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Couple meets challenges to keep historic inn alive

ESTES PARK — For Mark and Meredith Powell, the journey to realizing their dreams in the Colorado mountains has been as bumpy as the road leading to the 105-year-old inn that the Texas natives bought in late 2020 and as steep as the narrow wooden stairs up to its front door.

But as of late October, Meredith Powell is sounding a lot more optimistic about their future at Seven Keys Lodge, which was known for many years as the Baldpate Inn.

“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” she said.

Challenged by bringing parts of the old property up to Larimer County building codes, Meredith Powell said she and her husband now feel much more confident, are taking bookings for next summer and plan to reopen June 1 after closing for the season on Oct. 16.

“It’s just a matter of finding solutions to satisfy the county that we can afford,” she said. “We just got up and running. We’re not a corporation with deep pockets.”

Seven Keys Lodge, formerly the Baldpate Inn, was built in 1917 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Dallas Heltzell/BizWest

Country-music singer-songwriter Mark Powell met Meredith Garner while she was a student at Abilene Christian University. Once they were married, they bought an abandoned dude ranch near Abilene and turned it into a 30,000-seat music venue where they’ve hosted the “Outlaws and Legends” music festival every March since 2011.

Well, not every March. The COVID pandemic shut everything down in 2020.

“The Monday prior to the event, we had to call it off,” Meredith Powell said. “And we had Willie Nelson!”

The couple already had some connections to Colorado, including attending a music festival in Gunnison. Mark’s parents had planned to be in Estes Park the night of the deadly 1976 Big Thompson flood, but their plans changed at the last fortuitous moment.

Mark and Meredith Powell moved to Parker in 2016, but when COVID hit, she said, “people make decisions when times change. We didn’t want to sit on our hands and watch TV.” They decided they might like to find some raw land to create a music venue of some sort in Colorado.

In 2020, returning home along Colorado Highway 7 from a Memorial Day weekend visit to Estes Park, the Powells spotted a for-sale sign and discovered the Baldpate Inn, which then had been owned for 35 years by Lois Smith. She had run it as an inn and a restaurant serving soup, salad and pied — but had had it listed for sale for six years.

The Powells went home to Parker but awoke at 5 a.m. two days later and said “we can’t stop thinking about this place,” Meredith Powell said, “so we headed up there.

“We pulled up at 8 a.m. in a pounding snow, and Lois bear-hugged me,” she said. “She just transferred all of her love of that property onto me.”

The Powells — Mark had also been a bank vice president — spent the summer negotiating to buy the inn, and then feared it would burn down in October when the East Troublesome Fire jumped the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park and forced the evacuation of Estes Park.

“The Friday they called the fires contained, the Realtor called and wanted full price,” Meredith Powell said. “Who pays full price on a house that’s been on the market for six weeks, much less six years?”

But the Powells’ love for the Baldpate Inn won out, and they closed on the sale Dec. 4, 2020. .

“Things were flying off the market in Parker, so we got full price for our house there and moved us, our three kids and a dog to the inn. We’re the first family ever to live onsite.”

Their living space in Parker had been 4,900 square feet. At Baldpate, it’s 1,900. The younger Powells — Ella, Hayden and Macy — all help out around the inn.

Despite 320 feet of frozen sewer line that first winter, the Powells initially envisioned the inn as a place where they could invite singer-songwriters to come up, stage music events, offer weekend getaways for couples, maybe bring in guest chefs, and tout the area’s fly-fishing and mountain-biking opportunities.

But the main thing they could offer was the place’s unique history.

Brothers Charles and Gordon Mace opened the inn in 1917, and its design and setting reminded them of a place mentioned in a mystery novel they had just read: “Seven Keys to Baldpate” by Earl Derr Biggers. In the 1913 book, a man visits a secluded inn for some peace and quiet without realizing that six others also have a key to the place and begin distracting him.

The Maces named their inn after the fictional one, and visitors began paying tribute to the theme by donating keys that could be hung on the walls and from the rafters.

Meredith Powell now estimates those keys number more than 28,000.

