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Death Valley opera house and hotel recovers from ‘unprecedented’ storm damage

DEATH VALLEY JUNCTION, Calif. — The remnants of Tropical Storm Hilary didn’t spare the landmark opera house and hotel just outside Death Valley National Park.

It was a historic storm for the historic Amargosa Opera House and Hotel. Unfortunately for the century-old structure in the ghost town of Death Valley Junction, it also wrought historic damage, the property’s management said.

“Absolutely, this is the worst that I’ve ever seen, in terms of just the damage that was caused by the flooding and the mud, and the closure of the hotel as a result,” said Fred Conboy, president of the Board of Directors of the nonprofit Amargosa Opera House Inc. and also the de facto general manager of the property.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Conboy, who first started volunteering with the hotel and opera house in 2001, after meeting Marta Becket, the hotel’s longtime steward and resident performer who died in 2017.

The Amargosa is a long, low-slung, U-shaped adobe building that visitors heading to Death Valley by way of Pahrump see just before they turn on to California State Route 190, the main road into the park from the east. It’s about a 90-mile drive west of Las Vegas.

Hilary’s remnants roared over the Death Valley area Aug. 20, dumping a year’s worth of rain — 2.2 inches — on the park in a single day.

Death Valley National Park itself, which saw widespread damage to its roads, was shut down to visitors and remains closed, as does State Route 190. Park spokesperson Abby Wines said in an email Thursday that officials plan to reopen an entrance on the west side of the park on Oct. 15.

Wines said it’s not yet known when the park entrance on the Death Valley Junction side near the Nevada state line will reopen, and a California Department of Transportation spokesperson said in an email Friday there is no timeline for the road reopening.

“As soon as we have a timeline for when State Route 190 will reopen through to Death Valley Junction, we will share that with the public,” Christopher Andriessen said.

The Amargosa was closed for about three weeks, Conboy said at the reopened hotel Wednesday, but with the national park closed, business is hurting.

“When there is no access to the national park, it means that no one is booking rooms at our hotel,” Conboy said.

Although the property suffered relatively minor damage from three monsoons in 2021 and 2022, the damage from the Aug. 20 rain was far more significant. About 5 inches of rain collected in all of the rooms on the front side of the hotel, leading to a replacement of the carpets in those rooms, he said.

Nine of 15 rooms available to rent were damaged by flooding. Of those damaged rooms, two were also damaged by roof leaks.

About 5 inches of water also flooded the landmark opera house, a sort of desert Sistine Chapel where Becket spent six years painting murals that cover the walls and ceiling. Conboy describes it as a “magic carpet ride into the past.”

Mud caked the floor and some of the floorboards had to be replaced.

But the murals were unscathed, as were the historic art deco seats that were donated from an old theater in Boulder City about 45 years ago.

The downpour also coated the Amargosa’s driveway with a thick layer of mud. The desert sun has since dried it out into a layer of mud cracks, preventing cars from driving in or out on the opera house side. It’s something Conboy said they’ll have to clear out, likely with heavy equipment.

The closure resulted in about $5,000 to $7,000 in lost room revenue, Conboy said. And the total cost to fix everything was about $13,000. The hotel’s bills are about $10,000 to $12,000 a month, and the hotel tries to make about $15,000 a month to offset expenses, Conboy said. All while room bookings have “plummeted” because of the national park shutdown.

“It was an unexpected blow,” Conboy said.

Samantha Brady, a front-desk clerk at the hotel, spoke of something that is evident all over the Amargosa: Becket’s legacy. A dancer, actor, and artist, Becket’s story is intertwined with the opera house and hotel.

Becket took over the property — which formerly housed a collection of offices, employee dorms, and other facilities used by the Pacific Coast Borax Company — after discovering it in the late 1960s when she stopped at the old gas station across the street to have a flat tire fixed.

After transforming the building’s former social hall into the opera house, Becket performed there from 1968 until 2012. Her paintings adorn not only the opera house but the hotel and its rooms.

“I just genuinely love how kind she was and how devoted she was to her art,” said Brady, who is a pianist. “It’s honestly so inspiring to me.”

Jesse Cox, 63, lives in a cottage behind the hotel and does maintenance work there. He is Death Valley Junction’s only full-time resident, having lived there since 2010.

“I do like the quiet,” Cox said. “I do like the being away from the metropolis, the noise, the hubbub.”

It’s the effort to remain sustainable while preserving the history of Death Valley Junction as well as Becket’s legacy that is the long-term goal, Conboy said.

In addition to revenue from the hotel and opera house, which will host a wedding on Nov. 3 and a performance by the Seattle-based Tango Cowboys on Nov. 4, Amargosa also receives gifts and funding from individual donors as well as grants from government and foundations, Conboy said.

Now, he said, the hope is to find an investor or investors who would help overhaul and renovate the building and its infrastructure, even perhaps manage the hotel, while still allowing for Becket’s art and vision to live on.

“We want to create enough revenue and enough income to stay ahead of all the day-to-day expenses, but having said that, we’re looking for a transformational leap at this point,” Conboy said.

Contact Brett Clarkson at bclarkson@reviewjournal.com.

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