Memories Live On at Inns Gracing the Hillsides of Rocky Mountain Village : ESTES PARK

Times Travel Editor

What do you do with a rambling 91-room white elephant, a weary derelict that, until recently, featured 600 busted windows, drafty, blustery corridors, threadbare carpets, no heat and 91 unusable bathtubs?

Well, you could blow it away of course. Just dynamite the old dump and split. But Frank Normali, a 52-year-old former stockbroker-investment counselor, had other plans. Normali preferred to preserve it.

Estes Park, he argued, is described as a Rocky Mountain retreat "where memories begin." One that no one is permitted to forget began with F. O. Stanley, the inventor of the Stanley Steamer. Normali revived the dream recently with the renovation of the town's most famous hotel, the Stanley.

Its reopening gladdened thousands who have made the Stanley a vacation tradition since the turn of the century. Until a few years ago the Stanley was shuttered, the victim of shabby maintenance and messy litigation.

Earlier, the rambling old landmark was operated by Stanley's heirs and later a family of Chicagoans. The Chicagoans sold out to a buyer who handed it down to a succession of others. Meanwhile the hotel became enmeshed in lawsuits, judgments and liens.

After this along came a new angel, Normali, who, after refurbishing the venerable inn, got it named to the National Register of Historic Places.

Stanley with his steamer got into no more hot water than Normali who bought the hotel in 1974, sold it in 1979 and bought it back in 1982. Since then he has rewired and replumbed every room to the tune of more than $1 million.

F. O. Stanley built the hotel as a monument to Colorado, insisting that his life was saved by the sweet air of the Rockies.

Originally, he'd come to Colorado to die. A tubercular victim, he was dispatched by his doctor in 1903 after being told he had only a year to live. Either the Colorado air was a cure-all or the doctor was a quack, for Stanley lived on until 1940, dying at age 91.

In gratitude for his good fortune, Stanley built the Georgian-style Stanley six years after he was supposed to have folded his wings. The property was purchased from Lord Dunraven of England, who is remembered by locals as "one of the original swingers--in fact, the swinger of all time."

is lordship owned 1,400 acres, an estate he maintained as a hunting preserve for acquaintances from the British Isles. Stanley coaxed Lord Dunraven into selling the property and after this gathered craftsmen to create his hotel. It was to be no ordinary inn in the Rockies. Stanley had a grand piano delivered by rail from New York to Denver where it was hauled by oxcart to Estes Park. Indeed, it's still a fixture.

The inventor of the wheezing Stanley Steamer placed a solid cherry-wood bar in one public room, four-poster beds in guest rooms and a billiards table in another.

Each guest room contained a full-length, standing mirror and those that remain are flawless. The grand staircase with its hand-turned balustrade is meticulously preserved as are dozens of antiques, which crowd public rooms. Guests sleep in brass beds and gaze off at Estes Lake and snowcapped peaks that fail to lose their mantles, even in summer. Original wood paneling graces the hotel along with period furniture, brass and classical lighting fixtures.

Stanley built a theater in which to entertain his guests and afterward recruited performers from Europe and the East. He was joined by the cream of Denver's society. Stanley entertained the Tabors and Molly Brown. Other celebrated guests joined him--the Firestones, the Schillings, the McCormicks, J. C. Penney and John Philip Sousa, who frequently tuned the grand piano in the Music Room.

The Stanley Steamer

There was one minor problem: transporting the guests up the mountain to the hotel. The entrepreneur solved this by building a Stanley Steamer that would carry up to 11 passengers.

Still, he faced another challenge. Water was necessary to fuel the steamer to make it boil to get it moving. Stanley solved his dilemma by building a new road from the village of Lyon 20 miles away that followed a river, which is how he got the water to heat the steamer to deliver the passengers.

Each time the steamer got thirsty, the driver would stop, hike to the river with a bucket and return with fuel to go on.

Vacationers took the train to Denver and rode the Stanleys the remaining 65 miles. During the first couple of months of the 1911 season the steamers delivered 2,500 guests from Loveland to Estes Park.

As a tribute to the vintage cars, a replica of a 1906 Stanley Steamer is displayed in the lobby of the rambling, three-story hotel.

This summer Normali and his wife Judith, who displays Mediterranean antiquities in a gift shop off the lobby, were responsible for 100 evenings of professional theater in the hotel's concert hall, including Noel Coward's classic light comedy, "Hay Fever." Years earlier the Stanley featured such celebrated artists as Caruso and Lily Pons.

Since its debut 77 years ago the Stanley has dominated a hillside overlooking Estes Park, which in 1915 became the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Into Disrepair

It was after Stanley's death that the hotel fell into disrepair. Carpets faded. Paint peeled from the old three-story frame building. New owners would arrive with enthusiasm and leave with misgivings. And then proprietor Normali put in his appearance and suddenly the hotel that was built by the man who built the Stanley Steamer was out of hot water.

Having said all this, I must confess that I have other preferences in Estes Park. Crags Lodge for one, which faces the village from an opposing hillside and whose spacious lobby is reminiscent of Lorne Greene's cavernous living room in the old "Bonanza" series on television.

