Georgetown can slip right by motorists on Highway I-70. It’s a blip of a town on a road that snakes through ski country in Colorado. Tourists and Colorado residents may have heard of the Georgetown Loop Railroad, the choice for earlier transportation. But if they speed by, they’ll miss the true jewels of the historic district. If you’re looking for architecture with flounce, filigree and whimsy, Georgetown is the destination. What once was a boomtown of silver mining in the late 1800s is now the mother lode of Victoriana.
“It’s always been a frou-frou town,” says Christine Bradley, the archivist for Clear Creek County. “With all the beautiful gardens and fences, it’s always been made up of settled families. Leadville and Black Hawk were the classic boisterous Western towns. Georgetown was always trying to shut down saloons.”
Georgetown is a ladylike town. Street after street of Victorian homes display Gothic Revival at its most glorious—dripping with lace and ornate decorative touches. In its heart lies an embroidered doily.
On a bitter cold winter day, Christine joins Ron Neely, President of Historic Georgetown, huddled in the Alpine Inn Restaurant, both hunched over hot coffee. The Christmas extravaganza that the town regales in is over and now a chilling wind whips through this narrow valley. Although Georgetown is lovely for walking, only a straggler or two braves the streets today. The hardy few walk stiff-legged, bent against the wind. While the 19th century carpenters may have delighted in delicate architecture, the residents were tough.
Georgetown once made its fortune in silver and the remnants of that boom remain. But it’s also a reminder that fortunes last for a short time, perhaps only a decade, before extravagance collapses and something more permanent moves in.
Tourism. Middle-class mercantilism. Skilled craftsmen. Quiet neighborhoods. These are the elements that lasted over 100 years. Georgetown dwindled from 5000 at its zenith to about 1100 today, count 200 more if you include the sister town of Silver Plume. Poor prospectors and wealthy mine owners departed. What they left behind was a solid middle class. That aspect of the town, Ron says, hasn’t altered.
“There is a characteristic of Georgetown that hasn’t much changed since the 19th century. Gambling is not out of character for Black Hawk. But it would be for Georgetown. People find the town that fits them best,” he says.
Tourism was always important, Christine adds, and remains the major economy. People once journeyed to Georgetown for their health, and the merchants provided a hospitality industry to serve their needs. The Hotel de Paris was the place to be. The Hotel no longer takes in guests, but the small restaurants are full. With the cold wind, coffee shops do a brisk business.
And then, there was the silver mine. Like so many extractive industries of Colorado, the mine exists only as a ghost. Along with the railroad, it’s a reminder of the past. By itself, it would be only an artifact. What has held value for the town through the century are historic neighborhoods.
Georgetown offers an array of historic buildings that few towns can feature. Within walking distance are three historic churches: Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and Episcopal. An old energy museum stands alongside its modern day sibling just down the street. The commercial district isn’t different from 19th century shopping forays. Many streets are unpaved. Old firehouses stand tall. Street after street is lined with houses that date to 1870.
And, yet, this is not Disneyland. This is authentic. “It’s a real town,” says Kathy Hoeft, who with her husband, Gary Long, is a principal in their architectural firm. They specialize in historic buildings and found themselves lured from Denver to Georgetown in 1982. “Preservation is important to some, but not all,” she says. “So it will never be a museum experience. It’s also not a place of grand houses. That’s partly what makes it comfortable. It’s within reach of most people.”
There is one spectacular house, which has been preserved as a museum. The Hamill House, a sprawling white Victorian complete with conservatory, was purchased by Historic Georgetown in 1971 for $100,000. Today it’s the anchor for a series of homes destined to be a collection. The Hamill House was built in 1867 and purchased by William Arthur Hamill, who owned the silver mine. It remains the grandest property in the town.
To underscore the wide range of economic classes in the small town, Historic Georgetown included four additional properties: the intricately detailed
Bowman-White House, which housed the mine’s manager. The sturdy Kneisel House, home of a merchant family. The Kneisel name remains on the front of a store along the commercial main street and has stayed within the family. The fourth is a miner’s home tucked behind the Bowman-White House and fifth is a prospector’s rustic log cabin not far away.
It’s not a fully developed museum array, Ron says. The Kneisel House, for example, is the site of a Montessori school for now. But the hope of volunteers who work on the homes is to provide a snapshot of the economic strata in the late 19th century. A mine owner might reside not far from the tiny homes of his mine employees. People lived in close proximity despite extraordinary discrepancies between wealth and poverty. The Kneisel house embodies the modest respectability that would surface as middle class.
“This was so appealing to us as a firm,” Kathy says about the five-house acquisition. “They have an insight that goes way beyond what most organizations do. It’s not open to show yet. It may take ten years.”
