Pete York, general manager of the Cliff House in Manitou Springs, said a fire there more than three decades ago sparked a renaissance.
Pete York, general manager of the Cliff House in Manitou Springs, said a fire there more than three decades ago sparked a renaissance.
Pete York, general manager of the Cliff House in Manitou Springs, said a fire there more than three decades ago sparked a renaissance.
Paul York, general manager of the Cliff House in Manitou Springs, said a fire there more than three decades ago sparked a renaissance.

If you ask Paul York, a butterfly effect that led to Manitou Springs’ resurgence in the late 1990s began largely thanks to an errant cigarette in 1982.

The general manager of the 142-year-old building now known as the Cliff House at Pikes Peak, York said a man then hired by the city of Manitou as an economic development consultant stayed, ironically, in the Cliff House’s Firestone turret. After a night of barhopping, he passed out and dropped his lit smoke, setting the historic landmark ablaze.

“I think he got fired,” York said, laughing. “Strangely enough, the fact that he torched this hotel ended up setting up what is the new Manitou. Had he not done that, I don’t know if this would have ended up being a luxury property.”

Undergoing only a few swaps in ownership and business models, its resolution was seen, according to York, as a successful test run for higher-end establishments, catering to a new Manitou demographic, which in turn impacted the retail strip, and so on.

He said, for example, that contractor Chuck Murphy’s reconstruction of the Manitou Spa Building in the 2000s might never have been had the Cliff House fire and reconstruction not occurred.

“The most important buildings in Manitou spun off the Cliff House burning down,” he said.

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A different demographic

The Cliff House was modestly constructed, thanks to Canadian financing, as a 20-room boarding house known as “The Inn” in the winter of 1873. It acted as a stagecoach stop between Colorado Springs and Leadville, according to the hotel’s website.

Its first guests included trappers and hunters, very unlike the presidents, celebrities and dignitaries that would one day grace its grounds.

According to the website, just three years after opening, the gold rush waned and the lodge was “struggling to find guests.” Miners and their suppliers made way for new visitors — those looking to enjoy the perennially legal medicinal benefits of the region.

“Over the next half-dozen years, interest in the town’s ancient mineral springs was beginning to increase,” the website states. “For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, the springs had bubbled up from underground limestone aquifers that carbonated the water and infused it with minerals. The water was cool, good-tasting and had a high concentration of minerals that benefit the body. American Indians had been drinking it straight from the springs for hundreds of years, believing them to have healing powers.”

In 1886, New York City restaurateur Edward E. Nichols, who had come West in the 1870s to alleviate his tuberculosis, moved permanently to Manitou Springs and bought the inn. He converted it to a resort hotel and renamed it The Cliff House.

According to the website, “In 1914, Nichols collaborated with the state’s governor, Oliver Henry Shoup, to found the Manitou Bath House Company. The new company turned the struggling community into a resort specializing in water therapies.”

[pullquote]

“I don’t think you could have gotten one person who does business analysis to say that was a good idea.” 

– Paul York

[/pullquote]Nichols would expand the hotel from 20 rooms to 56, and eventually to 200.

During the 20th century, the property would undergo several transformations, from a resort to barracks for local military personnel to an apartment complex following its purchase by California real estate developer James S. Morley. The fire in 1982, however, along with a stagnant economy, left the building vacant for nearly two decades.

“It sat boarded up,” York said. “There were raccoons and homeless people living in it.”

He said there weren’t any banks willing to take a risk on Morley’s investment, and it wasn’t until 1997 that he acquired financing to rebuild. After two years and $10.5 million, the new Cliff House celebrated its reopening in July 1999.

“Not a whole lot’s changed [since 1999] except for the economy,” York said.

‘Really high-risk’

In September 2007, Gal-Tex Hotel Corporation based in Galveston, Texas, purchased The Cliff House and still operates it today. There was little doubt, under its newest ownership, that it would be anything other than a hotel. That wasn’t the case, York said, when Morley bought the establishment.

“Jim Morley did a lot of retirement housing in California,” York said. “It’s the business model he had made all his money from. Some people thought perhaps he’d be content turning [The Cliff House] into that kind of property.”

York said his eight-figure investment was “a really high-risk thing to do. You have a market like Manitou Springs, with 5,000 people, and you’re going to open a high-end luxury boutique hotel? I don’t think you could have gotten one person who does business analysis to say that was a good idea.”

York admits The Cliff House is “not a great business model,” but it’s beaten the odds.

“We’ve had some really good years and some really not good years,” York said, adding summer 2014 was among the best the hotel has seen. He said the 54-room capacity makes it difficult to turn big profits during the busy season — May through October.

“If we had a couple hundred rooms and times are good, we could generate a chunk of income to hold us through good times and bad. But it’s like threading the needle all the time here. We miss [revenue goals] by a little bit or make it by a little bit, but there aren’t massive sums of money to be made because of our limited room inventory.”

Famous bedfellows

Today, each of the hotel’s rooms is decorated differently, including color schemes, furnishings and configurations. Due to the roster of celebrities who have stayed at The Cliff House, celebrity rooms pay homage to their personalities. The Ford room displays photos of classic cars inspired by Henry Ford’s visits. Ford’s friend and traveling partner, Thomas Edison, has a room and is said to have helped bring electricity to the hotel in the early 1900s, York said. Clark Gable stayed at the inn while on Army Air Forces leave.

“That suite has a leopard and red velvet motif. … It’s like 1940s Hollywood,” York said. “The rooms are tricked out pretty nicely. When you spend $10.5 million on 54 rooms — some are very detailed.” Several rooms are adorned with marble, brass, antiques and even heated toilet seats.

Once the head sommelier at The Broadmoor, York said that in addition to fine dining, the hotel has the region’s most extensive wine list, with more than 800 options from which to choose.

Executive Chef Chris Lynch, a former Broadmoor chef, has been leading the Cliff House’s kitchen for the past six months.

York said the hotel has employed about six head chefs in the past 16 years, and has worked to find a culinary team that can balance quality and affordability.

“The local populace is not looking to spend an arm and leg to have a quick dinner,” he said. “That’s problematic when [dining options] aren’t really suited for the area. … We didn’t want to drop down quality-wise, but had to drop prices. We’ve done that effectively. It took a long time to go from being known as a place you only go for your birthday or only for your anniversary to a place you can go four, six, eight times a year because it’s not that expensive.”

Some ’Moor rivalry

For more than a century, a mostly friendly rivalry has existed between two of the region’s oldest, highest-rated resorts. While The Cliff House preceded The Broadmoor by 40 years, they competed with each other in everything from racecar driving to baseball games.

“That rivalry went on for a long time,” York said. “Suffice to say — The Broadmoor won.”

York said the establishments have swapped employees for years, (one of his sons works at The Broadmoor) and the resorts refer guests and diners to each other in the event of overflow.

“There’s lots of Broadmoor influence here,” said York, who worked at the five-diamond hotel for 15 years. “There’s a thread of history that runs through the two properties. There’s still a good relationship between the two hotels. But here we offer the high-caliber service without the pretense, because we’re in Manitou. We don’t want to act like we’re somebody. … We dress the part but we’re a little more casual with how we deliver service.”

He said comparing the two venues isn’t “apples to apples. The Broadmoor is an aircraft carrier and we’re a tugboat. We’re really a B&B on steroids. We look up to them, but we’re doing our own thing.”

The Cliff House at Pikes Peak

Established: 1873

Employees: 50-75

Address: 306 Canon Ave., Manitou Springs

Contact: 785-1000; thecliffhouse.com