Operated by ex-ABC television sportscaster Terry Phillips and his wife Marcia, it is known to residents as "the friendly house on the hill."

Guests hike trails behind Crags Lodge and sip drinks before a great stone fireplace that once attracted Zane Grey. A huge dinner is featured on Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas is celebrated with old-fashioned goodness.

Still, for romantic dining my bid goes to Black Canyon Inn with its lace curtains, log beams, pegged floors, bowls of wildflowers and a fireplace with crossed skis and snowshoes. The menu at Black Canyon features coquille St. Jacques, fresh trout, rack of lamb, medallions of beef with Bermuda onions, capers and mustard sauce, and a spinach pasta tossed with fresh vegetables, cream and Parmesan cheese.

Built as Hunting Lodge

It is the setting, though, that ignites the spirit. Built as a hunting lodge in 1929, the room glows with kerosene lamps, and for romantics an adjoining room features five cozy booths with velvet draperies that can be drawn for total privacy in a scene similar to that at the old Sacher Hotel in Vienna.

Akke Lynch, a Belgian who swam in the Olympics, leads guests to an intimate bar swathed in red velvet. On weekends a pianist does show tunes and light classical melodies, and occasionally guests are entertained by a string quartet.

In addition, Black Canyon offers 30 guest rooms in either a condominium or log cabins named Lazy Pine, Thimbleberry and Columbine. Fishing is provided in a trout pond and weddings are performed in a garden grown over with petunias and geraniums.

Others take Devil's Gulch Road that winds for seven miles past ranches and meadows to the charming village of Glen Haven, population 101. It is here that white-haired Calico Kate (a.k.a. Dottie Ferguson) sells Christmas ornaments, dolls, hand-painted plates, mason jars and antiques in a shop as snug as the parlor in an alpine lodge. A creek flows behind her store, and across the street Becky Childs turns out gourmet sandwiches at her Glen Haven General Store & Deli, including a one-pound "deli belly" stuffed with ham, sausage, corned beef and three cheeses that sells for a thrifty $4.25.

A Romantic Niche

Besides the Horseshoe Cafe (homemade pies and rolls) and Ernie Conrad's real estate office, the village's only other noteworthy building is the early 1900s Inn of Glen Haven, a Bavarian-like refuge that serves magnificent meals and light classical melodies. It is a romantic niche with kerosene lamps and beamed ceilings, with a menu that lists such delights as figs stuffed with cream cheese in a puff pastry, chicken livers in liqueur, roast pheasant in a black currant sauce, and breast of duck stuffed with ham and duxelles, mushrooms with a bourbon sauce.

Upstairs, half a dozen rooms provide solitude in what originally served as a bordello. Says the management: "At the Inn of Glen Haven, one can return to that marvelous age of quiet refinement when service was a tradition and the children and pets were left at home with a nanny."

Never mind that the Red Room resembles the original bordello. While guests curl up in a bed of burgundy, the evening is as silent as a falling snowflake. Others are assigned to the Blue Room with its French doors, the Gold Room with its beamed ceiling and the Civil War Room with a high headboard and antique dresser. A velvet canopy arches above the bed in the George Washington Room and the Colonial Room takes one back to a time of horse-drawn carriages and tricorn hats.

Lineup of Curio Shops

The Inn of Glen Haven is a nice escape from the hubbub of Estes Park with its lineup of curio shops and stores that peddle caramel corn, saltwater taffy, giant pretzels, fudge and corn dogs along Elkhorn Avenue. One shopkeeper sells muzzle-loading rifles, hand-etched goose eggs and stuffed raccoons while the village goldsmith turns out $14 nuggets and $20,000 rings.

All this, though, isn't why vacationers travel to Estes Park. They come because of what lies beyond the village--Rocky Mountain National Park, which embraces 405 square miles of wilderness along the slopes of the Continental Divide. Spruce-lined highways climb above the timberline and only the voice of the wind disturbs the peacefulness.

Motorists lock onto roads that lead to peaks towering above gorges and meadows and later they cross the Continental Divide, caught up in a world as pure as the snows that soon will cover Colorado.

Accommodations:

--Stanley Hotel, P.O. Box 1767, Estes Park, Colo. 80517. Telephone toll-free (800) ROCKIES.

--Crags Lodge, Box 480, Estes Park, Colo. 80517. Telephone (303) 586-6100.

--Black Canyon Inn, P.O. Box 4654, Estes Park, Colo. 80517. Telephone toll-free (800) 762-5968 (Ext. 8113).

--The Inn of Glen Haven, Box 19, Glen Haven, Colo. 80532. Telephone (303) 586-3897.

For vacationers searching for something rustic, try Allenspark Lodge, Box 311AC, Allenspark, Colo. 80510. The lodge is 16 miles south of Estes Park. Says the manager: "We offer a cozy, rustic atmosphere in a small-town setting." No TVs, no telephones. "Just clean, comfortable beds, a big friendly fireplace, a soothing hot tub." Open year-round. Rates from $18.95 single to $24.95 double.

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