Yvette Wilson hosted her Hawaiian-themed 90th birthday party at the Highlands Ranch Mansion. This July, she will celebrate her 95th birthday — theme yet to be determined — also at the mansion. If she is still around when she is 100 years old, …
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The last of reporter Alex DeWind’s three-part series looking at the role of the Highlands Ranch Mansion in our young community focuses on the events and volunteers that bring the 126-year-old historic building to life. Parts one and two explored its history and renovation and can be found at highlandsranchherald.net.
very Thursday, Martha Baker puts on a lanyard with her nametag and a vest with Highlands Ranch Mansion inscribed on the front. The former art teacher takes a break from everyday life — of being a grandmother, doing household duties, helping neighbors or reading storytime at the library — to instead bring to life the history of the mansion.
“I walked in this place and fell in love,” said the 68-year-old Baker, one of the building’s many volunteers.
To balance private events and public enjoyment, free open hours are offered at the Highlands Ranch Mansion Tuesdays and Thursdays and one Monday and Wednesday per month. People can wander the premises or take a guided tour from a volunteer.
But they aren’t just any volunteers — they are the best volunteers, said Susie Appleby, administrative assistant and volunteer program coordinator.
“Our volunteers come from all walks of life,” she said. “People that had very fulfilling former lives and now share a common interest of this place.”
About 40 active volunteers, ages 60s to mid-80s, spend a couple of hours one or two days a week interacting with visitors at the mansion. Most are retired from a variety of professions — bankers, teachers, an interior designer, a parole officer, a TV show host, to name a few.
Sandy Chamberlin, a retired Disneyland employee, volunteered 300 hours last year, the most on record. She likes interacting with kids and seeing their reactions when they arrive at the mansion.
“They’re a special part,” said Chamberlin, 71, “because they need to learn about this place.”
Baker, the former art teacher, walked into the mansion for a public event and was hooked. The mansion’s story and artwork enthralled her. Volunteering is a means for her to socialize, make friends and interact with visitors from across the globe.
“If we don’t tell the story, it gets lost,” Baker said. “I learn new things all the time.”
Referred to as docents, volunteers go through a training program that requires an orientation, a detailed outline of the mansion’s history, a one-on-one tour with Appleby, who is also a historian, and three job shadows of other volunteers.
They personalize their tours — they don’t recite a script.
For parents with small children, Peggy Breeding speeds up her tour and includes more stories. She modifies her route for seniors who can’t walk up the stairs. She can tell when someone wants every detail or a quick overview.
“I read people’s emotions,” said Breeding, 73, a retired registered nurse. “For the children, I have to go a little faster and tell stories that would interest them.”
The volunteer program has grown so much in the past year that volunteer hours are completely booked through the summer. The program is an essential piece to the metro district’s concept of the mansion. Without volunteers, residents wouldn’t have as much access to the mansion or the community’s heritage.
Volunteer Todd Noreen, 66, views it as a two-way street.
“I carry around a notebook and keep questions visitors ask me,” said Noreen, a retired real commercial real estate appraiser. “Not only are we teaching them, they teach us.”
Yvette Wilson hosted her Hawaiian-themed 90th birthday party at the Highlands Ranch Mansion. This July, she will celebrate her 95th birthday — theme yet to be determined — also at the mansion. If she is still around when she is 100 years old, she said, her party will be at the same place.
“I love castles,” the bubbly and energetic Wilson said. “I can’t believe we have one in our backyard.”
Like Wilson, many people seek out the historic building to celebrate something special — a wedding, a milestone, a birthday.
The 27,000-square-foot building sits on a hilltop east of Gateway Drive betweenSouth Broadway and East Wildcat Reserve Parkway, nestled among suburban neighborhoods and 200 acres of a working cattle ranch.
A canopy of trees hovers above the dirt driveway of the gated property. An expansive front patio overlooks a large front lawn with pristine views of the Front Range. The great hall, a ballroom-type room built for gatherings, can be decked out or downplayed for any occasion.
In addition to private events, the mansion is used for public events, like the Highlands Ranch Community Association’s father-daughter ball in February and the popular Highlands Ranch Days festival in September. And it’s accessible to the public: At no cost, visitors can wander its halls or take a tour from a dedicated volunteer during open hours.
The mix of public and private use is what the Highlands Ranch Metro District envisioned for the mansion when Shea Homes conveyed ownership of the building to the metro district in 2010. Soon after, a $6 million renovation began that brought the 126-year-old building to life. The mansion opened to the public in June 2012.
“Prior to the renovation, the mansion was a forbidden location and now it is a welcoming community gathering spot,” said Jaye Dixon, the mansion’s sales and event coordinator. “The mansion is a beautiful location to host any event.”
Whether it is an out-of-state couple looking for a destination-wedding venue, a Highlands Ranch resident looking for a slice of history or a retiree looking for volunteer hours, the mansion provides a variety of uses.
A venue for big or small occasions
In its busy season, from end of April through end of October, the mansion hosts 75 to 80 private events, which cover its operational fees of about $450,000 per year. The model doesn’t use taxpayer dollars — a request made by residents in a 2009 public involvement process completed by the metro district — and allows the mansion to have community events and free open hours for the public.
“The means of preserving the mansion is generating revenue from events,” said mansion manager Harlan Stritchko. “Our mission is to keep the place up for the purpose of viewing and celebrating history.”
Nearly every weekend in the summer, the mansion transforms for a private event. Mansion staff see a range of clients, from a couple in search of that destination-wedding venue to someone who grew up in Highlands Ranch looking for a site close to home.
“We get people from all over the country,” Stritchko said, “or we get a young lady who can say she grew up down the street and took prom photos here.”
Most clients fit well with the mansion, Stritchko said. They want something unique and historic.
That’s the case for 94-year-old Wilson. She fell in love with castles while traveling through Europe. Her favorite part of the mansion is the eastern wing, also the oldest, with its stone turret and grand staircase.
Private events, which average about $5,000 for a five-hour rental, are limited to one a day and must adhere to a set of guidelines, including noise control, termination of alcohol service 30 minutes before the end of an event and parking management. The great hall, constructed during the renovation, has sound-reducing wall material and durable hickory wood for large gatherings, such as a wedding reception.
Rules and regulations were put in place following public concern about disruption of surrounding neighborhoods, and out of respect for the building.
“Preserving the mansion is first and foremost,” Stritchko said.
The mansion is also used for educational opportunities. Earlier this year, students from Fox Creek Elementary led tours of the mansion and created pamphlets that included a kid-friendly history and games.
It is used for speakers, concerts, corporate meetings and gatherings. The metro district partners with Highlands Ranch Community Association to provide a variety of happenings, such as an Aug. 10 jazz night with beer and wine, set to dim lights in the great hall.
Said Dixon: “We are able to host small intimate events as well as large community events without feeling too large or too small.”
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