Las Vegas Sun

May 27, 2018

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Mr. Wilson builds his dream pyramid

The two steep pyramids of the Wilson house sit across from the old Henderson golf course like a giant discarded Madonna bra, one pointy side larger than the other.

It's a local landmark and has been since construction began in 1981. "I tell people, 'You know the pyramid? That's my street,'" says a neighbor. You see it as you come around the sweeping right curve on Greenway Road, two points rising above the green mounds of the Black Mountain Country Club, the taller point marking the main house, the smaller one the garage next to it. It's no less a landmark at night -- both apexes light up, a la Luxor. Passersby have idly wondered about the place for years. Just what kind of person lives there?

Semi-retired architect Harry Wilson and his wife, Ruth, that's who. Wilson was inspired to build the house after visiting Egypt in 1973. A man of quiet bearing, he did it not for the kick of living in the sharpest house on the block but for its tantalizing architectural challenge: Can you cram the elements of a liveable home into such an unusual and potentially troublesome shape?

The answer sits 58 feet square and three stories high at 528 Greenway. And although it's thousands of Niles from Egypt, the house shares more than just its shape with the fabled pyramids: It was built in antiquity -- 15 years ago qualifies as ancient times in this valley -- in one of the cradles of civilization, Henderson. And while Wilson didn't require the labor of thousands of slaves hauling stone blocks across the desert until they collapsed, he did employ construction workers, who labored mightily on the house, and also built a garage.

The amazing coincidences don't stop there: "The pitch of the roof is the same as the great pyramid at Cheops -- 52 degrees," Wilson says. "And the master bedroom is proportionally where the king's chamber is, a third of the way up." Also, it faces due north, but of course that's just simple pyramid etiquette.

The Wilsons were living in New Orleans when Harry started toying with his pyramid scheme. He drew plans and made models, trying to reconcile the living space with the rapidly diminishing headroom of the upper stories. Typical of the many steps involved was the staircase: Where do you put it? With the roof sloping inward, you can't really stick it against the far wall as you might in a square house. How do you keep it from coming up in the middle of a room?

"I was intrigued by the shape," he says. "You don't see many houses where the roof starts at the ground. It was a challenge to see if I could build something we could live with."

Or something that could even be built. After a "fortunate job change" brought them to Southern Nevada (where Wilson had worked twice before) and they located a custom lot with the right size and exposure, the Wilsons set about making their point in 1981. The structure immediately confounded residents and builders alike.

The framing company estimated it would take 90 days to complete the work. "They were here six months," Wilson says. He wanted a fireplace in one corner, but, even with the blueprint in hand, workers couldn't figure out how to poke the chimney through the corner joint. Wilson finally had to build a model and the workers went from that.

Gawkers stopped by, singly and in bunches, some groups larger than others. "A tour bus used to stop out front," he recalls. This was very pre-Luxor, remember; Wilson was pyramid before pyramid was cool.

What did his neighbors in this custom-home area have to say? Nothing -- there were no neighbors in those days! "No objections, no comments," Wilson says. People have subsequently built homes nearby, so Wilson figures they must not have a problem with his unusual house.

Over the years, curiosity has waned as the townsfolk got used to the house, although every now and then someone will knock at their door. The Wilsons no longer ask them in.

Inside, the house seems to mirror the low-key nature of its occupants. Comfortable but not showy, except for its shape a fairly typical American house. There used to be a patio between the house and garage, but it was raked by the constant southwesterly winds, so a few years ago the Wilsons enclosed it into a family room. Similarly, they enclosed a back porch, turning it into a workroom.

Once through the doors, you'd hardly know you were in a pyramid, at least on the bottom floor. It's a personal quirk of Wilson's that his designs don't force you to pass through one room to reach another. From the entryway, the two downstairs bedrooms are down a short hallway. To the right is a den they call "the gallery"; hang a left and you can access either the kitchen or the dining room. All are, much like the Wilsons themselves, conventionally pleasant but just a little offbeat.

"No room is perfectly square," Wilson says. "Every room has at least one 45-degree angle."

Although the house is three stories high, it only has two floors. The second contains a small sitting room, a bathroom and the master bedroom. Egyptian-motif stained-glass windows look down from high portals, and the bed is aligned north to south -- in case the pyramid generates any pyramid power, it will flow through them head to feet, Wilson jokes.

You can't see the tip from here; you could in the old days, but all that soaring, empty space above the bed creeped them out, so the Wilsons added a ceiling of translucent plastic panels about halfway up.

Although portions of the first floor are properly low-ceilinged in the manner of ancient Egyptian mausoleums, the second story has several balconies open to the bottom, giving the home an airy feel. "A lot of people say the house looks bigger inside than outside," Wilson says, descending the stairs.

As you'd expect of the owners of a house so strongly reminiscent of ancient Egypt, the Wilsons collect Don Quixote memorabilia. Sure, they have some Egyptian-looking wall hangings in the entryway, but the windmill-tilting Spaniard is their real passion. The gallery is festooned with the carved, cast, welded and painted figures they began collecting in the early '40s. Their first acquisition: a slender wooden Quixote they found in Tijuana. They've picked up more than 100 pieces since from all over the world.

"It gives us something to look for when we travel." Besides other stuff they gather, of course: The master bedroom features clusters of memorabilia from Africa, Australia, Tibet and Mexico.

"And that," he concludes, "is the 5-cent tour." Of course, it's worth a little more than that. How much more he'll soon find out. The Wilsons plan to sell their little piece of Egypt soon. With the kids gone it's a little too big, and anyway, they want to move into another structure from classical antiquity: their fifth-wheeler. They have big travel plans.

So what's a used pyramid going for these days? They're thinking somewhere around $250,000. "There's a buyer for every house." Wilson says.

And when they finally leave the house, they'll also finally leave behind the constant question, What about pyramid power? Certain pointy-headed intellectuals have made claims about the semi-mystical restorative powers of the shape. Now everyone asks about it! Keep your razors sharp? or Help ya stay young?

"If it works," Wilson tut-tuts, "I sure don't know about it." Then he smiles and adds, "Although you wouldn't know I'm 110 years old." Clearly a man with a few 45-degree angles of his own.

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