The Trouble With Harry

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

Although he claims Elder still owes him thousands of dollars, Johnson has put the partnership behind him. He doesn't like to talk about Harry Elder, he says. "I don't want to even remember it," he sighs. "This was the worst experience of my life, other than getting cancer."

Elder disputes Johnson's account of their partnership. He denies any plan to withhold payment from subs -- "people were paid all the way through," he insists -- or pulling invoices from the draws submitted to banks. Johnson persuaded him to build the homes all at once, he says, claiming that it would save money in the long run. And he insists that, taking into account the high costs of mountainside construction, the houses were planned as million-dollar properties from the start.

"Chris Johnson hurt the project quite a bit," Elder says. "He got paid too much money up front and left the project high and dry. He brought in people who were questionable, and we recovered some money from them in court."

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

But sources involved in the construction process after Johnson left say that complaints about non-payment continued. Some workers soldiered on because of the promise of more jobs to come, after the first houses sold and the rest of the lots were developed. Others left. "People weren't respecting Harry because he wasn't paying," says one Evergreen contractor.

Several workers say they thought they were building homes that would sell for between half a million and a million dollars; the homes have since been advertised at prices ranging from $1.3 to $1.7 million. One source familiar with the Evergreen real estate market says that Elder had them wildly overpriced, particularly for one- to three-acre lots on a road known for eccentric neighbors and older houses.

"Harry wanted things to be very, very nice," says the source. "Well, you have to use your brains and not overbuild. Because he owned so much property up there, he thought everybody was going to love it up there. People loved the houses, the way they looked, but they didn't want to put that kind of money into that area."

Don Coenen was one of the craftsmen Elder hired to make things very, very nice. Elder gave him a personal check for $10,000 to purchase marble for the master bath and steam room in Creekside, a 4,900-square-foot Tudor on Troublesome Gulch. But then Elder kept asking for grander alterations in the marble work, he says, and Coenen paid for additional supplies out of his own pocket.

"Most of my jobs are a handshake, basically, but I learned from this whole experience about that," says Coenen, whose company, Donco Tile, has been in business for fifteen years. "I got a little suspicious toward the end of the job, seeing all these notes from other workers about not being paid. I thought, 'He's a friend, he's not going to screw me' -- so I finished the job and handed him the bill. I kept calling him, and he said, 'I'm looking for some money for you.' I sent him a bill every month for a year and a half."

Coenen had met Elder years before and had even invited him to his wedding. He later sued Elder and settled before trial for $6,000 -- about half of what he was owed, he says, and far less than the job would have cost another builder.

"With attorneys' fees and all, I ended up settling for about 25 cents on the dollar," he says. "In a normal house, the marble work I did would have been $25,000. But I just wanted to get that negativity out of my life. For a personal friend to do that, I had a hard time figuring out how he'd be sleeping at night."

Coenen says Elder once asked him what he thought Creekside would sell for. Coenen guessed eight or nine hundred thousand dollars. "He said, 'No, one seven,'" Coenen recalls. "He's dreaming. Granted, Gary Hart lives up there, but he lives way back behind the gate."

The prices Elder originally placed on the homes are double -- and, in some cases, almost triple -- the actual value of the homes as calculated by the Jefferson County Assessor's Office. Elder says the county is "two or three years behind the market" in its valuations. The prices listed in old brochures touting the four homes don't reflect the economic downturn since 9/11 and may be "soft," he says, but he doesn't consider them out of line with the Evergreen luxury market, particularly given the wealth of custom details in each home. Creekside, for example, was built with tons of hand-carved stone from Mexico and includes a handsome, SUV-wide wooden bridge across the creek. (The investors who took over Creekside, once listed at $1,695,000 before going through foreclosure, are now asking $949,000 for the property.)

"The value of the home is in the eye of the beholder," Elder says. "It's what the buyer is willing to pay."

Many of the conflicts with his subcontractors were due to the fact that several of them, including Coenen, didn't perform up to expectations, he adds. "We asked him to redo some work, and he refused to do it," Elder says. "He cost the project a tremendous amount of money. How can you get fully paid for a job that took longer than it should have and wasn't a good job to begin with? We settled for a figure that worked out for him and for me."

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