“They did an inventory years ago and documented every key,” she said. “It’s on a laptop, But we’ve added some since we owned it, several a month, so I need to get in there and update it.”

The stories of where those keys came from skirts the line between fact and legend, but according to the inn’s lore, they include Westminster Abbey, Frankenstein’s castle, Mozart’s wine cellar, Adolf Hitler’s bunker, the Pentagon, a White House bathroom, and even Meredith’s alma mater, Lake Highlands High School in Dallas.

No keys from Mar-a-Logo, at least so far.

The passage of Halloween also revived the legend that Gordon Mace and his wife, Ethel, still haunt the “Key Room,” which the Powells have turned into an upscale bar with an Ernest Hemingway vibe.

As a further tribute to the book and collection, the Powells rebranded the place Seven Keys Lodge, and began booking guests and events for the summer of 2021. But then came some spats with Larimer County.

“In November 2021, we found a really cool old Dodge front-end loader truck that was trashed behind the lodge,” Meredith Powell said. “Mark had a vision to restore it and provide hikers what they needed — sunscreen, water bottles, headlamps, dry socks. We parked it on the road into the lodge and called it Seven Keys Mercantile.

“But then we got a notice that said somebody complained, and that we were in a CDOT (Colorado Department of Transportation) easement. Our road was a non-maintained county road, and we’ve been plowing and maintaining that road.

“We offered to pull the truck back five feet, but the county said no, it can’t be seen from Highway 7. So then all of a sudden I was allowed to have it — but it would be yard art.”

The truck dispute “opened a can of worms,” she said.

The Powells hosted music events in 2021 that brought in at least 80 people each, but were told by the county that they had to limit the number of attendees and could only have three a year, not to exceed 40 hours total. “We said we’d like to apply for rezoning,” she said, “but they told us that would take a year.” 

The Powells also were told the music stage had to be up to 2022 codes regarding load bearing and electrical capacity. There also were issues with the cabins’ plumbing.

“If I had the property inspected before me buying it by someone licensed by the state as an inspector, why does that inspection not count? They gave us a 96-page inspection report,” she said. “And why wasn’t this stuff caught over the last 40 years?

“If I wanted to sell it, all of their concerns would transfer to the buyer,” Meredith Powell said in September. “So it comes down to the price tag we’re going to have to fulfill their requirements.”

But by late October, her mood had brightened substantially. A Larimer County code-compliance inspector — ironically named Alan Kee — had done a walkthrough of the site on Oct. 20, she said, and just wanted to make sure plumbing and electrical changes had been made. We also have to make sure the lights and safety issues on the stage are good. I think we’re collectively moving in the right direction.”

The Powells have yet to receive Kee’s final report, she said, but “we at least had him out here and making a game plan.

“We still have to work through those stage issues, though, and bring it up to 2022 code,” Meredith Powell said. “We’re in limbo on that stage. We’re still in the same predicament we were in before because they say we need additional support beams underneath it, and it would be as expensive to put in those supports as it would be to tear it down.”

The Powells may submit a permit for an area below the property where a road had been washed out during the September 2013 deluge. They’d restore it, fill it in with grass, and stage events there. “We’re pulling all that paperwork together,” she said.

Some upgrades to cabins and bathrooms were needed, she said, “but nothing grotesque.”

Still, Meredith Powell said, what she heard from Kee “sounded pretty good. The biggest thing was getting them out there to look around. I think once they got there, it changed their perspective a little bit.”

That optimism has fueled the Powells’ plans for next summer.

“We’ll continue to operate as we have,” she said. “We’d like to do more private events if possible, like murder-mystery parties and wedding rehearsal dinners.

“We’ll be open seven days a week in summer from 4 to 10 p.m. with a brunch from 10 to 1 on Sundays, and the books for overnight stays are open from the first week of June to mid-October.”

One other blessing the Powells can count is that the old inn itself, with its multitude of stairs and nowhere to add elevators, is on the national historic register and exempt from many contemporary building codes.

“If that weren’t the case,” Meredith Powell said, “we’d be up the creek.”

If you go: Seven Keys Lodge

4900 Colorado Highway 7, Estes Park


Source: BizWest