Hotel sale marks end of an era in Ouray
Owners of the Ouray Chalet since 1971, family recalls memories as inn converts to affordable workforce housing
Ouray County Plaindealer
As a kid, Lora Slawitschka loved hanging off the second floor balcony at the Ouray Chalet Inn, playing in the flumes around the motel and darting through the parking lot, occasionally scaring incoming guests.
Her parents, Joseph and Anneliese, bought the motel in 1971 and moved to Ouray from Illinois. with 9-monthold Lora and her brother, Gary, in tow. They ran the inn until 2001, when they sold it to their daughter.
But for the first time in five decades, the building on the corner of Fifth Street and Main is no longer the Slawitschkas’ family business. Lora decided to sell the motel earlier this year, and a group of local business owners purchased the building to use for employee affordable housing. The sale closed earlier this month. Chalet Partners, LLC bought the inn for $3.1 million, according to county records.
Over the last few months, Lora packed up family memorabilia, sorting through years of old records and belongings. She’ll take a few keepsakes back with her when she visits her parents at Thanksgiving: a letter written for her father before he left Austria in the 1950s, a large wooden heart that used to hang in front of the hotel and a caricature drawing of the couple outside the inn.
The motel sign in the drawing displays one of Ann’s favorite sayings: “Happiness is one more day in Ouray.”
After immigrating from Austria, the couple was living near Chicago but dreaming of the landscapes they’d left behind.
Her brother-in-law was stationed in Colorado Springs with the military and would tell stories about the scenery that seemed almost unbelievable. “When he came home for vacation, I would ask him, ‘Are there really mountains there?'” Ann said. “When we first came to Colorado, of course, it was instant love.” In the often-told family tale, Joseph came to Ouray for the first time on Labor Day weekend in 1970, when his Realtor told him about a property for sale. He arrived on a dark, cloudy evening and saw no reason to stay, but woke up the next morning to bright blue skies, fresh snow and towering mountains.
“It was the ‘Sound of Music’ moment,” Lora said.
Ann had never seen Ouray when her husband called that morning and said he’d decided to buy the inn. “From then until March, I couldn’t sleep,” she said, worried about the move and how they would manage. But when she visited, she fell in love, too.
The sale closed in March of 1971 and they sold almost everything in Chicago before moving west. “We had no experience, but we knew how to work, and we wanted to make it work,” she said.
“We had to learn everything,” she said. “I learned from Beulah Scott how to make a bed and how to clean a room, basically,” she said. Scott worked as a housekeeper at the motel for years before moving on to clean condominiums in Telluride until 2012; she passed away in 2019. “I’m ever grateful to her, she helped us for many years,” she said.
And as they learned their way around the business, they got to know their guests, Ann’s favorite part. “Most importantly was that we met the most beautiful people from basically all over the United States,” she said.
The kids grew up in the inn as their parents got accustomed to living in Ouray.
“I feel like the luckiest person, just think about it,” Ann said. “We worked and we lived and we did everything in one place.” Gary, who was in third grade when they left Skokie, adjusted to a much smaller class size in Ouray, but Lora had never known anywhere else.
“Gary was very quiet, and Lora was like the PR person, because people would come and she would run down with her bicycle on the sidewalk,” greeting them as they arrived, she said.
“I literally grew up on that corner,” Lora said.
As a toddler, she scared her mother more than once, hanging off the balcony and running loose around the neighborhood. “We even had her on a leash on the patio, so she wouldn’t run away,” she said.
One morning, she disappeared and didn’t come running back when her mother called her name. Near the motel, there was a doghouse inside a tall chain link fence, at least six feet high. “Everybody said, that Chico dog, he’s dangerous, he’s half wolf,” Ann said. But as she frantically searched for her daughter, the dog emerged from his dog house, followed by Lora.
“No wonder I’m a nervous wreck,” Ann said.
Lora was allowed to cross Main Street alone once she was six, and roamed freely around town, playing in forts and fishing with Velveeta cheese as bait. The Beaumont Hotel across the street sat empty, and she unsuccessfully pestered its owner, Wayland Phillips, to let her look inside.
For the first several years, the Slawitschkas kept the inn open all year, but there was no winter tourism to sustain the business. The only guests were the Idarado miners, whose supervisor would sometimes send them to stay the night if they couldn’t stay in Silverton, she said.
“My husband got restless over the winter because the business wasn’t there,” Ann said.
In 1977, they decided to close seasonally, spending the winter in Florida before returning each spring. “The Chalet was always on our minds,” she said.
Over three decades, they saw guests come back year after year, sometimes new generations of the same families who asked to stay in the same room each time. Some still send Christmas cards to the Slawitschkas, Ann said.
“We still wrote confirmation letters on the typewriter and sent it by mail,” she said, and at first, the hotel had only 12 room phones with a switch board. There was no air conditioning or television in the rooms, and some visitors would check in, then come running back to the office to report their television had been stolen.
“It’s unbelievable how everything has progressed,” she said. They considered anyone who walked through the door to be a new friend, which she said might not have been the best business mindset but one that made people more than just customers. Asked for favorite memories, she can’t pick just one: “my favorite story is the people I met, and how lucky I was to be able to meet them.” But after 30 years, the work had taken a toll, and she knew they were ready to retire and move on when those interactions became more taxing than joyful.
“It was too much and too long that I’d been in there,” she said.
“People would come in the office the night before and they would say, ‘You promised me snow, where is the snow?'” she said. “It snowed overnight and the next morning, they would come into the office and say, ‘It’s snowing, when is it going to stop?'”
They were ready to make the move to Florida full time, and they had a willing successor. Lora, who’d left Ouray as a teenager and never looked back, had unexpectedly landed back in the business.
