Breckenridge’s historic Brown Hotel and Restaurant renovated
December 23, 2015
For decades, those who stumble into The Brown Hotel & Restaurant about a block off Main Street in Breckenridge have been stepping back in time.
They walk up to the porch, through the front door and into a dimly lit hallway that's too narrow for adults to comfortably pass each other without turning sideways and is lined with Denver newspapers from the early 1900s.
Small rooms to the left feature ping pong, foosball, air hockey and other tabletop games, and, on the right, visitors saw a velvet-lined parlor with a fireplace and board games before the bar area beckoned with a jukebox.
Some say the nearly 150-year-old building is haunted.
Owner Michael Cavanaugh, who has lived in The Brown for most of the last 30 years, describes its spooky atmosphere as more reminiscent of the "Hotel California" in the popular Eagles song.
The Brown closed its doors on June 1, and — three and a half months later, on a sunny September day — the still-closed building's wooden doors creaked like an old ship at sea and a breeze blew through where walls had been.
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Cavanaugh gutted the rear part of the building's second floor and is in the process of a $1.1 million renovation.
The 1,500-square-foot project's biggest change, he said, is attaching the stable behind The Brown to the main building at 208 N. Ridge St.
The expanded building will provide a space for musicians and artists to perform, show their work and record, he said. "This town needs a venue area for the kids to grow up and out of."
He dreams of young people coming to the building rooted in the past to launch their futures.
THE BRECK LEGEND
The Brown was built in the 1860s as a private cabin, and Capt. George Ryan and his wife operated the property as a school in the 1880s.
Ryan supposedly murdered his mistress Miss Whitney in The Brown, and her ghost is rumored to cause strange noises and movements. If the building is haunted, Cavanaugh jokes, the ghost left him alone but may have run out his ex-wife.
Around the turn of the century, Tom "T.A." Brown developed it into Brown's Motel.
"The miners loved him," Cavanaugh said.
Travelers often visited the stable in the back before anywhere else in town to take care of their horses, and, at one time, the motel may have had the area's only bathtub.
Guest rooms, some just larger than a single bed, were on the second floor, and Brown's employees lived in the attic and basement.
In 1985, Cavanaugh bought The Brown and planned to make the building a health-spa retreat. He said he was undercapitalized, and, instead, The Brown became a fine dining establishment. He wore a tuxedo every night.
Maybe 20 years ago, he said, an elderly woman stopped by who worked for T.A.'s wife, Maude, in the 1930s and lived in the attic. Cavanaugh asked if perchance she left a bar of soap and some liquid rouge that he found under a floorboard, and she said, yes, they belonged to her.
When he turned the property into a bar, people asked why he kept the misleading name. The Brown was no longer a hotel or a restaurant. In response, he brings up Airport Road, which is not home to an airport.
"If the town can do it, guess what I can do it, too," he said.
THE LIMERICK-LOVING ENTREPRENEUR
Originally from Pipersville, Pennsylvania, 65-year-old Cavanaugh has held all kinds of jobs. He is trained as a pastry chef, and he taught high school history while a student at Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland.
He became a certified ski instructor after college and moved to Breckenridge in 1972. His fingerprints from the last 43 years are all over town.
He built some properties in the town's core and has run three restaurants, including Mike's Pub in the plaza now called Main Street Station, hence the Mike's stained glass sign behind The Brown's bar. He's been a ski industry promoter, and he was elected as a town of Blue River trustee.
Cavanaugh owns a 1954 robin egg blue Cadillac Fleetwood, among his many cars and recently bought a space in the Valley Brook cemetery.
After years as a bartender, he stopped interacting with The Brown's patrons, though he uses 16 cameras to monitor what's going on underneath his home on the second floor.
"I watch everybody," he said.
Occasionally, he'll go downstairs to break up a fight or call the cops, and he has found young people who wandered into the attic in the middle of the night and passed out.
These days, he can be found working in one of his three offices on The Brown's second floor, doing yoga at a downtown studio or making people laugh with his memorized limericks.
THE FOX'S DEN
For years, a fox family has lived in The Brown's stable, which Cavanaugh used for storage. The foxes would sit on his couches, he said, and warm up in the early morning sun that came in through the east-facing window.
Cavanaugh has a nonprofit in the works, called The Fox's Den, that will put on the music and arts performances where the stable used to be.
"Stage was very important to me as a kid, and I had a lot of friends in the music industry," he said.
After the renovation, the front part of The Brown will be mostly the same, and the back will be two stories. The downstairs part of the addition, in the basement level, will house a 45-seat venue, a recording studio and a small service bar in the corner with drinks and snacks.
Cavanaugh said he has never had a noise violation or any complaints from neighbors.
"This place is really well-insulated for sound quality," he said.
Jim Salestrom, a guitar player known for recording with John Denver and Dolly Parton, is bringing music connections and donating recording and sound equipment to The Fox's Den.
"It's going to have to creep and crawl to begin with," Cavanaugh said, of the nonprofit, but "he's got the contacts. I've got the contacts."
He wants to jumpstart careers and raise funds through the nonprofit to give scholarships to aspiring artists.
On the second floor will be games and TVs for people to watch the performances downstairs. He'll add two ping-pong tables and "do what we've always done with our ping-pong tournaments."
He plans to reopen The Brown in mid-December, and he has high hopes for the building.
After 30 years, he said, "it's got my heart and soul."
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