Retrofitted: Mike Cavanaugh of Breckenridge’s Brown Hotel
May 26, 2016
There's more than a century's worth of treasure under the floorboards and hidden in the ceilings at the Brown Hotel.
It's a quiet Thursday morning in March when Mike Cavanaugh, longtime proprietor at the historic hotel and bar in downtown Breckenridge, invites me into an office on the second floor. The office is a mish-mash of new and old and very old: an antique desk on one wall, a recently renovated bathroom and shower on the other side, a newly installed (and incredibly expensive) elevator shaft just beyond that, a bedroom lined with collected artwork and a post bed in the next room over.
Cavanaugh points to the antique desk — no telling how old it is, although it was already in the hotel when he bought it in 1985 — and points to one of his most recent finds: a leather-bound book with gold lettering that reads "Hart and Oberndorf, High Art Tailors, Chicago." Inside are fabric samples from the tailor's 1894-95 fall and winter line, from wool to corduroy to suede, all in dark colors made for winter — and high-alpine fashion in the late 1800s.
"We found that up in the attic when we were doing electrical work," Cavanaugh told me when I asked where and how he found the catalogue. "We found a ton of old newspapers in the floorboards."
Were they insulation?
"No," said Cavanaugh, a 65-year-old Pennsylvania native who came West in the '70s and has been here ever since. "It was there to filter the coal dust. They had coal-burning stoves to heat the place and the dust would fall through the floorboards, just coating the guests."
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The newspapers — antiques in their own right — now line the narrow main hallway at the Brown Hotel, where Cavanaugh has been working round the clock with a crew of contractors for the past few months to renovate, update and reinvigorate the landmark buildings. The papers come from the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, with dates ranging from the late 1800s to the early 1950s and headlines reading "Army of Kaiser Driven Out of Its Trenches by Torrents" and "Lone Highlander Holds Bridge and Dies with Thirty Wounds."
Cavanaugh quietly browsed the headlines, a small smile on his face, then pointed to a small sticker in the corner of one news clipping, then another. They show the address of the original Breckenridge post office, faded and slightly yellowed like the clippings.
The hotel is a bit of a mess right now, with sawdust and power tools and fixtures strewn about, but Cavanaugh expects the 150-year-old building to look much different by the end of the season. It's part of a $1.5 million (maybe more, he says) renovation that will turn the hotel into a combination music venue and recording studio, what he calls "a visual arts recording studio" and traditional music-recording studio. The concept includes the traditional bar upstairs and a brand-new, nearly finished basement stage with attached sound booth for musicians, comedians and more. At some point he wants to bring burlesque performers to the Brown.
"Not a skin show," he said. "Real burlesque. These ladies know what they're doing."
But Cavanaugh — a sort of Renaissance Man who has toured with musicians, filmed with Warren Miller and worked in high-end kitchens — is most excited for the visual arts component, a library of vintage footage from across Colorado and the U.S. It starts with remastered ski films from Lucas Productions, a now-defunct film house that partnered with Warren Miller in the '70s and early '80s. Back then, Cavanaugh was a monster in the moguls, a skier who skipped the boring lines between the bumps and instead simply cleared them.
"They called me the pinball wizard back in the day," he said, showing me a few photos in dusty frames from his days filming with Lucas and Miller. "I'd ski off the sides of the bumps or the very top, never in the trough where everyone goes. You don't want to ski the same line as everyone else."
Cavanaugh's weapon of choice back in the '80s: a pair of Hexcel Intrex XL series skis, size 203 centimeters with Salomon 555 Equipe bindings. They featured an aluminum honeycomb core wedged between fiberglass — a combination made for charge up, over and through bumps.
Like the newspapers, tailor's catalogue and several pieces of collector artwork — a piece by surrealist Charles Trois dominates one wall in a bedroom — Cavanaugh's collection of skis seems at home in the dark, wood-lined hallway on the second floor, across the hall from his bedroom. He hasn't been sleeping there since renovations at the Brown kicked into high gear, although he still keeps his latest pair, twin-tip Rossignols, with the rest. He doesn't quite ski bumps like he used to, but it's no matter. He has his hands full with the hotel — and still enjoys a few turns on occasion.
"I'm 65," he said. "I'm on social security and Medicare. I'm retired from the hard skiing, but I still go left and right just fine."
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