House with fabled past may receive second life

Home where rich played could be reborn as retreat
By BILL VOGRIN    THE GAZETTE

In a quiet valley beneath the ridgeline mansions of University Park, hidden behind the ballfields of the Four Diamond Sports Complex at the end of the Eagle Rock neighborhood, sits a time machine. Actually, it’s the 34-acre homestead of Larry and Dorothy Heller.

From a distance, it simply looks like a collection of old houses amid cactus, brush, pine and scrub oak at the base of towering Eagle Rock.

But step inside the main house and you are transported to the 1930’s, a time when Colorado Springs was a playground for the rich who enjoyed polo and golf, fast cars, hunting foxes on horseback and generally living the good life.

That describes the Hellers, although they were much more: He was a painter, sculptor and actor; she was the city’s first female police officer, a race car driver and philanthropist.

If the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs is successful in raising money, their homestead will be restored, and the memory of the Hellers and the era they represent will be preserved.

The Heller property sits at the end of a gravel road, across a dry creek bed. Visitors are greeted by a dramatic lifesize bronze statue of a bucking horse   Larry Heller s longtime steed Pancho. The compound is relatively modest a main house flanked by a small guest house, a studio, gallery and foundry.

Inside is a classic adobe home, complete with exposed log timbers and Southwestern stucco fireplaces. Visitors immediately understand why architect Frank Lloyd Wright, during a 1936 visit, declared the Heller home “the most interesting in all of Colorado Springs.”

Nooks and crannies abound, punctuated by the Hellers’ artwork, paintings and sculpture from years of work.

“Larry was a very, very accomplished artist,” said friend and neighbor Bill Riley, 79, who met Heller when they both worked at Alexander Film Co. “He designed sets and costumes and did the makeup of the actors.

“He was quite a painter and did wonderful bronzes. And he loved for people to admire his work. Of course, he didn t like to sell it.”

Larry and Dorothy met in Colorado Springs in the early 1930s. She came from Indianapolis, he from Pennsylvania.

They married in 1936 and lived on the ranch, which they whimsically named the “Yawn Valley Hunt, Recreation and Ya cht Club.”

Officially, Larry was a commercial artist, but Riley described him as “the most accomplished man I ve ever known.” Dorothy worked for the city Police Department for 35 years as a “social investigator,” helping troubled teen-age girls. Friend Martha Mattoon described her as “a quiet woman who certainly could stand up for herself.”

It was their leisure activities that made them “the inpeople to know” as Riley put it   socializing with the Broadmoor Polo Club crowd and frequently entertaining at their home.

Larry Heller died in 1983, leaving his wife to decide what should become of their home and “yacht club.”

Her decision, before she died in 1999, was to donate it to CU-Springs to create a nature preserve and a center for the arts and humanities.

Her gift was designed to prevent development   no eastwest thoroughfares or public roads of any kind, no chancellor s residence or dormitories, no private homes.

It was her dream, Riley and Mattoon said, that the homestead become a retreat for artists who would enjoy it as much as she and her husband had for so many years.

Perrin Cunningham is trying to make that dream come true.

As caretaker of the property, her job is to protect it until the university can raise money to maintain and, ultimately, develop it into a Heller Center for the Arts and Humanities.    “We need about $15,000 right now just for maintenance,” she said, noting the leaking roofs and other problems threatening the home.

“And we figure it will take a lot more – maybe $500,000 – to restore it and reach our goal of an artist-in-residence program.”

Cunningham’s vision is to turn the Heller property into a retreat for visiting artists, writers and students.

“The possibilities are really exciting,” Cunningham said. “It will be a terrific place for the university, for students and the entire community.”

But her vision is blurred because there s no money in the university’s budget for such luxuries as artist retreats.

“We re looking for anyone interested in donating time and money to help us restore the property,” Cunningham said. “Someday this place is going to be great.”

Tell us about your neighborhood: 636-0193 or bvogrin@gazette.com