Castle's towers jut out among Rockies' peaks

Colorado: Unexpected sights of medieval walls tempt traveler to hear their stories.

Destination: Rocky Mountains

November 07, 1999|By Linda DuVal | Linda DuVal,Colorado springs gazette

The first glimpse of the Cherokee Castle is enough to make you stop your car in its tracks.

What's a medieval Scottish castle doing in the middle of the Colorado Rockies?

It's the legacy of a woman who loved the West so much she made sure that the 4,000 acres surrounding her home, the striking castle, never will be developed. And, for the price of a tour, visitors can explore the Sedalia, Colo., escape of the late Mildred "Tweet" Kimball.

Volunteers give tours three mornings a week at the castle, which now is owned by a private foundation. Most of them knew Kimball, who died in January, and they often retell her stories as they guide visitors through the antique-filled, 26-room stone castle.

The 10,000-square-foot castle, perched like an eagle on a promontory overlooking the Rockies, was built in the 1920s by Denver businessman Charles Johnson. The native stone is red rhyolite, taken from the surrounding hills and hewn into building blocks by 30 Cornish stonemasons. According to tour guide Donna Ryman, Johnson hired prominent Denver architect Burnham Hoyt to build the 1450s-style Scottish castle.

"Supposedly, Mr. Johnson told Mr. Hoyt, 'I'm going to Europe for two years. While I'm gone, build me a house,' and Mr. Hoyt said it was the best construction contract he ever got."

Priceless artworks

The house has copper gutters and drainpipes, a six-car garage, and is filled with priceless artworks and antiques and equipped with a fine security system that includes a perfect habitat for rattlesnakes.

Like any respectable castle, it has towers and circular staircases.

In 1954, when Kimball bought the home from the Johnson family, she asked that it be stripped of its furnishings. After all, she had a few things of her own. Now, Kimball's own sculptures, paintings by the likes of Rubens and Gainsborough and Constable, and antiques large and small fill its spaces. Tucked in between are a few such modern concessions as simple leather sofas.

In the great room, with its hand-adzed oak beams, is an enormous fireplace, the opening of which is at least 5-feet-by-7-feet. A musician's balcony at one end accommodated the live entertainment the owners often requested.

Docent Roxy Shope says the only concession to modernity at the time of construction were the windows. "Real castles had slits covered with animal hides," she says.

She notes the corbels flanking the upper corners of the fireplace are beautifully carved.

But the stonemason assigned to that job was an unreliable sort who took off before he carved the rest of them, which support the carved arches. The remainder are unadorned.

Sweeping views

A suit of knight's armor stands in one corner, and across the room is a silvered tin screen from Mexico. In front of it is a 300-year-old gesso sofa (gold applied over plaster) and two Venetian elm side chairs, circa 1550.

Off this room is the terrace, with sweeping views of a valley that will remain undeveloped under the guiding hand of Kimball's Cherokee Ranch Foundation. Elk, deer, mountain lions, ground squirrels, golden eagles, coyotes, wild turkeys and other animals find refuge on the land.

The dining room has a ceiling of molded plaster and a huge blue-and-white Portuguese tile mural of wheat harvesters. The centerpiece is a huge carved mahogany table, a Chippendale reproduction, set with silver dating to the 1700s.

Tour-guide Diane Estlund says the house has several Portuguese tile murals and many examples of marquetry (an artistic inlaid wood design done on furniture). As she describes the lavish contents of several china cabinets, words such as Dresden, Spode, Meissen and Waterford slip into the conversation.

Although the tour does not include Kimball's private quarters, visitors do get to see guest rooms, including the rooms where her mother stayed during her later years.

More antiques, more stories.

That bed was built for Charles II, and he actually slept in it.

This inlaid cabinet came from the court of Spain, and the pictures represent Aesop's fables. The libraries are full of first editions, some quite old and valuable. Well, with names like Dickens and Thackeray on the bindings, one would think so.

A rich divorcee

"We have buildings full of more things she collected," Estlund says. "I wish we had room to display them all."

One room is full of photos of her beloved prize Santa Gertrudis cattle.

Kimball came to Colorado while she was divorcing her first husband, Merritt Ruddock, a member of the U.S. diplomatic corps. "She said he told her he'd buy her any house she wanted west of the Mississippi. And then he moved back East," Estlund says. "She had three other husbands, but she always said they weren't worth mentioning."

Though Kimball lived a somewhat lavish lifestyle, she earned it. She worked the ranch to make a living, Estlund says. Kimball's late-life friend, Jill Freeman, is manager of the Cherokee Ranch Foundation.

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