Colorado Cabin Fever

House & Garden, December 1989

Long before Ralph Lauren launched cowboy shirts and concho belts into the mainstream, long even before Roy Rogers hit the lonesome trail, Thomas Molesworth was industriously hammering, sawing, and selling his own version of the Old West. From the outpost in Cody, Wyoming, where he set up shop in 1931, this craftsman-designer devised interiors of such rugged exuberance that they fulfilled every city slicker’s fantasy of a home on the range. A rousing combination of  Adirondack rustic materials, thirties Moderne forms, and OK Corral accessories, the Molesworth look was as romantic as it was serviceable. Soon its inventor was being summoned to spread his style everywhere, from dude ranches to luxury liners, from his neighbors’ rumpus rooms to Dwight Eisenhower’s den.

Of all Molesworth’s grandest commissions--projects in which even the wastebaskets, doorstops, gin rummy scorecards, and coasters bore his imprint--few, if any, have survived in as close to pristine condition as the Glenwood Springs, Colorado, ranch he completed in 1935 for prominent New York stockbroker George Sumers and his family. An avid outdoorsman whose interest and social circles extended well beyond Wall Street, Sumer had discovered Glenwood in the early thirties when a rockslide stranded his Nevada-Bound train. Floating in the steamy waters of the town’s natural hot springs, he fell in love with the mountain setting and decided to sink some of his savings in the wide open spaces nearby. And so with the purchase of ninety prime acres of valley, Sumers called upon Thomas Molesworth to deliver the ultimate rancho deluxe.

On a grassy bluff overlooking the Roaring Fork River a two-story log structure took shape quickly, thank to a Minneapolis company that milled, notched, and numbered all of the timber before packing it off for on-site assemblage. More chalet than cabin, this kit of parts gave Molesworth fifteen rooms in which to show his colors, and he corralled craftsmen from all over to execute his designs. Italian artisans laid terrazzo floors patterned with scenes of cockfighting, flamenco dancing, and broncobusting. A German blacksmith based in Denver forged all the hardware, form the four chandeliers that dangle arrowheads to the one-of-a-kind strap hinges on every door. Hand-stitched rawhide lampshades arrived by train Oakland, California. And out of Molesworth's own Cody workshop came his signature cowboy furniture, which elevated all of the other elements from mere curios to essential parts of a finely orchestrated composition.

Electric-blue and oxblood-red leather sofas and armchairs with massive burl legs set the tone in the living room where Navajo rugs were slung trading-post style over a second-story balcony. Thunderbirds spread their wings on chairbacks and Chimayo wool curtains in the dining room where the white leather topped table was set with Fiesta ware. In each of the nine bedrooms gunfighters, Indian princesses, and elk beckoned from the routed surfaces of simple wooden furniture. 

It was in this setting that Sumers, his three children, his eleven grandchildren, and a perpetual flow of guests convened every summer for nearly thirty years. Rarely did the routine alter: days were for horseback riding in the mountains, nights for soaking in the mineral springs. “I could be a cowboy or an Indian from June to September,” remembers Sumer’s eldest granddaughter, management consultant Toby Lafferty, who as a girl dyed her braids black, pitched a tent behind the house, and learned to rope cattle. “It was an addicting place to be,” she says. “People arrived and left and quickly came back again.” Among those who came back was Ethel Merman, who, as a local lore has it, dreamed up the story line for Call Me Madam on one of her visits. 

In the early sixties, when fewer family members were using the ranch, Sumers sold it all, including the house and its contents. The buyers, an order of Catholic priests, immediately went to work tempering their playful headquarters with touches of piety. In the basement game room the pool table was pushed aside to make way for a chapel. Miniature figures of saints were brought in to hobnob with Indians in the frontier diorama that decorated the dining room. Even the stable was put to new use as a school where novices studies in former horse stalls.

Ranching and religion, however, didn’t prove to be a lasting combination. The place eventually passed into the hands of developers who sold off most of the land and many of the Indian artifacts but mercifully spared the work to Molesworth, who died in 1977. Texan Laura Hunt first spotted the house in a Sotheby’s real estate catalogue fourteen years ago and spent the next decade regretting that she hadn’t bought it. She was on the verge of building her own lodge when the Sumers ranch again turned up on the market. Incredulous, Hunt toured the interior and discovered the burl furniture, the pony-skin curtains, the Giacometti-like jackrabbit ashtrays, and the Chimayo cushions all still there and intact. “Wild Bill Hickok couldn’t have come up with a better set than this,” she told her parents, Joan and George Bayoud. They caught the next flight out of Dallas and purchased the house on the spot. 

Since then, Laura Hunt has devoted her energies to re-creating Molesworth’s vision. Using the pictorial door hardware as a clue to decoration, she has reassembled the room in close to their original state. With the help of Denver art dealer David Cook, a new collection of pre-1930s Native American pots and rugs has been compiled to fill in the gaps. And worn furniture has been restored with the advice of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody whose exhibition of Molesworth designs opens next March at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles. 

Now with all of the lodge’s parts back in place, life there goes on much as it did during Sumer’s time. Friends and family stream in and out. Days revolve around whitewater rafting, skiing, fishing, and leisurely meals. And, as always, the main indoor activity is simply sitting still and trying to absorb every flourish of Molesworth’s derring-do.