Inside the Gates

Heather Lamm has fond memories of her childhood home: playing hide-and-seek, hunting Easter eggs in the back yard and decorating for Christmas. She even considered getting married at the 18,231-square-foot, ten-bedroom, two-and-a-half-story house. But, like many children, Heather can never return to her nostalgic place because another family occupies it -- that of Governor Bill Owens.

Colorado Historical Society volunteers knew that memories of the state's executive residence would fade with every new administration if they didn't do something to chronicle life at the hilltop manse at Eighth Avenue and Logan Street. So, inspired by Lamm family lore, CHS volunteer Jenna Robbins embarked on an odyssey to capture the stories of those who have lived there.

Robbins had attended a Christmas lunch that Bea Romer held for volunteers at the governor's mansion several years ago. At the party, Liz Snell, former chair of the home's tour guides, recounted a story about Heather's older brother, Scott, who called the estate home while his father, Dick Lamm, was governor from 1974 to 1986. Scott was well-known for his adolescent antics, and Snell told the group how he'd dressed up a nymph statue in the huge Palm Room and turned on the player piano full blast prior to one of her tours. Luckily, Scott removed the straw hat and plaid shirt from the statue and turned off the piano just before members of the public arrived.

That story stuck with Robbins, and two years ago she asked the CHS to fund a sort of First Family album. The Society agreed to provide $350, and Robbins began many months of tracking down former residents and their staffs.

"Heather Lamm really made the collection," Robbins says. "She lived there from the age of four to sixteen, and because she'd been there so long, it was a home to her, not just a governor's residence. Her memories are very personal and warm."

Heather had planned to put her memories in writing even before Robbins approached her. When she and her husband, Alexander Ooms, talked about getting married at the mansion last year, she tried to explain how much the house meant to her. In the process, she realized she wanted to make her experiences permanent and be able to share them with her own kids. "I did this more for myself than for the public record," says 32-year-old Heather, who recently moved back to Denver from San Francisco and is living with her parents while she and Ooms search for a home. "So when Jenna called, it was a great excuse to finally do it."

As a little girl, Heather was intrigued by the home's many cavernous spaces, including the wine cellar, in which Scott often locked her. She and her friends invented stories about the ghost of Edna Boettcher, who supposedly haunts the home to this day. Claude Boettcher, son of legendary Western businessman Charles Boettcher, purchased the mansion after the death of Walter Cheesman's second wife. (Walter Cheesman himself didn't live long enough to see the private house he was planning to build, but his wife and daughter continued the project, and the home was finished in 1908.) Before Edna Boettcher died in 1958, she requested that the home be given to the State of Colorado for use as a governor's residence. Stephen McNichols was the first gubernatorial tenant.

One of Heather's favorite memories is of sliding down the banister from the third floor to the first. "The contests we had for speed, style and dismount continued well into our teens. Scott and I went into hysterics when the mansion was remodeled in the mid-1980s and there was talk of altering the railings in a way that would render them 'un-slidable,'" Heather writes in her memoir. "Fortunately, the railings were left intact and given a new gloss finish that made them even faster, an improvement that I sincerely hope all future children in the mansion appreciate!"

As Heather and her brother got older, their shenanigans grew more daring. Scott once held a wild party at the house, and the rooftop was a place of much hell-raising: Scott fired BB guns off of it, and Heather threw down wads of wet paper towels at passing cars. The brother-and-sister act scared people walking by the house at night by whispering through the intercom and slowly opening the iron gates. They conspired to distract the guards so they could pilfer alcohol from the kitchen. Eventually, locks were placed on the refrigerator doors.

Although rich in detail, family reminiscences make up only a small part of the fifty-page album. Dick and Dottie Lamm each contributed some stories, as did Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis, daughter of the late Governor John Love, who remembers hosting her first slumber party at the mansion at age ten and a debutante party eight years later. But most of the memories that have been gathered so far are from volunteers and staff members.

Helen Williams, the home's executive director from 1995 to 1999, recalls the elaborate preparation that went into a party for the Summit of the Eight, held in Denver in 1997. Hosted by former Governor Roy Romer and President Bill Clinton, the fête drew all of the Big Eight's leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac. Lavinia Vigil, entertainment host and caretaker of the mansion's first floor from 1974 to 1992, was equally impressed with visits from Michael Dukakis, Raymond Burr and Rock Hudson.

Kent Trebilcox, executive chef at the mansion during the Lamm years, also remembers Rock Hudson's visit, only from a different vantage point. The late actor had been in Denver for the premiere of his 1978 film Avalanche, and he arrived at the governor's reception thoroughly wasted. "It took a couple of guys to lift him into the house, with due grace," Trebilcox writes. "But after a very brief appearance with a huge cake and popping camera flashes, he was brought back to the kitchen, where I was working. He was softly placed in a chair positioned between the refrigerator and the wall. And there he remained wedged safely, with a steady supply of drinks."

And Jenna Robbins, the woman who began this trip down memory lane, submitted some stories of her own. While conducting a school tour of the mansion, she instructed the children to note the architecture in the stairwell; when the kids looked up, they saw a periscope peering at them from atop the railing. During another tour, kids who gathered beneath the stairwell noticed a "helicopter-type toy" falling toward them. Robbins later discovered that Bill Owens's youngest son, Brett, was behind the hijinks. (Apparently, pranks run in the family.)

Robbins says the memoirs project is a work in progress; she's still trying to collect stories from the Romer and McNichols families, and if she gets enough anecdotes, the CHS might one day turn the tales into a book. Until then, Memories: Colorado Governor's Residence can be viewed at the Stephen H. Hart Research Library on the second floor of the Colorado Historical Society, 1300 Broadway; the library is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The memories will always stay with Heather Lamm. "When we left the mansion and moved into our own house, I remember being struck and saddened by the silence and stillness of an ordinary house. It took years for me to get used to the quiet of normal life," she writes. "I feel honored to have spent my formative years there and lucky to be a part of its history."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon