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

September 07, 1986|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

ESTES PARK, Colo. — 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.

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