“It may take twenty,” Ron says with a sigh. Thirty years ago, he and a few friends closed the bar at the Alpine Inn one Christmas night and discussed starting an organization that would preserve buildings in Georgetown. It became the genesis for Historic
Georgetown and immediately flopped. “We wanted a voice to speak for the cultural assets of Georgetown but neglected to include the old-timers of the town. The old-timers told us to get the hell out of town. They had seen organizations like ours before.” With failure came wisdom. Ron says he never made that mistake again. Suddenly the Hamill House was up for sale and he learned about fund-raising. “We found ourselves in the museum business. I’m not sure we knew how to spell museum.”
Other buildings surfaced for sale. The Hotel de Paris turned into a museum by default. Located on a corner of the commercial district, the owner, Louis Depuy, a mysterious character, built and staffed the hotel until his death. He died from pneumonia, Kathy says, “it didn’t help that he believed the cure was cold baths.”
The Hotel de Paris stopped abruptly with his death, a phenomenon akin to the experience of the “Sleeping Beauty.” Kathy turns the key in the lock of the hotel and a small world unfolds. Little has been altered since the day Louis died. Instead of the residents slumped over their desks, tables and beds in a 100-year sleep, they have vanished.
Pens rest on a desk, books line a shelf, barrels of wine shipped from Fresno, California, collect decades of dust in the basement, dishes are washed and put away. Furniture is placed exactly as it was. The rooms contain several beds and armoires. Chairs are abundantly sprinkled throughout. Little was sold or given away.
“Often people simply walked away from their homes and did not take their things with them,” Kathy says. The kitchen is expansive with large tables and not a single modern convenience in sight. It could be the set for theatre, waiting for the first act.
Just up the street, the Episcopal Church hugs a steep hill. Next door an old antiques store now serves as a parish house where
tea is served. The church claims to have been the first–almost. But a fierce wind blew the partially constructed building away. It became the second oldest Episcopal Church in Colorado, dating to 1870. On any given Sunday, Kathy says that as many as nine to 11 parishioners may show up. Its greatest claim to fame is the original working pipe organ.
Only one block away sits Christine’s white house nestled against the mountain backdrop. When she bought the house, the porch was missing. “A previous owner tied a rope around the porch, hitched it to his truck and drove off with it in the middle of the night,” she says. Now it looks complete, as if the house has been fitted with a row of new teeth.
Christine is one of only two archivists in the state of Colorado. Her bailiwick is county records dating from 1859 to 1950-mostly mining claims and easement rights that provide the foundations to modern deeds. She describes the claims as looking like pickup sticks dropped in a pile. Her interest in Clear Creek County dates to 1974, when she offered to write a brochure on the Hamill House. The brochure turned into a masters’ thesis and clinched her desire to live in Georgetown.
“I like walking at night in the town,” she says, “When lights are on in the houses, it’s like a real historical setting. With the restoration of the old houses, there’s a sense of walking back in time. We don’t want a town where people dress in costume. The crux of the matter is that preservation is in the hands of private homeowners. They want to be able to put their personalities into their homes. That’s why you’ll see formal gardens next to wildflower gardens.”
And then, Georgetown is a small town, complete with gossip and intrigue. “There’s no anonymity,” Ron says. He warns those who want to settle in Georgetown that they must balance what they will gain with what they may lose. There is no doctor. A few shops sell a small selection of groceries, but the nearest supermarket is in Idaho Springs. Residents quickly learn to befriend their neighbors because they may need their help. “It’s a wonderful sense of knowing everybody,” he says, “but then there’s a lot of things you know about everybody and that’s not always comfortable.”
And all the homes are modest by today’s standards. Ron moved into his cottage six years ago. Small for a house, he says, but about the same size as a prime stateroom on the Queen Elizabeth II luxury liner. He’s comfortable in the space of yesterday. Even so, Georgetown will always be a new population defining the past. “It’s not going to be what it was in the 19th century,” Ron says, “But why do people visit history? I think it brings tranquility, a sense of understanding and serenity. I hope people will appreciate it even more in the future and I believe most are proud of it. I want people to say that Georgetown is a mountain town where the people have done a wonderful job with their history.”
Editor’s note: Georgetown’s hospitality includes the only bathroom stop between Idaho Springs and Vail. And many travelers don’t go beyond the exit point of the highway. If you’re weary and in need of food, look up the restaurants in Historic Georgetown. They’re excellent and modestly priced. The Hotel de Paris has been owned and operated by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in Colorado since 1954. It’s open to the public from Memorial Day to October.
Ron Neely died in January of 2006.