In the past seven years, Christian Keesee, chairman of Kirkpatrick Bank and Kirkpatrick Oil Co., has bought a half-dozen properties in the small town 11 miles west of Colorado Springs in an effort to revitalize, revamp and preserve. Keesee, 50, also has launched projects that aim to introduce art — such as violinists, ballet dancers and renowned installation artists — through an annual arts festival.
This week, Keesee quietly opened the 1889-built Outlook Lodge, a six-room hotel with a refurbished contemporary interior and a restored, original Victorian rustic exterior. He spent two years working on the lodge and will host a grand-opening celebration in November.
It’s a delicate balance Keesee is maintaining.
He has demolished discarded buildings, overhauled others and built new structures such as a farmers’ market stand and outdoor amphitheater. He wants to sustain the small-scale, pedestrian-friendly community but also hopes to attract tourists, a philosophy in keeping with the town trustees and the 2007 Green Mountain Falls Comprehensive Plan. In a survey that year, residents said the town’s slacking appearance was among their top concerns.
“He has taken old dilapidated structures, knocked them down and built something useful,” said Howard Price, Green Mountain Falls town trustee. “He has been a godsend to Green Mountain Falls.”
Green Mountain Falls was among the first communities to be evacuated when the Waldo Canyon fire started June 23. The fire shut down Keesee’s annual Green Box Arts Festival, which had planned performances by the Oklahoma City Ballet. Installation artist Ben Roth was set to take bark beetle-infested trees and create a wood sculpture for the city’s park. Instead, the town’s roughly 1,200 residents, including Keesee’s family, were evacuated until July 1.
“We are humbled and heartbroken by the loss of many and thankful to the extraordinary acts of others,” Keesee said after the fire. “Green Box 2013 will be dedicated to them.”
Any reservations that residents had about Keesee’s motives to invest in the town have evaporated, Price says. Keesee’s clan, the Kirkpatricks, have been summer residents since the 1890s. His family also is known in Oklahoma for philanthropy through its Kirkpatrick Family Fund.
Kirkpatrick Bank, a subsidiary of American Bancorp, is headquartered in Oklahoma and operates a branch in downtown Colorado Springs.
“There were some who were afraid — they think he’s trying to buy the town,” Price said. “Those feelings are a minimum.”
All of Keesee’s efforts in Green Mountain Falls have been gradual and subtle.
In 2006, Keesee formed the Historic Green Mountain Falls Foundation, within the Kirkpatrick Family Fund, specifically to buy real estate. And in 2007, the Kirkpatrick Family Fund paid for the town’s comprehensive plan, which set a goal of ensuring Green Mountain Falls is prepared for growth and economic stability. Art and culture have a role in that, Keesee says.
“All of this is being incorporated without compromising what is unique about Green Mountain Falls,” said Chris Frandina, town clerk and treasurer.
Cool, mountain life
Sitting in the family room at the Outlook Lodge, Keesee was relaxed and commented on the nice weather. He mentioned Marfa, a West Texas town which now counts itself as an art destination.
“People travel there to look at art,” Keesee said. “There is not any reason why Green Mountain Falls can’t be similar to that.”
More than a century ago, Green Mountain Falls was especially popular with folks from the Midwest. That’s when the Kirkpatricks started making it their summer respite.
“If you had a couple of nickels to rub together, and you were from Oklahoma, Kansas or Texas, you would want to get the hell out town in the summer,” Keesee said.
His family still owns the original cabin built by his great-grandparents. Keesee spent his summers as a boy in Green Mountain Falls. Now, he and his family spend summers here.
“We live in New York and there is a real lack of freedom that a youngster has in the city,” Keesee said. “You always have to be supervised. But in Green Mountain Falls, it’s total freedom.”
Green Mountain Falls has no big-box stores, strip malls or even a stoplight. Most of its roughly 600 homes are log cabins and Victorians, and residents are a mix of full-time and summer-only. The town’s focal point is a gazebo built in 1890 and there are five restaurants, two bed-and-breakfast lodges and one cabin-rental business.
In a recent community survey, residents encouraged development and downtown reinvestment, which could bolster sales-tax revenue. But the development, residents added, should be compatible with surrounding land uses, sensitive to the natural landscape and preserve the area’s quality of life.
Keesee wants those things, too. He loves the quiet. He loves dirt roads and cabin homes.
“The problem was there was nothing of intellectual interest at all,” Keesee said.
In 2006, Keesee invited his close friend Larry Keigwin, a New York choreographer, to bring his dance company, Keigwin + Company, to Green Mountain Falls for an artist residency program. The artists got to dance in the mountain setting and the town was treated to a world-class dance performance.
The experience inspired the Green Box Arts Festival, where artists spend a week or longer in Green Mountain Falls and culminate their stay with a performance for residents. Last year’s dance performance drew 150 residents and the youth symphony attracted 350.
Bring in the art
It’s been a great opportunity for Green Mountain Falls to have national and internationally known artists in their backyard, said Tyler Stevens, Green Mountain Falls town trustee and former mayor.
“It demonstrates new things happening,” Stevens said. “It demonstrates something that people are talking about. They might not like the art, but that discussion is important.”
Next summer, Keesee is bringing “Cloud City” — a large sculpture currently at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art — to Green Mountain Falls. Cloud City has received national attention and hundreds of thousands of visitors. The installation, 54 feet long and 29 feet high, is part of Keesee’s personal art collection. The art, created by Argentinean artist Tomas Saraceno, incorporates reflective materials, mirrors and glass with New York’s skyline and Central Park as the backdrop.
Keesee smiles at the thought of Cloud City in Green Mountain Falls with the mountains as backdrop. He is especially excited about children and young adults having the opportunity to see the art.
“Hopefully over a period of time, they are inspired by it and if there is an artistic element to their makeup, they feel the freedom to express it,” he said.
Cloud City could bring thousands of visitors to Green Mountain Falls, Frandina said. No one, she added, is nervous about the quiet town being discovered.
“Green Mountain Falls is looking forward to letting more people know about us and having people come and visit,” Stevens said.
Investing in the town
Keesee declined to say how much he has invested into Green Mountain Falls.
Four years ago, the foundation bought a dilapidated hotel, at the intersection of Ute Pass and Mountain Road, and tore it down. Now it’s a park at the town’s south entryway and features a large steel sculpture by artist Bernar Venet.
“If there was anything I could have done to help the town, that seems to be the thing people are most happy about,” Keesee said.
One abandoned hotel became artist studios, and Keesee is working on a second lodge, adjacent to the renovated Outlook Lodge, which will feature a glass ceiling for stargazing.
The foundation also purchased 95 acres of forest, a trailhead for many hiking paths. The foundation, in partnership with the town, developed about two miles of paths to Crystal Falls and rededicated it Green Mountain Falls.
“If it was sold to someone else, they could have easily developed this property and upset the trail system,” Keesee said. “The Historic Green Mountain Falls Foundation purchased that piece of property with the intention that it continue to be use for public access.”
“The investment has been really worthwhile,” Keesee said. “And the thing that makes me happy is that young people are moving back to town with kids — when you see that, it’s really nice.”