Lola Montez lived here: Her house and her story
I was asked recently about Lola Montez and her former residence which once stood at northwest corner of Walsh and Mill streets in Grass Valley. OK, for the benefit of those who have not yet been exposed to one of our most written and talked about notorious mid-19th century residents, here’s her story.
First, the present structure on that lot houses the Grass Valley-Nevada County Chamber of Commerce and tourist information center and is a replica of Lola’s cottage as it appeared in an 1850s sketch reproduced here. Second, the original cottage was much remodeled during the 19th and 20th centuries.
In April 1974, the now defunct Sacramento Union newspaper gave me an assignment to do a story with photographs on a controversy then raging regarding the house. Here’s the way things were at that time.
The venerable and much remodeled (then) 122 year-old Lola Montez home at the corner of Mill and Walsh streets in downtown Grass Valley will be spared the wrecker’s ball if the 11th hour efforts of an ad hoc citizen’s committee are successful…if not, down she comes!
The crumbling, two-story frame structure surrounded by ancient poplars and a yard overgrown with weeds, has long been a source of both civic pride and controversy. But since 1961, when the Grass Valley City Council first asked Lorraine Andrews of Berkeley, owner of the house since 1933, to correct certain structural deficiencies, it had been a definite civic sore spot.
Then-Grass Valley Mayor Ed Tellam claims the city has been both patient and fair regarding the house but after years of negotiations failed to produce results, the council has reluctantly approved condemnation proceedings which are currently under way.
Bob Paine, a member of the Lola Montez Home Restoration Committee, asked the City Council to stop condemnation proceedings to allow his group to obtain title to the property. Paine pointed out that the Montez House is one of the truly historic spots in the California gold rush country.
Mayor Tellam told the committee that if a concrete proposal to restore the property was forthcoming soon, proceedings would be dropped. Negotiations failed and in 1975, the structure was demolished.
It was in the original house, between 1853 and 1855, that the beautiful, intelligent, mercurial spirited danseuse Lola Montez, who was as famous on-stage for her Spider Dance as she was off-stage for her marriages and internationally acclaimed love affairs, lived and held court.
During her liaison with Ludwig I, King of Bavaria, some years prior Montez acquired a small fortune and the titles Countess of Landsfeld and Baroness Rosenthal. A doting public adored having royalty living among them though few of Grass Valley’s “better families” ever visited the place.
Montez and her third husband, newspaperman Patrick Hull, purchased the cottage as a “refuge from the hostile outside world,” but their life here was anything but serene. Lola was noted for her many eccentricities. Among them: she kept a pet bear chained in the front yard (depicted in the line drawing) and once horsewhipped a local newspaper editor for ungentlemanly remarks about her Kanaka houseboy. Hull’s excessive drinking eventually led to a final split which came after Hull, in a drunken rage, reportedly shot the pet bear.
Lola left Grass Valley during the summer of 1855 for a dance tour of Australia, returning the following summer to sell the house, the only one she would ever own. Her career took a downward turn and, after a seige of failing health and dwindling fortune, she died in New York in 1861 at the age of 42. She is buried in Brooklyn’s historic Greenwood Cemetery.
The late Nevada County author and county historian Doris Foley, whose book “The Devine Eccentric” is recognized as a highly authoritative and exceptionally well documented account of Lola’s life in California, said “Lola brought together (in her Grass Valley home) men whose large capital investments and faith, particularly in the enormously rich Empire Mine, gave the sagging quartz gold mining industry a real boost over the lean years with the result that that industry prospered for more than a century. She holds a high and very real place in Grass Valley’s gold history.”
The former home of Lola Montez was designated California Historical Landmark Number 292 with this citation: “Lola was born in Limerick, Ireland, July 3, 1818, and baptized Maria Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert. After living in England and on the continent, Lola, diminutive of Dolores, came to New York in 1851; and eventually settled in Grass Valley in 1852. It was here she built the only home she ever owned. She became friends with Lotta Crabtree, who lived up the street. Lola died Jan. 17, 1861, and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, New York.” Location is listed as 248 Mill St.
California never mounted one of their usual plaques. For many years an enameled sign (see 1963 photo) identified the home, which has long since disappeared. On Oct. 1, 1977, the Wm. Bull Meek-Wm. Morris Stewart chapter No. 10, E Clampus Vitus, Nevada City dedicated and affixed a plaque to the replica building which reads: “Lola Montez 1819-1861, Countess of Landsfeld. In her home which occupied this site, Lola’s social salons 1853-55 attracted men of vision whose investments and technology founded Nevada County’s gold quartz mining industry. She brought culture and refinement to this rude mining camp. A mistress of international intrigue and a feminist before her time she is one of history’s most recognizable women and a founder of today’s cosmetic industry.”
Bob Wyckoff is a retired Nevada County newspaper editor/publisher and author of local history publications which are available at your favorite local bookstore. You can contact him at: email@example.com or PO Box 216, Nevada City CA 95959.
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