Keys to Historic Preservation
Estes Park’s Baldpate Inn
Imagine that your grandfather was a San Francisco ferryboat captain who transported the notorious gangster Al Capone to Alcatraz Island, and that, as a memento of the occasion, he quietly pocketed the key to Capone’s handcuffs. Now imagine that this small key—this tiny piece of history—stayed in your family for a few generations, until one day you got the idea that perhaps it should be rescued from your sock drawer and sent to a museum somewhere. But where should it go? Is there a museum for keys?
As a matter of fact, there is. And it’s in a mountainside inn near Rocky Mountain National Park.
The Baldpate Inn, which turns 100 years old in 2017, is located about seven miles south of downtown Estes Park, Colorado. Located on the side of Twin Sisters Mountain, the Inn has a collection of more than 20,000 keys, making it easily one of the largest key collections in the world. Ranging from the historical to the whimsical, the keys have been donated over the years by visitors, guests, and dignitaries. The keys are cataloged in a database and maintained by curators who offer insights into the collection via a blog and periodic lectures.
The Inn is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties. History Colorado provided funding for research related to the Inn’s national historic certification in the 1990s and helped with restoration efforts following flooding and damage from marauding black bears in 2013.
So how did an inn in the mountains of Colorado come to have one of the largest key collections in the world? Well, that’s a story in itself. The Inn was named after a popular mystery and romance novel called Seven Keys to Baldpate following a claim by the novel’s author that the rustic establishment looked exactly as he’d pictured the fictional Baldpate Inn. (The novel, set in upstate New York, reads like a classic screwball comedy, which is probably why it was adapted as a play, a radio broadcast and eight versions for film and TV.) Visitors to the Inn today will see a giant decorative key ring and seven keys dangling from a balcony next to the main entrance.
The “Key Room” itself is located just a few steps from the entrance lobby. With its massive stone fireplace, hand-cut timber walls, and a view of Estes Valley, the room would be an impressive space even without the keys, which bristle from the ceiling and cover the walls. There are piano keys, fraternity and sorority keys, keys of knowledge (such as library keys), keys from every state and from around the world. Many are highly personal, obscure or even fictional (Sherlock Holmes’ residence), while others are indisputably—and often amusingly—historic. With a bit of time and curiosity, a visitor can find the keys to royal crypts, Hollywood actors’ dressing rooms, historic cars, robbed banks, and prison cellblocks. For example, the collection has keys to the following places:
- the laboratory where the first atomic bomb was developed
- Westminster Abbey, the Vatican, the Pentagon and the US Capitol
- Frankenstein Castle in Germany and Dracula’s Castle in Romania
- Adolph Hitler’s chalet in Bavaria
- Edgar Allen Poe’s dorm room (number 13) at the University of Virginia
- Mozart’s wine cellar
The history doesn’t stop there. The Inn’s dining room features an extensive collection of autographed photos of celebrities from the Inn’s early days, from Teddy Roosevelt to Wild Bill Cody to Lana Turner. Most of the photos were taken by two brothers, one of whom was a former owner of the hotel.
The Inn’s current owners, the Smiths, are only the second family to have owned and operated the hotel. They’ve owned the Inn since 1986 and are well aware of its historical significance. It’s one of the reasons that the Smiths turned to the History Colorado State Historical Fund following the Larimer and Boulder County floods of September 2013. As a private business, the Baldpate was ineligible for a direct grant, so the Smiths worked with a Denver-based nonprofit called Colorado Preservation, Inc. to administer the grant on their behalf. Since 1990, the State Historical Fund has awarded more than $310 million for thousands of projects across Colorado, helping to preserve unique and noteworthy locations like the Baldpate Inn. With support from History Colorado and from visiting travelers every year, the Baldpate Inn and its historic collections may be entertaining visitors for another century or more.
If you’re interested in checking out the Baldpate Inn—whether it’s for the hospitality, the keys, the photos, the view or the architecture—go to www.baldpateinn.com.
For more information about the History Colorado State Historical Fund and its grant program, visit the State Historical Fund website or call the SHF office at 303-866-2825.
A volunteer blogger for History Colorado, Brian Cooke has worked as a writer and editor for more than 20 years. His past volunteer work has included leading night tours on Alcatraz and writing for the National Park Service and Visit Fort Collins. Brian currently writes for a market research firm and for the U.S. Forest Service. His LinkedIn page is www.linkedin.com/in/bcooke1.