The Perry Mansion sits on a hill overlooking the Terlingua Ghost Town and has fascinated me since the first time I saw it. Built in 1906 by Howard E. Perry, the absentee owner of the Chisos Mining Company, it looked down upon his mining holdings – a symbol to his workers of his wealth and power. Most of the mine’s production records were kept secret, but the Chisos was one of the most productive quicksilver (mercury) mines in the United States, and although probably not entirely accurate, Perry once said that “the Chisos Mine furnished our country more than twice as much quicksilver as any other mine in America” (Quicksilver, Kenneth Baxter Ragsdale, Texas A&M University Press, 1976, p. 104). Perry only occasionally visited Terlingua to inspect his holdings, conducting most of his business by correspondence, and legend has it that the only time his wife visited, she spent one night in The Mansion before bolting home to the comforts of civilization in Chicago.
Today, The Mansion stands as testament to the ravages of time and neglect. Although a few rooms in the back addition have been fixed up for rental to tourists, it’s mostly a decaying ruin. The wooden floors and beams are rotted, and after the second story roof blew off in a storm a number of years back, the adobe walls began to melt as their protective covering of stucco washed away in the rains. But, the dilapidated building invites anyone with imagination to step onto its porch and through its doors and into another time when it was the most lavish residence in the area. Some people who accepted that invitation, especially at night, made a hasty retreat upon encountering unexplained sounds and lights. Those people will swear to you that the mansion is haunted, and maybe it is. Or maybe the local kids and river guides were just having some fun.
I see The Mansion almost every day as I drive to town and it never fails to beckon me to explore, and on many occasions over the years I have. I’ve wandered through its rooms and felt the boards flexing beneath my feet, touched the crumbling plaster walls, and imagined what the tall ceilinged rooms would be like with the plaster walls and wood floors repaired, a cozy fire built in the fireplace with comfortable chairs pulled up to enjoy its warmth. Names are scratched into the plaster – evidence of previous visitors, and in one room a beer can hangs from the joists. Why is it there?
The Mansion is a time capsule of Terlingua that provides glimpses into the mining days, chili cook-offs past, and the tourism of more recent decades. I’ve always wanted to see The Mansion restored, and over the years there has been talk of that happening, but it never has. On the other had, I love it just the way it is – in all its crumbling splendor.
In recent weeks, word has spread that renovation has been scheduled for the old building. It’s walls are to be reinforced and replastered, the second story rebuilt, and modern amenities installed so that it can become a hotel – the next phase of its life. Already, workers have been clearing out debris, saving relics of a bygone era, and washing away the broken plaster so that new can be applied. Old mercury flasks, a cart scale, an ancient cash register – all have been carefully saved. I’ve felt a sudden urgency to visit there as much as possible – to absorb the atmosphere and to photograph it the way it is now, before it becomes something different. Some would like to see a pure restoration done, but without the ability to utilize the building afterward, the cost is prohibitive, and to leave it in its current state, would mean watching it continue to melt into the desert. I’m looking forward to seeing the new incarnation, with guests bringing The Mansion back to life, but I also know that I will have to say goodbye to one of my favorite places to visit – The Mansion. I will miss it.