“I went to college and ironically ended up in the industry I thought I wanted nothing to do with,” she said. She worked corporate jobs in Florida for more than a decade, coming back to Ouray only once after high school. She had no interest in moving back to the small town, she said.
But when her parents decided it was time to retire, she saw a chance to work for herself, and there was a draw to finally coming back home.
“Lora worked in different hotels when she got out of school, and I’m sure she always wanted to come back to Ouray,” Ann said. “I personally thought that she grew up in this business and she was made for this business.”
Since 2001, she’s kept the hotel open all year, which has been fueled by the city’s increasing winter tourism industry. The opening of the Ice Park brought winter business, she said, and travel has changed, bringing visitors before and after the traditional summer and fall seasons that kept her parents busy.
Over 50 years, the family business weathered shortages, floods and economic downturns, and the Slawitschkas wondered whether travelers would keep coming back.
“There was a toilet paper shortage, then the gas shortage, and then there was a beef shortage,” Ann recalled. “And every time a shortage came up, we were sweating. Are we going to make it? Are people going to come back?” she said.
The back-to-back floods were the worst, she said: in 1981 and 1982, summer storms brought mudslides crashing down into the city, taking out bridges and damaging buildings. “It was terrible, it was very, very scary,” she said.
“The water came within one inch to our doors,” Ann said, but never reached the inside. “Miraculously, we survived those things,” she said.
Through the recession and the pandemic, Ouray’s resiliency and perseverance were on display, Lora said. “And people still want to come here,” she said.
The hotel’s longevity has provided some stability, with customers who return year after year, and despite everything. She attributed some of that to the continuity of keeping the business in the family: guests who remember her parents have found comfort in returning.
When she was forced to close in March 2020 during the pandemic’s earliest days, the uncertainty about the future and when she could reopen was a challenge. But once hotels were allowed to reopen for the summer, business bounced back to record levels in the city. “As scary and uncertain as that time was, we were blessed not to feel the economic impact as much,” she said. “Ouray has survived once again.”
While her parents dealt with guests wondering where their televisions were, she’s seen the rapid changes of moving from dial-up internet in 2001 to the county’s ongoing fiber internet project. The changes haven’t all been positive: she doesn’t like guests arriving and sticking their phones in her face, or the way they walk around looking at their device instead of around them.
“It’s one of the things that’s hardest to watch change,” she said. “It’s always a shame that they’re not looking around us.”
She’s kept the family mantra in mind while adapting to the changes in the industry and in Ouray: “if you take care of the Chalet, the Chalet will take care of you.”
After reaching those landmarks — 50 years for the family business, 20 years for herself — she decided last spring it was the right time to move on, leaving while she still loved the work.
Her mother had mixed emotions when Lora shared the decision.
“On the one hand, my heart was broken,” she said. “On the other hand, I was very happy for her, because it takes a huge responsibility off her shoulders.”
“I’m sad in a way, but my heart will always be in Ouray,” she said, even if the family business is no longer.
With the sale now closed, Lora’s plans for the immediate future are simple: while she’ll remain on the Ouray Ice Park’s board of directors, she won’t take on any new commitments for the next year.
She’s looking forward to having less structure, with time to focus on photography and visiting family and friends without feeling the need to rush back.
“I’m learning to live a life without that level of responsibility,” she said.
Despite the new-found freedom to travel anywhere, without worrying about what she’s missing at the inn or what she might come back to find, she has no plans of leaving permanently.
“When the San Juans have a hold on you, it’s hard to leave them,” she said. She’s done it once, after high school, when she wanted nothing more to do with Ouray, but after two decades back in her hometown, she won’t be doing that again. “I foresee Ouray always being a home base,” she said.
Instead of road trippers and leaf peepers, the Ouray Chalet is now home to about two dozen local employees.
San Juan Mountain Guides, Ouray Grocery, Ridgway Mountain Market and Twin Peaks Lodge and Hot Springs partnered to purchase the building. They’d hoped to close on the sale in September, but it was delayed due to difficulties finding a new insurer, San Juan Mountain Guides co-owner Mark Iuppenlatz said.
There are now at least 20 people living there, with more lined up to move in, he said. He has four guides set to move in next month on six month leases.
“It’s filling up fairly fast,” he said. A few businesses have rented rooms from the new ownership, including restaurants Mi Mexico and Goldbelt Bar and Grill. He said rooms cost around $800 per month. There are some physical changes still in progress,
There are some physical changes still in progress, including taking out vanity sinks and replacing them with larger kitchen sinks and cabinets, and installing larger refrigerators. “We’re in the process of getting final designs and costs for doing a community kitchen,” Iuppenlatz said. “That’s still in the works.”
The ability to offer housing has already made an impact for the businesses, he said. “I had a couple people who had housing and it fell through, and they’re all of a sudden in a panic,” he said, and the Chalet provided a solution. It also helped when he was recruiting new guides by taking the challenge of housing off the table.
“You can accept a job, but if you don’t know where you’re living, it’s hard,” he said. “It’s a good, comfortable, safe, convenient location to kind of plant the flag and get started.”
Alpenglow Properties, owned by Twin Peaks owner Craig Hinkson, is managing the property and Twin Peaks’ assistant general manager is living on-site in the owners’ unit at the hotel, Iuppenlatz said.
“It’s gone smoothly,” he said. “We’re grateful that Lora was willing to work with us and allow us to take it over and turn it into this kind of resource.”
Liz Teitz is a reporter with Report for America, a nonprofit program which places journalists in underserved areas. Go to reportforamerica.org to support her work with a tax-deductible donation.