Who We Are: Inside the haunted Brown Hotel & Restaurant
Ryan Summerlin October 30, 2010
Gail Westwood takes visitors to the historical Brown Hotel and Restaurant on every ghost tour she gives. She’s listened to stories about people hearing noises when nobody’s there and has even seen a bartender’s eerie photo of a ghostly figure in the parlor’s huge stone fireplace.”I thought it looked pretty convincing,” she said.A print article, framed and hanging in the narrow hallway of the Brown quotes Breckenridge instructor Mike Ross saying that the water turns on by itself in the women’s bathroom and the curtains move. Women are often so frightened, they refuse to go into the restroom alone.As the story goes, in the late 1880s, a man named Capt. Ryan was having an affair with Miss Whitney, who also had a boyfriend. It seems Capt. Ryan discovered that Miss Whitney was only fooling around with him because he owned the Brown (before T.A. Brown purchased the building, added on to it and named it the Brown); you see, Miss Whitney wanted to sleep her way into favor with Ryan so she could use his inn as a high-class house of prostitution. When the truth came to light, he shot her. Now, it’s rumored that Miss Whitney haunts the building.But owner Michael Cavanaugh can explain every sighting, noise and startle; what he can’t attribute to simple air flow principles, he charges to intoxication.Sure, he doesn’t say his ex-wife was crazy when she ran from the Brown to the police station in her stocking feet at 3 a.m., claiming the bedroom door closed three times, after she opened it three times.”I guess there’s a ghost, but it didn’t get rid of me; it got rid of my ex-wife,” he said, laughing.He doesn’t comment on why his wait staff would tell him silverware mysteriously disarranged itself and water glasses turned up half empty after they filled them and no one touched them. He says he’s had employees who refuse to go in the basement and customers who don’t want to go into the ladies’ restroom. A psychic a ski magazine brought in to do a story confirmed the Brown had a ghost.But he justifies factors like the cold spot people feel at the bottom of the stairs and doors slamming through the mechanics of airflow; the draft results from cold air from the front door hitting warm kitchen exhaust. And, if someone pushes on the swinging door that leads to the wait station and the parlor door isn’t locked, air suction causes the parlor door to creak open. He dismisses any fireplace images, saying a nearby mirror could cast light, and if someone moves through the room, it could create a ghostly reflection.And strange noises in the middle of the night? Well, often it turned out that one of his employees had drunkenly walked upstairs, looking for “the ghost,” and passed out.However, Cavanaugh admits “there’s some weird ones that made my hair stand up.” One night, he saw a spot against a door that his security cameras picked up. Yet, upon further investigation, the former history teacher found evidence to dispute a ghost sighting; he decided a simple reflection off another door created the spot.”She ain’t screwin’ with me or my computers,” he said about Miss Whitney, if, indeed, some wisp of her still exists.
Cavanaugh doesn’t take much stock in ghosts, because he has better things to focus on. His past is filled with adventure, and he’s paving a future for his daughter to take over a viable restaurant business.Cavanaugh moved to Summit County in 1972, after earning his degree from Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland on a track scholarship. He got PSIA certified as a ski instructor, and his brother, who lived in Longmont, shopped his resume around, piquing the interest of Steamboat, Copper, Keystone and Breckenridge. Cavanaugh chose Breck, and it’s been where his heart rests ever since.While he worked for Aspen Ski Corp. (which owned Breckenridge Ski Area at the time), he became Level III certified, a status he still maintains through PSIA dues so he can return to the occupation later in life. At Breck, he ran the NASTAR program and two master programs. He tried out for the U.S. Demo Team and “almost got on that, but I’m not corporate material,” he said.Indeed, his personality is more suited for entrepreneurism. In addition to working construction during the summers and ski school in the winters, he put money into Mike’s Pub at the Bell Tower Mall (now Main Street Station) in 1976.”I worked some heavy-duty hours, but when you’re young, you can do those hours,” he said.He also helped promote The Ski Coach, a weekly ski tour geared toward locals -and only locals, because “it would get kinda wild in the bus,” he said.After Mike’s Pub went into litigation for ownership, then settled, Cavanaugh turned his attention on the Adams St. Caf to “clean house,” making the restaurant profitable within a year. Then he purchased the Brown on July 5, 1985, on “a song and a dance,” because the previous owner hadn’t made his business lucrative.”But there’s always problems when you pick it up for a song and a dance,” he said, adding that the former owner sued him, claiming the man who sold the Brown to Cavanaugh didn’t own the title. Plus, the historical structure is a bit of a never-ending project. But it’s not without its fascinating rewards: When Cavanaugh installed radiant floor heating, he discovered Denver newspapers under the floorboards dating back to the early 1900s.He initially turned the Brown into a successful fine-dining establishment – where he wore a tux every night – but as more and more visitors rented condos with kitchens, he saw the writing on the wall. He lives by limericks and slogans, one of which is: “It’s not so much what you gross, it’s not how much you net; it’s what you’ve got left in the bank.” To protect his assets, he began a five-year downsizing process, moving from fine dining to becoming a service industry establishment, opening at 8 p.m. and geared toward working locals. Because, as he says, “booze never goes bad.”He’s waiting for a climate in which the restaurant can be successful again, especially because his daughter wants to return the Brown to a dining establishment.”It’ll come back one day,” he said. “I’m preparing so my daughter has something to work with.”In the meantime, he’s considering transforming the historical barn on his property into a visual arts studio and small performing arts venue.As for Westwood, she continues to tell her haunting tales, hoping Cavanaugh doesn’t walk downstairs one night and begin delivering rational explanations for all that goes bump in the night at the Brown.