an enormous concentration of gold and silver infused phenomenal wealth into the community and placed Virginia City and the Comstock on the map for the next two centuries.
The year 1873 also witnessed one of the worst industrial accidents in Nevada history, and that event opened the door to the construction of the St. Mary Louise Hospital. The land that would serve as home for the hospital was owned by Jacob Van Bokkelen, a well-known local dignitary, who had served as the Nevada Provost Marshall, during the Civil War. He operated a beer garden on his property at the base of the canyon below Virginia City, to serve as a haven for those wanting to enjoy a beverage in a quiet, tree-lined setting.
Van Bokkelen was also an importer of dynamite, regarded as a safe alternative to nitroglycerine. In fact, he had such confidence in the product that he stored it in his apartment and even slept on crates of the explosive when his inventory grew large. Unfortunately, on the night of June 29, 1873, Van Bokkelen’s cache detonated, killing him and ten others. Since dynamite was not known to spontaneously explode, suspicion fell on the merchant’s pet monkey, which may have been playing with fuses.
Van Bokkelen’s death meant his Beer Garden was for sale. Marie Louise Mackay purchased the land and donated it to the Daughters of Charity for use as a hospital. The Daughters had arrived in 1864 to found a school and orphanage. Now, they would also care for the sick.
St. Mary Louise Hospital opened in 1876, becoming a renowned institution. The four-story, brick facility had thirty-six rooms, enough to accommodate up to seventy patients. Local newspapers pointed out that the hospital had hot and cold running water in each room, and that “private rooms including food, medicine, medical attention … will be $20 per week.” Ward patients were charged $10 per week. The Daughters of Charity operated their hospital until 1897 when they left the Comstock: the mining district’s population had dwindled and could no longer support them.
Storey County subsequently operated the hospital, but it became increasingly difficult to offer services as the population continued to decline in the 1920s and 1930s. The hospital closed in the 1940s, and the building sat derelict. In 1964, local artists teamed up with Father Paul Meinecke to reopen the facility as St. Mary’s Arts Center. Louise Curran, a Virginia City artist, became the director of the new institution. Richard Yip of Stockton, California, taught the first painting class in May of that year. Over thirty students attended. This was quickly followed by classes offered by California painters Lundy Siegriest and Jen Murrow. And it was just the beginning. Hundreds of classes followed.
For its first three decades, St. Mary’s Arts Center had successfully provided space for artist workshops. Rooms that once accommodated the ill now provided the means to advance the cause of art. Throughout the twentieth century, the Comstock had emerged as a home to a bohemian set that included a wide assortment of writers and artists. The Center, together with its graduates and the art they produced, emerged as an important factor in the advancement of the modern cultural scene of the Northern Nevada.
In the 1990s, St. Mary’s Arts Center began to transform. It would still serve as a retreat for artists, but it would also open its doors to the public, encouraging a variety of uses for the facility. What had been a private, little-known refuge became a place where everyone could celebrate the arts. St. Mary’s Arts Center embraces a dynamic dual mission.
The Comstock had been known from its beginning in the 1860s as a sophisticated community that enjoyed the best in art, theater, and fashion. It is fitting that a century later, Virginia City would establish a place to celebrate the arts. It is equally appropriate that it has thrived and grown with every decade. With the twenty-first century, the St. Mary’s Arts Center continues to thrive as it enriches lives.
Written by Ron James – Director of the Comstock Foundation for History and Culture
Today St Mary’s Art Center has broadened its service to the community and state, serving a variety of groups, as a unique creative retreat center.