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Once belonging to influencers of Colorado — including oil tycoons, cattle barons, Denver socialites, politicians and businessmen — the Highlands Ranch Mansion was destined to be a special place for modern-day Highlands Ranch.
So writes Alex DeWind in this week’s installment of a three-part series that explores the role of the 126-year-old Highlands Ranch Mansion in our young community. The story looks at the $6 million renovation that transformed the aging building into a welcoming and elegant venue for residents. The first part of the series, published last week, explored the history of the building. The third story, scheduled for next week, gives readers a glimpse into the Mansion’s strong volunteer program and the many events it now hosts.
When Todd Noreen moved to Highlands Ranch in 1991, his home backed up to open land and the historic property known as the Highlands Ranch Mansion. Red and green ivy vines engulfed the front of the castle-like building. Critters inhabited the inside. Water leaks stained the interior walls.Following a $6 million renovation to the 126-year-old mansion completed in 2012, Noreen’s view from the back of his home changed drastically.“I loved the ivy,” said Noreen, a mansion volunteer, “but it was neat to be able to see what was underneath it.”Today, sandstone, rock, brick and petrified wood line the 27,000-square-foot mansion that sits on a hilltop just below the windmill, east of Gateway Drive betweenSouth Broadway and East Wildcat Reserve Parkway. The gated property has an impeccable front lawn with views of the Front Range, an expansive front patio and a large parking lot for visitors.Two hundred acres of ranch land and suburban neighborhoods surround the property.Site improvements and electrical repairs completed during the two-year renovation brought to life a vision of the mansion set in place 30 years ago — that it would be used for public benefit.The Highlands Ranch Development Guide, approved in 1979 before the first home was built in Highlands Ranch, required that Mission Viejo, the original developer of the master-planned community, transfer ownership of the mansion to an organization that would maintain it for public use.Following a year-long public involvement process, the Highlands Ranch Metro District became owner in 2010.“We didn’t know exactly what we were going to do with it (the mansion),” said Jeff Case, public works director of the metro district. “We knew we needed to fix things.”The metro district embarked on an investigation of the building and discovered a deteriorated roof, water damage, rickety flooring and outdated plumping, heating and cooling systems, among other structural defects.The goal was not to change the mansion, but to make it a modern facility, Case said. Many materials from the original building were reused and designs were replicated.The interior today remains a mix of 1980s and ‘90s décor — arched doorways, wood floors, white framed windows, crystal chandeliers, plush fabric couches and vintage lamps.Once belonging to influencers of Colorado — including oil tycoons, cattle barons, Denver socialites, politicians and businessmen — the mansion was destined to be a special place for modern-day Highlands Ranch.And because of the extensive renovation, residents and mansion staff say, it is.‘A centerpiece of the community’In early 2000s, community groups, including the Highlands Ranch Community Association, conducted several formal and informal studies in hopes of fulfilling Mission Viejo’s vision of the mansion as a space for public benefit. But paying for the renovation and operation of the mansion was a challenge.In 2008, the Highlands Ranch Metro District Board of Directors hired a consultant to study feasibility and determine renovation costs. A public involvement process, including community outreach and meetings with stakeholders and surrounding neighborhoods, began the following year.The metro district envisioned the mansion as a place for residents to learn and experience the heritage of Highlands Ranch.“We recognized that the mansion would be the centerpiece of the community,” Case said.Most residents were on board with the mansion, Case said, so long as operational fees weren’t funded by taxpayer dollars and private events wouldn’t disrupt surrounding neighborhoods.So the metro district developed a concept that would use revenue from private event rentals, such as weddings, to cover the mansion’s operating cost of about $450,000 a year. System development fees, paid by residential development companies for community-wide capital projects and infrastructure, would cover the $6 million renovation. Another $4 million, also from system development fees, would be put in an endowment fund for future generations.Private events would adhere to a set of guidelines, including noise control, termination of alcohol service 30 minutes before the end of an event and parking management.To balance private events and public enjoyment, open hours would be available for free to individuals and groups during the week.In 2010, Shea Homes, which purchased Mission Viejo, conveyed ownership of the mansion to the Highlands Ranch Metro District. The surrounding 200 acres of pasture, ranch buildings and corrals currently used as a working cattle ranch, will be handed over in 2026.The metro district plans to use the land as a historic park.“We’d like to expand upon the history of ranching, farming, animals,” said mansion manager Harlan Stritchko, “provide educational opportunities and increase the volume of people coming through.”Renovation was a guessing gameThe mansion came to be in 1891 when one of the country’s first petroleum refiners, Samuel Allen Long, built a farmhouse on his propertythat sits north of what is now Wildcat Reserve Parkway and overlooks the western part of Highlands Ranch.Businessman and politician John Springer then turned the farmhouse into a castle, which oil tycoon Frank Kistler remodeled in 1930 to the mansion’s current size and style.Instead of tearing down and rebuilding the property, each owner added on to the original farmhouse and left personal touches that exist today.Rotherwood — named after Allen’s childhood farm — is faintly inscribed above a door on the eastern side of the mansion. Springer added a large living room and a turretover the grand entrance. Kistler used sandstone on the exterior and built a sprawling front patio and a western wing.“It’s a building that’s been upgraded, renovated and changed over the years,” Case said. “There was no one plan.”Which made the renovation a guessing game.The metro district hired dozens of contractors for the project. Rotted carpets were ripped out, exposing wood floors made of oak and cherry. Walls were knocked down, some of which revealed exterior walls with windows that had been covered up“No one ever decided they were going to knock down things and start over,” Case said. “They just kept changing things.”Materials that couldn’t be salvaged, like broken beams on the patio’s railing, were replicated. The roof was replaced. Modern electrical, heating and cooling systems were installed. Elegant bathrooms with marble furnishing were constructed on the first floor. An elevator and ramp were added to meet ADA standards.In the property’s southeast corner, a great hall with sound-reducing wall material and durable hickory wood was constructed to accommodate gatherings and events that would soon take place on the property.“Prior to the renovation the mansion was a forbidden location,” said Jaye Dixon, the mansion’s sales and event coordinator. “Now it is a welcoming community gathering spot.”Today, visitors can explore the mansion or take a guided tour during open hours, which are held twice a week. People flock to the building for popular public events, such as Highlands Ranch Days, a three-day festival in September. Intimate events, such as speakers and concerts, draw smaller crowds to the great hall.It’s a one-of-a-kind facility, Dixon said.“There is not,” she said, “nor will there ever be another Highlands Ranch Mansion.”
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