Among the many interesting documents preserved in the collection of the New Bedford Museum of Glass are three old postcards, sepia-toned as the desert locations they record. One card shows a tired-looking house settled on a rocky and desolate ground. The other two show different views of a second house that looks equally forlorn. The houses seem unremarkable, apart from their shabbiness and the fact that their walls are honeycombed with what appear to be dark, circular tiles. What relevance can these houses possibly hold for a glass museum, you might ask. The answer lies in the nature of the “tiles,” which actually are the visible ends of literally thousands of glass bottles. Depicted by these post cards from the NBMOG collection are two of the famous bottle houses of the Old West! The first was located in Tonopah, Nevada. Of this house little is written; its adobe-packed walls long since crumbled back into the desert sands from whence they came. The second is the Tom Kelly bottle house of Rhyolite, Nevada. It is the oldest and largest of the ghost-town bottle houses. With its strange appearance and fascinating history, the house has withstood the sands of time and remains standing to this day.
A total of three bottle houses were built in Rhyolite and the surrounding territories, but only the Kelly house survives. After the mines dried up and people moved away, the town, bottle houses and all, was abandoned to the elements until the 1920’s. In 1925 Paramount Pictures chose the ghost town of Rhyolite for the filming of two new movies, “The Airmail” and “Wanderers of the Wasteland.” They repaired the roof on Kelly’s bottle house and, after filming, donated the property to the Beatty Improvement Association. It remained a museum until 1953, when it was acquired by Tommy and Mary Thompson. The Thompsons were a spirited and theatrical couple who lived in the bottle house for decades, scratching out a living by selling antiques to passing tourists. During their residence they filled the house with many an eclectic collection, everything from accordions to celebrity photographs to, of course, bottles. Sharing the house with them were many stray cats that wandered in from the surrounding desert. As time passed, the Thompsons lost their ability to maintain the property. Their grandson took over until 1989, after which the bottle house once again fell into disrepair.
Although there is only the one bottle house still standing in Rhyolite, several, more modern examples exist further afield. The late David H. Brown, a professional in the funereal business, built a house in Boswell, British Columbia, in the 1950s using what has been estimated at between 180,000 and 500,000 embalming bottles. At Cap-Egmont on Prince Edward Island are three shrine-like structures built by the late Édouard Arsenault. A local lobster fisherman and carpenter, Arsenault had long been dedicated to strengthening his community and promoting local tourism. Inspired by the Boswell bottle house, he undertook the building of a much smaller structure as a retirement project in 1980. It received such interest and approval from visitors that it was not long before he created a second as a souvenir shop. He passed away after finishing construction of a third, his bottle house chapel, in 1984. Built using approximately 25,000 bottles, the three Arsenault structures remain open to the public, and visitors are encouraged to stroll through the surrounding gardens. A stark contrast in landscape from the house in Rhyolite, and just as telling of the resourcefulness of the man who built it!
(right) Tommy Thompson at the Kelley Bottle House
Published in The Antiques Journal, July 1969
Why build a house of glass in a land of rock? Rhyolite, Nevada is located near Daylight Pass, one of the entrances to Death Valley. When gold was discovered in the area at the turn of the 20th century, a town was quickly established to serve the needs of the mining community. Digging proved to be thirsty work, and Rhyolite was able to support several saloons. One of these was run by Tom Kelly. In 1906, at the age of 76, he decided to build himself a house. Although lumber was scarce, what Kelley had in great abundance was bottles. Judging from an examination of the house, the most popular drink at the time was a beer produced by the Adolphus Busch Glass Manufacturing Company, a beer known today as Budweiser. Kelly also had various whiskey, soda and medicine bottles on hand. To construct his new house he laid all the bottles on their sides, with the bottoms facing out, and mortared them together with adobe mud. At the time, water was so scarce that the bottles were used as found, without any cleaning. It took Kelly five and a half months to finish construction of the house.
In 2005, the Bureau of Land Management, the Rhyolite Preservation Society and the Rhyolite Caretakers banded together to restore Kelly’s bottle house. The Central Nevada Museum and the Beatty Museum and Historical Society volunteered age-appropriate bottles for the project. Over the span of twenty-one days Reva Murphy Associates, a company from California, worked to restore the house. Broken bottles in the gable were replaced and metal bands were installed around the entire building to preserve its structural integrity. Today, Tom Kelly’s bottle house is owned and maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. Located four miles off Route 95, access to the premises is granted by the local caretaker, although the public is not allowed to enter the house itself.