The Trouble With Harry

Big dreams, big houses -- and a trail of lawsuits from here to Troublesome Gulch.

Friend, are you tired of living in a crackerbox? Do you dream of a mansion on a hill?

Does that dream include stately stone turrets, wraparound porches, vaulted ceilings, a home theater, and a family room the size of an airplane hangar, suitable for the toddling heirs to your estate? Do you wallow in real estate brochures that repeat lulling phrases -- new standard of luxury, dramatic stone entryway, hand-hewn logs, expansive views, custom cabinetry, knotty pine details, distinctive residence, exclusive collection -- like a hypnotist's spiel? Do you find yourself cruising by dazzling mountain properties that aren't even on the way home?

What's that? You don't have the money for one of these seven-figure beauties?

caricature by Matt Collins
Persistence: Troublesome Gulch builder Harry Elder.
Persistence: Troublesome Gulch builder Harry Elder.

Pshaw. A thousand times pshaw.

Forget about paying retail. Build your dream home yourself. Well, maybe not by yourself -- you can get fine craftsmen to do it, experienced masons and carpenters and plumbers and what-not. And you can use other people's money and other people's credit to finance the project. Maybe build three or four hulking spec homes while you're at it, promising to pay everybody back when the homes sell -- or the day after never, whichever comes first.

Colorado's troubled luxury-home market is no place for the timid. But for the few, the bold, the highly motivated, opportunity abounds. If you're a truly visionary builder, you know how to get the job done. How to get work out of trusting subcontractors and stall payment indefinitely. How to get appraisals and bank loans for amounts far, far above what the county says the property is actually worth. How to brush off liens, foreclosure actions and fuming creditors like dandruff off a fine silk suit. And finally, how to take the fruit of your labors to market.

You think this takes big buckets of money? Think again. What it takes is something much more basic. Call it will, desire, gumption, cojones.

Or call it persistence. Whatever else his critics might say about Harry Elder, a custom builder of multimillion-dollar homes in the Evergreen area, they all marvel at his determination.

"I am shy, but I have imagination," Elder told a psychologist who was preparing a report in Elder's divorce proceedings a few years ago. "I am a persistent guy. I am strong-willed."

Elder's persistence has produced four sprawling houses in the hills outside of Kittredge. It's also resulted in a long trail of lawsuits and complaints of shabby treatment, with enough plot twists and intrigue to supply a TV courtroom drama for an entire season.

Former employees and business associates describe Elder as a smart, beguiling entrepreneur with a knack for drawing others into his formidable projects. Some say his dream of erecting high-end homes on the aptly named Troublesome Gulch Road simply got out of hand; others say he's used the legal system to keep creditors at bay and has burned people who invested their time, money and talent in his dream.

"Harry charms everybody," says one source who worked closely with Elder on the four homes. (Several former Elder associates requested anonymity, expressing concerns about ongoing litigation.) "I kept going with his promises because he talks a good game. But he was really lying to me."

Elder, who lives in one of his homes on Troublesome Gulch that has been listed at $1.5 million, blames the project's checkered history on financing problems and unreliable helpers. The economic downturn of 2001-'02 hammered the luxury market hard; many of his lenders went under, replaced by less sympathetic banks. As Elder tells it, the problem was compounded by unscrupulous business associates and subcontractors who did unacceptable work or delayed the project. It was because of these multiple catastrophes, he says, that two of the homes have been lost to foreclosure. Three years after the homes were first advertised for sale, they've undergone a series of changes of title. But not one has sold to a disinterested buyer.

"We started construction when we had a very aggressive market," Elder says. "When 9/11 hit, the brakes went on. Some of the banks went out of business. It became a little bit difficult to continue. But the market in Evergreen is becoming robust again.

"With the homes that got refinanced, there were quite a lot of people who got paid. Some people settled, and some people did less than great work. When you're dealing with four major homes and the banks pull the rug out from under you -- it's not like there's one answer as to what happened."

There is, of course, more than one version of who Harry Elder is and how he came to build the big houses. There's the version Elder himself has told, the story of a hardworking, self-made businessman who earned a fortune in the garden-center business, fell in love with the Colorado mountain lifestyle and set out to share the love by building these extravagant homes.

There are other versions circulating around Evergreen -- stories about strained friendships and unpaid bills, about a man striving to project prosperity despite stunning setbacks. And there is another kind of story told in nearly two decades' worth of court records scattered around the metro area, in which Elder is listed as a defendant in dozens of lawsuits seeking money for alleged services rendered or contracts unfulfilled. Many of the cases were later dropped or settled; in some instances, Elder prevailed. The sums involved aren't huge (most of them are county court cases), but the pattern is clear: bundles of cash promised, denied, shifted, fought over -- and finally abandoned to the legal winds.

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