Christy and Randy Rost spent three years reverting their historic Swan’s Nest home to its former glory
When Breckenridge mining baron Ben Stanley Revett married San Francisco socialite Mary on New Year’s Day in 1898, he wanted to impress her. So he started construction on a sprawling manor in the Swan River Valley. Eager to have it ready for her summer trip to Summit County, he pushed production and finished construction in June of that year.
Since then, the house, dubbed Swan’s Nest for its location and white exterior, has remained, while the history of Breckenridge and Summit County flowed around it. The home’s current owners — Randy and Christy Rost — spent three years renovating the building, restoring many of its former aspects, including revealing much of the original materials and paying homage to its heyday as the residence of one of Breckenridge’s most dynamic characters.
Every time the door opens, the warm smells of Christy’s baking waft over visitors in a welcoming cloud. They emanate from the large kitchen and dining area to the right. This section of the house is an addition, and completely new. It’s where Christy hosts her hour-long cooking show every Thanksgiving for PBS and CreateTV. Complete with walk-in pantry, large black granite countertops and table with ample room for guests, it is an entertainer’s dream.
Although this isn’t part of the original house, it incorporates touches of history, including a deer head and mountain sheep head mounted on opposite walls, gazing at each other. They belonged to Ben Revett, Christy said. She and her husband dubbed them Jack and Jill. The tabletop was formerly chopping block used by Revett’s chefs, dating it somewhere around 115 years old. Marks from the chefs’ favorite chopping spots can still be seen.
It’s clear that Randy and Christy have given their house tour many times. They have it down to an art; both know every square inch of the house, having done the majority of the renovation themselves over the past three years. Randy, a general contractor, fields questions about construction and materials, while Christy offers fascinating historical tidbits and personal anecdotes about the renovation process.
A place for gold
Once one has managed to pull away from the tantalizing smells of Christy’s kitchen, the doors to the Revett mansion open wide in reception. Really wide.
Among other things, Revett was well known for his wide girth, weighing in at around 300 pounds. He also had a flair for the dramatic and felt the doorways in the home should accommodate him, not the other way around. So he had each door built to be 42 inches wide, allowing him to sweep from room to room without ever having to turn sideways.
The lower end of the building’s south wing used to be Revett’s office and gold vault. It is now a small kitchen. The vault was built to last, and it has. Randy estimates its rock walls are 2 feet thick all around, including above, which is strengthened and supported by railroad ties. The Rosts converted the vault into a holder for a different type of precious material — bottles of wine now stack against the brick-lined walls where gold bars one glinted in the dark.
“The stone is original, the bricks on the back are original and the railroad ties on the ceiling,” said Randy.
On the back wall is a framed certificate that also belonged to Revett, and bears his signature.
“It’s a certificate showing ownership, 100 shares in North America Gold Dredging Company. It was one of Ben Revett’s companies,” Randy said. A friend of theirs came across it by chance while in London. “So he picked it up and said it belonged in this house.”
Performing for guests
From the former office and vault, visitors sweep through to the salon, where the fancy guests gathered underneath a glittering chandelier, and in front of the fireplace, which Mary Revett had decorated with her own hand-paintings of various scenes of Native American life.
The paintings have been lost to the ages, but a chandelier does still glow above, and the fireplace stands majestically in the center of all. Along the wall are original sconces that Christy found throughout the house and moved to the living room.
This was also where Revett had his personal telephone, one of only a few in those days in a private residence. In addition to his entrepreneurial spirit, he had a love of the arts and the operatic voice to prove it. According to local historian Mary Ellen Gilliland’s book “Summit: A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado,” when Revett had guests gathered to listen to him perform, a call would go out to the Denver Hotel in Breckenridge, where it was announced that he was about to sing. And his tenor tones would float from Swan’s Nest into town.
Relaxing with guests
From the salon, guests pass into what was formerly the music room into the smoking and billiards room, the gentlemen’s sanctuary.
“The gentlemen would come here after dinner to smoke and play billiards and tell each other how wonderful they were,” said Christy with a smile.
