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San Antonio Express-News

 

San Antonio Express-News

S.A. couple working to restore Colorado hotel

by Karen Hastings Special to the Express-News

08/09/98 Sunday                                          Metro 07B

Feature

OURAY, Colo. - When Dan and Mary King bought a derelict, century-old hotel last spring in this historic mining town, they took on a labor of love - and perhaps a few ghosts.

Once the center of Ouray society, the formerly elegant Beaumont Hotel has perched like an old grudge on Ouray's main street now for more than three decades - boarded up, falling down, and painted a peculiar shade of pink.

Where beribboned ladies once drank tea under skylights beside a grand oak staircase, dust motes now sparkle, and water-stained wallpaper peels, layer upon layer.

There are some who say the Beaumont is haunted by the spirit of a young woman slain there in the 1880s, when the hotel was new and steam trains brought tycoons from Denver to sample the town's hot springs and spectacular alpine scenery.

But for 30 years, the real ghost haunting the Beaumont had been the bad blood between its owner and a town that calls itself "The Switzerland of America."

All that is changing. The Kings, recently retired San Antonio businesspeople who have a summer home a few blocks from the hotel, purchased the Beaumont at auction last spring.

After three decades of frustration, townspeople are relieved to see the Kings interviewing architects, researching grant opportunities and beginning the long process of rescuing " The Grand Old Lady of the San Juans" from her past.

"We have a vision for it to be back to being a center of activity ... where people can come to relive their history," says Mary King, 52. "We want to preserve the Beaumont's past and prepare it for the future."

Ourayans are thrilled at the Kings' plans.

"Over the years, I would swing like a pendulum from despair to hope." says Doris Gregory, Ouray's resident historian and author of a centennial book tracing the hotel's colorful history. "Its just like an answer to a prayer."

The Kings bought the Beaumont last spring shortly after the death of its former owner, Wayland Phillips, an eccentric businesswoman in her 80s with a collector's eye and a legendary stubborn streak.

Phillips, who managed her husband's refrigeration valve business in a day when women in industry were distinctly rare, had owned the Beaumont since the late 1960s, and she kept it boarded up for those three decades.

The street-corner version of the story involves an old feud with the city. Phillips, the story goes, wanted to put an outdoor beer garden next to the Beaumont and asked the city to close down part of an adjacent street for her project.

The town told her no. She said, 'Go to hell! It'll never open in my lifetime,"' recounts Jim MacDonnell, who handled the sale of the property for the Phillips estate.

"She was from the old school," retired newspaper publisher Joyce Jorgensen says of Phillips. "She believed that if it was her property, she should be able to do with it as she pleased."

"Cantankerous" often was used by Ourayans to describe the late Mrs. Phillips, who drove old cars, argued with the town through frequent letters in the newspaper, and once, according to her lawyer, ran a rubber hose to the Beaumont from a adjacent building to get around the city's insistence that the hotel have running water.

But a different picture emerges from her few friends.

Jorgensen, who published the Ouray County Plaindealer for 23 years, says Phillips funneled secret donations to many town causes, insisting that the generous gifts be made anonymously.

"People were ready to scream and shout about her, but they didn't know the other side," says Jorgensen, who came to count the strong-willed older woman as a friend. "She didn’t ever want it to seem she was trying to buy her way in. At the same time, she was hurt that nobody knew what she had done for Ouray."

Her lawyer of 25 years says the real truth is that Phillips was a "pack rat" who enjoyed acquiring beautiful objects, land and buildings but never did much with them after that. Antiques stayed in barns and boxes, land went undeveloped, and historic buildings, like the Beaumont, fell to pieces.

"She never did anything with the hotel because she never did anything with any of her property," says Roy Safanda, an attorney with the Chicago firm that was executor of her estate. Safanda, who says Phillips could "charm your socks off, when she wanted to," adds that her feud with the city probably made little difference in the life of the hotel.

"The fallacy of that story is the notion that she ever was going to do anything with the hotel. Her plans never got further than her mouth or the back of an envelope," Safanda said. "Wayland just liked to own things."

Enter the Kings.

A former professor of microbiology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Robert D. "Dan" King made his money in lubricants for the beverage can industry. Early last year, he and his wife, who managed San Antonio-based Diversified Technology, Inc. with him, sold the business.

The Kings split their time between homes in San Antonio, where they plan to launch a new specialty wine distributorship; the artist's colony of Tiburon, across the bay from San Francisco; and Ouray, a spot they discovered several years ago through a friend.

The Kings also enjoy the hiking, four-wheeling and other outdoor activities offered by this picturesque spot in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.

Ready for a new challenge to tackle, the Kings joined some 1,700 who toured the old building during special showings, 92 of whom purchased bid packages, and 22 of whom actually made sealed bids.

"Almost every mayor that has come into office over the years has tried to do something about the Beaumont, and - nothing. A stone wall," says Mayor Jim Miller, who owns a motel on the banks of Ouray's Uncompahgre River.

"If there was a fear, I suspect it was that whoever eventually bought it would … have a champagne appetite and a beer budget."

Adds the mayor: "I think we came out of this just beautifully."

The Kings brought something else to the project: an affection for Ouray and a willingness to work with the town. The Kings are working with local historians and preservation specialists, and an e-mail address has been established to take suggestions from the public on how the old hotel should be developed.

A bed-and-breakfast, condominiums, offices, shops, perhaps a restaurant in the old dining room and lobby area - the Kings say they aren't sure what the Beaumont will become.

"I think there's a lot of possibilities here and a lot of opportunities," Dan King says. "The people are so in love with this building here, the city and the people feel like they own it. I imagine if we do something the people don't like, we'll hear about it."

Despite a crowning weather vane bearing the date of 1886, the three-story hotel actually opened with great fanfare in 1887 - a 10-year-old mining town's attempt to raise its social profile and lure investors.

The Second Empire-style brick beauty - at one time across the street from the Bucket of Blood Saloon - featured a sweeping staircase, a three-story atrium lobby with skylights, and cathedral windows in the dining room with high ceilings that look out on surrounding mountains.

"It was a place where you had balls. People danced till midnight, and then they ate. It was a place for all kinds of special occasions," says Gregory, the historian. "A lot of brides walked down those stairs."

Tucked in a box canyon with not one, but two, waterfalls cascading in from the surrounding mountains, Ouray eventually fell from importance as a mining town, but found new life as a tourist destination. The Beaumont - its name means "beautiful mountain" - housed many of those tourists until the advent of motels drove it out of business in 1964.

The Kings say business principles, not sentimentality, should guide the Beaumont's transformation. Unless it becomes a profitable operation, it could end up going downhill once again, they warn.

Adds Dan King: "We have to make it self-sustaining. If we can't do that, we've done nothing."

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