Four hours from the Denver airport and 45 minutes from Raton, New Mexico, the closest one-horse town, we reach the gate of Vermejo. It’s early March. The bison are hours away on the south end of the property now, but the elk roam in big groups, bounding across the gravel road in front of our car, dropping their giant antlers one at a time in the snowmelt, as they do every spring.
Vermejo, a ranch and ecological reserve is massive—the size of the Badlands, Acadia, Redwood, and Zion National Parks combined—and we are making our way to its heart, where a rustic central lodge and various beautiful sandstone cottages have hosted adventurous travelers, almost continuously, for a century.
Today, the property belongs to the American billionaire and media mogul Ted Turner. A conservator who has collected more than a million acres of ranch land across the American West, he bought it in 1996 with the intention of preserving and protecting the wilderness indefinitely. Effectively, Turner’s Vermejo is a moment frozen in time: the moment in 1909 just after the property’s first owner, Chicago grain magnate William H. Bartlett, opened the doors of his personal paradise.
At the start of the 1900s, one of Bartlett’s two adult sons had fallen ill, and doctors in Chicago prescribed the fresh, dry air of the American Southwest. The family made their way to New Mexico, where in 1907, Bartlett enlisted prominent American architect Joseph Silsbee—mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright—to build a series of grand stone mansions.
Bartlett brought fine furniture, an upright Steinway, more than a thousand books and ornate Italian marble columns over the Rockies, and within two years, the Bartlett men each had a Mission-style manor of their own, adjoined by arched stone portals and outfitted to rival the Gilded Era mansions of Newport and Long Island.
There was ample room for guests: The central house was a tremendous 30-room hunting and fishing lodge. On the north side of the lodge was Casa Minor, and on the south was the star of the property, which Bartlett built for himself: a 25,000 square-foot, seven-bedroom opus he called Casa Grande.
Bartlett didn’t stop with the mansions. He dug lakes, and built fish hatcheries, stables, a post office and his own power station, reportedly spending the modern-day equivalent of over $70 million to outfit the ranch of his dreams. The outcome was remarkable not only in its construction, but in its concept: In the isolation of the West, Bartlett created the ideal modern-day luxury nature resort—one designed to emphasize and make a sustainable amenity of the natural landscape around it.
Vermejo hospitality manager, Jade McBride, who previously held hospitality positions at Amangiri in Utah and the Ranch at Rock Creek in Montana—similar luxury destinations—leads me from Vermejo’s main lodge into Casa Grande’s foyer.
The floors are hand-laid mosaic. Period floral fabric wallpaper winds up the wall along an ornate staircase, the bannister crowned with a statue of the winged goddess Nike. It is just as it was when Bartlett welcomed his own guests, with the exception of some small details. Portraits of Turner’s family sit framed on a nearby bureau.
Casa Grande was nearly lost to time. During the Great Depression, Vermejo’s mansions were boarded up, the land leased out to a cattle rancher, and Casa Minor fell into disrepair. The central lodge burned down in 1955, and a new lodge was built some 30 years later by Pennzoil, which bought Vermejo in the 1970s along with the mineral rights.
When Turner and his then-wife, Jane Fonda, arrived in 1996, McBride tells me, Casa Grande’s oak paneling had been whitewashed, its exterior was hung with ugly storm windows, and everything was covered in a decaying green-and-gold carpet from a renovation in the late 1950s or early ’60s.
“The entire house was wall-to-wall” McBride says. “But when Jane peeled back the edge of the carpet, she saw that underneath was the original mosaic. Bartlett’s original flooring was preserved by having been covered up all those years.”
By similar luck, the home’s original glass window panes had been preserved by the storm windows.
Turner’s team got to work closing out the cattle ranching operation and clearing fences to launch a multifaceted ecological conservation program. During a decade of visits by Turner and Fonda, Casa Grande served as the couple’s private residence, and as they slowly began making the place their own, they made other discoveries.
McBride stands beside a floor-to-ceiling safe in what was Bartlett’s office, now an impeccable restoration of the original. “There were photo albums in this safe full of pictures of the house from around 1914,” he says. The photo albums were like a time capsule, he explains, each full of images of every room as it was when Bartlett created it. The albums would serve as guides for an eventual complete renovation of Casa Grande.
Twenty years passed before Turner Enterprises undertook the four-year, multi-million dollar project. But in 2012, with the conservation work in full swing, the Vermejo team hired Santa Fe architects Conron & Woods to complete the mansion’s resurrection. The firm updated the house’s mechanical systems and used the 1914 photographs to source antiques—from wicker furniture in the greenhouse to cerulean-velvet settees in the great room—and to approximate the original layout of each room, reviving the Bartlett-era look and feel.
Today, even Bartlett’s original monogrammed crystal and china is safely set out in the great room’s display cases, surrounded by his voluminous library. Though his 1896 Steinway suffered fire damage in the 1955 fire, today it sits upstairs, restored and in perfect tune.
Casa Grande is now open to guests, along with accommodations in the main lodge and in other original cottages on the property, bringing Vermejo’s capacity to around 60 guests who share 600,000 acres of mountains, rivers, lakes, trails and plains between them. A renovation of Casa Minor is next on the list.
“Ted had never been the kind of person who wanted to invest a lot in any building,” McBride says. “He’s always been the kind of person who wanted to get rid of buildings and put the land back the way it was.”
But Casa Grande was too remarkable to ignore, says McBride, and with the 1914 photography as a beacon for the renovation, Turner knew that bringing Bartlett’s spirit of hospitality back to Vermejo might be the answer to keeping it safe.
In 1924, six years after Bartlett’s death, the Los Angeles Times called Vermejo “one of the finest game preserves on the continent of North America.” Under Turner’s ownership, that’s still true.
Some guests come to horseback ride, hike, or fly fish. Others come to hunt bison and elk in the fall and turkey in the spring, as they have for generations. But these days, hunts are precisely planned by Turner’s staff of conservationists.
One day, when Turner himself is gone, Vermejo will pass into a conservation trust. And so, the stakes are high for the hospitality program. Turner intends for it to serve as the primary source of funding for the conservation work, which so far has protected the land from development and rehabilitated indigenous aspen and ponderosa pine, Rio Grande cutthroat trout, black-tailed prairie dogs, and other at-risk native species. Since Turner arrived, he has grown Vermejo’s bison population from 85 to around 1,200.
In a century of flux for Vermejo, serendipitous interventions in the last few decades will mean visitors can experience the place’s Bartlett-era history for years to come.