She and Randy converted the room into a master bedroom. It sits at the north end of the house, with windows to let in natural light, and only a faint mark on the ceiling where the staircase used to descend from the servants quarters. The windows look out onto the verandah, which in the summertime is an ideal place to sit and chat with guests, Christy said.
Past the billiards room is the former poker room, which Christy has converted into her dream master bathroom.
“Many people from Summit County came and played (poker),” she said. “Jack and Jill were in here,” she added, referring to the deer and sheep heads that now reside in the addition.
Much of the rest of the ground floor Christy and Randy believe was likely part of the kitchens. While the guests and high society were listening to Revett sing in the salon, or smoking cigars over a hand of cards, the house staff was running around behind the scenes, preparing food and catering to the needs of the guests.
Up the staircase
Up the dark wood staircase, one can almost imagine the heavy, ponderous steps of Revett as he made his way to his bedroom, or the stampede of feet from the days when the building was a summer camp for boys.
Christy points out one of the staircase posts, which was missing its top when they first moved in. She had a new one milled, but before putting it on, she saw something inside the hollow post.
“It was stuffed all he way down with candy wrappers,” she exclaimed with a laugh. “I absolutely loved it. So I put my hand down there to get out the candy wrappers.”
In up to her elbow, she pulled out remnants of what the young campers had squirreled away decades before.
A mystery in the walls
Past a few more rooms is the one the Rosts believe belonged to Ben Revett. It’s moderate in size, with windows and an outdoor walkway that leads to Randy’s office at the top of the northern wing.
When renovating this room, Christy and Randy made a discovery inside the wall — a letter, written in what appeared to be Revett’s handwriting.
“It was not finished and it was not signed. (It) was asking a friend for money. ‘If you could see your way clear,’” said Christy, quoting the letter from memory. “He was asking for $10,000.”
The specifics surrounding the letter remain a mystery.
“We question why it was never sent and why it wasn’t finished,” said Christy. “Was it a draft of another letter that he sent? Or was it in kind of a moment of desperation he wrote it and then thought better of it? We don’t know. We suspect it was towards the end of his time up here, also the end of his marriage. There is a sense of desperation in the way it’s written.”
It seems there are some questions that even history cannot answer.
Views all around
The top level affords views across the valley and back into the wooded area behind the house. Among the trees is a small wooden cabin, which Randy estimates pre-dates the house. He thinks it was built by the builders as shelter while they worked from January to June to complete the Swan’s Nest.
“When we took the linoleum off the floor, it had the exact same floorboards as the house,” Christy said of the cabin. “And that’s how we knew it was original.”
Never ones to pass up a good thing, the Rosts renovated the cabin as well, uncovering and restoring the original wood and coming across more remnants of the boys camp carved into the walls.
“What we’re using it for now is a place to extend our entertaining. We had a wonderful dinner in the cabin, it was actually quite magical, in late August,” Christy said. “We just had candlelight everywhere.”
A show of wealth
Revett’s fortune seemed to rise and ebb just as the water within the riverbanks that he dredged for gold. In her book, Gilliland wrote, “The tenacious Britisher continued to transfer large sums from his personal bank account to offset dredge losses. Friends later said Revett had ‘made and lost three fortunes.’ Nothing, including money, would stand in the way of his dream.”
Although the gold is gone and the mining days are over, Swan’s Nest still stands, a testament to Revett’s temporary wealth and dramatic flair. One interesting fact to prove its extravagant status, Christy said, is the number of closets.
“In Victorian times there weren’t a lot of closets … However, this house is unique in that it does have closets,” she said, “and that’s an indication of wealth, because you paid taxes based on how many closets you had in your house. And the fact that this house has a lot of original closets indicates that Ben was pretty wealthy because he was willing to pay the taxes.”
While there’s no longer a tax based on closets, Swan’s Nest remains a beautiful and remarkable building, inside and out. It stands now, as ever, capped in vibrant red, spreading its white wings to embrace the surrounding mountains, views and rarefied air of Summit County.
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