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New Life for an Old Hotel

The Saguache Hotel today. Photo by Mike Rosso.

By Mike Rosso

When Steve Stewart and Cathy Kent randomly parked in front of an old hotel during a visit to Saguache, Colorado, on a November day in 2016, little did they know that single, incidental act would change their lives and possible the future of the entire town.

A “For Sale” sign on the old brick building caught their eyes. As antique dealers, they were on a scouting trip across Colorado when they stumbled upon the old Saguache Hotel. “We were thinking ‘oh my god, look at this cool building,’” said Kent, who used to own the Telluride Antique Market when a resident of Ridgeway. After ringing up the number on the sign, they learned the price had been reduced to $165,000. “My son got online and did some research and learned that the owners were having some trouble and weren’t paying their taxes on time,” she said. “We made an offer of $160,000 with owner financing.” “The reason we got it was because it was cheap. We could afford it,” added Stewart, also an antique dealer who is from Ignacio.

Thus began an adventure in restoration of a historic San Luis Valley hotel which sat vacant and crumbling since the early 1990s.

The hotel was built in 1910 by Horace “Boss” Means and his cousin W.T. Ashley, in partnership with George Curtis as a way to put the upstart town of Saguache on the map. The July 21, 1910, issue of the Saguache Crescent reported, “… Means and Ashley are erecting a $15,000 hotel just north of the New American [old store of Otto Mears, and later also a small hotel] and when completed it will be one of the finest in the entire valley.  It will be modern in every way, having baths, hot and cold water and its own lighting plant and will be heated with hot water.”

Earlier, a hotel was built on the adjacent property to the existing hotel by Otto Mears and Issac Gotthelf in the late 1860s but was torn down the same year the Saguache Hotel broke ground.

Means’ family had moved by wagon train to Saguache County in 1875. Horace and his brother George were cattlemen and acquired considerable land holdings in Saguache and Gunnison counties. In 1898 they purchased the Horace Campbell ranch and, with cousin W.T. Ashley, bought the Company Ranch from the Saguache Land and Cattle Company. The brothers also operated a freighting business between the San Luis Valley and both Leadville and Lake City. Horace also ran a business in Saguache with his cousin, Means & Ashley Mercantile. Horace Means was also one of the founders of the First National Bank of Saguache, was a Saguache County commissioner for four years and served as the mayor of Saguache for many years. Upon his death in 1926, his son Frank Means inherited the hotel. Having little interest in running a hotel, Frank sold it to his uncle Roll Means. Under his watch the hotel faired well until the arrival of the Great Depression when business fell off dramatically. Roll decided to leave town and deeded the hotel back to Frank. The hotel and fallen into disrepair and Means’s first thought was to nail up the windows and shut it down. His wife Florence though, had other ideas and approached her husband about letting her run the hotel, a very unique proposition for a woman of the West in the 1930s. Frank agreed, although very reluctantly, and sold the hotel to his wife for one dollar. When he asked what she knew about hotels, Florence replied, “I’ve stayed in lots of nice ones.” Frank decided to not argue with that logic.

Florence Means wrote a fascinating book about her experiences running the Saguache Hotel, But What, My Dear, Do You Know About Hotels? She managed to convince local banker Herbert Hazard to lend her money for hotel upgrades after her husband refused to involve himself financially. Among the full-time residents of the hotel during her ownership was legendary Saguache Sheriff Edward Ivan “Slim” Paul, who eventually became Brand Commissioner of Colorado. At one time, the hotel had a dentist in residence, who would have to shut down his drilling equipment when it interfered with the radio broadcast of popular sporting events, which attracted many listeners to the lobby. A barber also set up shop in the hotel for a while.

After Frank Means was appointed manager of the Colorado State Fair, the family had to relocate to Pueblo in 1938, and Florence sold the hotel to Zoe Hazard, Frank Means’ cousin. She was paid $5,000 cash and given title to three buildings in downtown Saguache in exchange for the hotel.

Zoe Hazard owned the hotel for about four years. Her grandson, Bill Hazard, a Saguache native and photo archivist at the Saguache County Museum offered the following, “As I understand it, when she bought it in 1938, the country in general was still struggling to come out of the depression. The outbreak of World War II was the killing blow to my grandmother’s ownership.  People during that time weren’t traveling and staying in hotels – at least not very much.  Zoe was unable to redeem both the deed of trust and the additional mortgage and she lost the property in November, 1942, to foreclosure by Del Norte Federal Savings and Loan. She had many good times and made many good friends at the hotel, though. After she lost the property, she went to work as a cook at Camp Hale for the 10th Mountain Division.”

