Hearthstone's near miss 

The message, from a man named Enrique Montiel, arrived in the mailbox late last month, shortly after my column appeared in the newspaper.

"Would you like to hear the other story? The one about what was going to become of the buildings that would have helped revitalize the local economy, preserve the integrity of the history of that property and its founding family, and welcome every member of the Colorado Springs community to benefit from all of it?"

Montiel's reference was to the gorgeous old Victorian mansion at 506 N. Cascade Ave. The mansion, on the National Register of Historic Places, is the childhood home of Alice Bemis Taylor, the great Colorado Springs philanthropist. Her father, Judson Bemis, built the house actually, it was originally two structures, one of which was a boarding house for tuberculosis patients. Most recently, it was home to the Hearthstone Inn, a grand bed-and-breakfast in the heart of the city.

But after the Hearthstone closed two years ago, the $2 million building stood empty with a big Griffis/Blessing "For Sale" sign planted in front. That is, until this summer, when the John Jay Institute moved in (see "Roll over, Alice Bemis Taylor," Aug. 23).

Warning against the "pernicious trends of intellectual, moral and artistic nihilism" in modern society, the institute's mission is to "prepare Christians for principled leadership in public life." In other words, the institute is sort of a semester-long, high-class training camp to teach ardent young Christian evangelicals to battle against secularism.

It's safe to say the John Jay Institute's mission is about as far as you can get from what Montiel envisioned as the latest incarnation of the old Bemis mansion. Montiel, a former U.S. Olympic wrestling team alternate, is into such stuff as "enhanced living by design" and "optimum life coaching."

It's sort of "beyond New Age," he explains, but Montiel wanted to turn the old Bemis home, with its 25 rooms and 15,000 square feet, into a healing center called the Optimum Life Urban Retreat. It would have been, Montiel says, a "wellness environment for mastering the art of life." Included in his plans were a hotel, spa, yoga center, restaurant, and conference and office spaces for small nonprofits. Wellness programs and workshops would be offered, both free and for a cost. People could have traveled from around the country to the center, and Colorado Springs residents would have been welcomed.

"A big problem with our culture is we're living schizophrenically we spend most of the time living in stress," Montiel says. "I'm in my mid-30s, and it's very disappointing and depressing that the only place you can go to hang out with people is the church or the bar. There's no other space to really do soul-searching and growth."

Montiel spent four months trying to raise the capital to buy the Bemis property. The asking price was $2 million, of which Montiel needed to put down $200,000.

In the end, he couldn't make it happen. The John Jay Institute, supported by such men as former solicitor general Kenneth Starr and former U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong, had deeper pockets and got the mansion complex.

Montiel says his heart is broken, but he's also pragmatic.

"You win some and you lose some my Olympic training taught me that," he says. "But that's such an important building; if it ever becomes available again, I'm going to pick it up."

For what it's worth, Buck Blessing, CEO of Griffis/Blessing, says he, too, hoped Montiel could have made his plan work. Blessing says he would have much preferred the old Victorian become a community-centered gathering place, or another bed-and-breakfast, or the headquarters for a host of small nonprofits.

"From the limited amount that I know about the organization, I don't share their views," Blessing says of the John Jay Institute. "We would have loved to have talked with Enrique about [his plans], but the bottom line is he could never pull his finances together, or his equity.

"We felt [the John Jay Institute] made the best offer, and we have a fiduciary responsibility to do the right thing."



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