Larry Ash has a talent for repurposing anything — including his business.
Hillside Gardens and Event Center started life as a garden center, set on a scenic, 4-acre property nestled into the Hillside neighborhood.
The center sold plants that grow well in the Pikes Peak region — everything from herbs to trees — and was lavishly landscaped with demonstration gardens. What made it unique, besides the setting, was a collection of building materials Ash had acquired from his previous recycling business. He used unusual artifacts — rusted gears, antique stoves, even rocket parts, artillery shells and just plain junk — as planters and adornments.
Around 2004, he capitalized on the spectacular view of Pikes Peak from the sloping property by starting a summer concert series. The concerts, offering music by local bands, drinks and refreshments, gained a loyal following.
“We have people who have been coming since the first year and have never missed a Wednesday,” he said.
One day, Ash said, “somebody came in and wanted to get married here because of the views.”
Over the years, more and more engaged couples learned about the venue, mostly by word of mouth, and the business grew organically.
About 2010, it reached a turning point. Ash was hosting an increasing number of weddings and had to close the nursery business when a ceremony was in progress.
“It sounds sort of romantic to have a nursery and a wedding site, but it disturbs the wedding guests,” he said “We had to decide which one to do, and weddings was it. It worked out wonderfully.”
Now the venue hosts 95 weddings each summer, as well as bridal showers, receptions, memorial services, corporate events, family reunions and benefits.
One look, and people fall in love with the lavishly landscaped property and the panoramic views.
“That’s how we sell the venue,” Ash said.
Ash bought the property, a former dairy farm, from the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, which had acquired it through a bequest from the original owner.
He built retaining walls out of broken concrete sidewalks, a formal outdoor wedding chapel and a tile-roofed pavilion to shelter guests.
He also repurposed the farm’s original buildings to create a charming setting. A shed became a small cottage where brides get ready to walk through a vine-covered archway. Grooms get changed in the main farmhouse.
Earth pathways wind through the property so guests can wander and watch while they wait for events to begin.
Hillside Gardens takes on a different aura during the Wednesday night concerts.
As bands play on a terrace overlooking the mountains and on a smaller stage farther down the slope, patrons enjoy cocktails from four bars and food from three vendors.
New this year is a bar located in a dome that specializes in tequila drinks. It’s called Cactus Jack’s and it also houses a shop that features old typewriters that have been repaired.
During intermissions, guests can see blacksmith demonstrations in another outbuilding. After converting the farm’s workshop into a machine shop, Ash started offering machining and blacksmithing lessons for young people and adults taught by one of his employees. He aims to show kids how to work with their hands.
“The reason why we started getting into that was to get kids away from their phones,” he said.
During the season, from late April to mid-October, the venue stays busy from Wednesdays through Sundays. But the work doesn’t end then, even though the income does.
“During the winter, we’re always working on projects,” Ash said. The grounds have to be watered during off-season dry spells. This year, Ash is finishing up a new fountain and doing a major overhaul of the landscaping.
“It’s satisfying to have a piece of property right in the middle of Colorado Springs,” he said. In fact, a regular concertgoer said it looks like a little village. Ash took his cue and had T-shirts printed that say, “where Colorado Springs becomes a village.”
“It’s been enjoyable,” he said. “A lot of different people come here, a nice mix, and nobody talks politics.”
He said he’s happiest when he sees everybody having a good time, and customer service has been key to his success.
“It’s one of the most important things to a small business,” he said. “If you’re not willing to go out of your way for customers, they’ll go somewhere else. If you’re going to go into business for yourself, make customers the most important thing.”
Hillside Gardens and Event Center
Location: 1005 S. Institute St.