After it was foreclosed, Bill’s great-uncle on the Hazard side of his family, E.P. Hazard (Bill’s grandfather was Herbert’s brother) bought the hotel from Del Norte Federal Savings and Loan in June, 1944. In 1950, E.P. sold the hotel to Ella Smith who later, through marriage, became Ella Cooper. Bill believes at some point, Ella Cooper sold it to his cousin Jon Hazard and Nick Abeyta with his great uncle Eddie Hazard cosigning. Eddie was another brother of Bill’s grandfather Herbert, and of E.P. Hazard. After Nick Abeyta’s untimely death, Eddie Hazard eventually sold the hotel to Rod and Linda Brumfield. Bill recalls that the hotel became well-known for its highly-rated restaurant and that a bus sometimes brought diners up to Saguache from the southern part of the valley, including Alamosa. For many years, the Kiwanis sponsored the annual school Scholarship Banquet where local school students with a high grade point average were treated to a recognition dinner at the hotel.  Bill also recalls students from Colorado School of Mines coming yearly to the Saguache area for summer study expeditions, always staying at the Saguache Hotel. The hotel was featured in a 1987 PBS American Playhouse TV production, Land of Little Rain, which starred Helen Hunt as Mary Austin.

After the Brumfields, the hotel was owned by Tom and Marilyn Ross who ran it in the 1980s, incorporating a bar to the establishment, the Watering Hole Lounge. A rack card from their time of ownership boasts of  “Two Night Packages from under $50 per couple,” and “Romantic Get-A-ways.” They eventually sold it to a couple named Lance and Loretta (last name is forgotten) who only owned it for a short time before it was sold to the Cox’s of Estes Park in the early 1990s. The Cox’s never opened the hotel and were notorious for their habit of waiting until the last possible minute to pay the taxes on the building and doing the minimum amount of maintenance to the property. That same couple owned the A.T. Henry building in downtown Salida for a number of years, where for a while they ran the Penny Pincher gift store. After leaving town, their building also sat vacant and neglected until they lost it to back taxes and it was quickly purchased by a group of Salida investors who restored it to its original luster.

An upstairs room at the Saguache Hotel today.

It was from the Cox’s son that Steve Stewart and Cathy Kent purchased the hotel in 2016. They also inherited a grant from Saguache County Sustainable Environment and Economic Development (ScSEED). About two years back, ScSEED had identified the Saguache Hotel as a priority business in need of help, according to Tess Beneduce, former ScSEED Development Coordinator. Saguache County gave financial support to ScSEED so they could write grant applications, and were awarded funds from the State Historical Fund, The National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the USDA Rural Business Development fund, to conduct a market study and Historic Structure Assessment (HSA) of the hotel. They hired Kim Smoyer & Associates to conduct the market study, and Schueber & Darden Architects to conduct the HSA. The market study was recently completed, the HSA is underway and the draft is almost complete, according to Beneduce who currently works with ScSEED as project manager. They are currently working with Stewart and Kent to develop these components and help them prepare for the next steps. These may include further grant applications and a business plan.

Meanwhile, the new owners have hired a Denver architect, Barbara Darden (who oversaw the restoration of Homelake Veterans’ History Museum in Monte Vista), as well as a structural engineer, who are currently finishing their studies on the building and have until August to get everything turned in.

The owners learned matching grants are currently available for historic preservation projects such as theirs. “That’s why we are in the process of selling antiques – making it an antique store – to generate income so that we can put it back into the building,” said Steve, referring to the antiques now residing in the lobby and dining room. “Whether we get state money or not, remains to be seen.” Cathy’s son, a commercial construction manager in the San Francisco Bay area estimated it could cost as much as $1.2 million to fully restore the hotel.

“We will probably at some point have to take on some kind of investor to get an infusion of money somehow,” “or mortgage the farm,” added Cathy with a smile, referring to a ranch near Ignacio owned by Steve. During our interview, the sound of chains saws permeated the air as five large elm trees encroaching on the foundation of the two-story, 10,000 square foot hotel were being removed.

Cathy Kent
and Steve Stewart in the lobby of the hotel. Photos by Mike Rosso.

As for the ultimate goal for the hotel, Cathy replied with a chuckle, “We don’t really know. We just fell in love with the building. We both have backgrounds in construction so we could see past its current condition … we know we could at least clean it up, we’ve already had three giant dumpsters gone from here. I do the yard work and Steve keeps everything glued together inside. We’re just going to go as long and as far as we can, and at some point, if we get to where we can’t carry the load, we’ll put it back on the market … or we will take on a partner that has the finances and wherewithal that we can go ahead and get it done,” added Steve. They would eventually like to reopen the commercial kitchen and possibly restart the bar.

They began illuminating the old sign in front of the building. “The night that went on the whole town went berserk, it went out over Facebook, it’s the only evening lighting in downtown, and it’s quite eery,” said Cathy.

As far as locals’ reaction to the sale of the building, they explained, “Within 15 minutes, people began pouring out of their shops, coming down here, and it has not stopped. We have people who come down and formally want to shake our hands and say ‘thank you for buying this.’”

Visitors are encouraged to stop by the old hotel at 415 4th Street and maybe even buy some antiques: a future investment in this grand old historic San Luis Valley establishment.