Arise Again: Leadville’s Sayer McKee
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
If you live in Leadville Today, you may remember that fateful night back in late January 2014 when the roof to the iconic Sayer & McKee building collapsed in downtown Leadville under the weight of heavy snow. While the good news was that no one was hurt in the incident, the bad news came that one of Harrison Avenue’s most beloved institutions was gone. Or was it?!
Like a phoenix-from-the-ashes, along with three years of renovation work, the space formally known as 615 Harrison Avenue was officially rededicated last night, May 20 as the Sayer and Mckee Building, KW Plaza in a Grand Opening gala that brought out old-school Leadville to celebrate a part of history brought back to life by a Native Son.
Kyle Welch, owner of KW Restoration and Construction greeted a standing-room-only crowd, as friends, neighbors and colleagues gathered to commemorate another successful renovation project on Leadville’s main drag. The new building is now two separate units, with the south side already leased to the latest local eatery, The Treeline Kitchen (more on that later).
Guided by Welch’s vision the newly designed space includes a sidewalk plaza complete with fire pit, as well as a rooftop patio with 360 degree views of Colorado’s tallest peaks. High vaulted ceilings showcase the buildings new found strength, as elaborate wooden beams dance across the interior skyline. The details are elegantly industrial from the iron-twisted staircases to the sizeable window panes which act as a wind break for rooftop dining. The building was done right and will be highlighted on an upcoming Discovery Channel special about restoration projects in the United States.
But many in the room, this next chapter is particularly sentimental, as they remembered a building that provided so much more than five-and-dime things bought in a drug store. When the retail store first opened its doors in 1940, Leadville was a thriving community whose locals supported 3 drug stores at the time, including Taylor and Davis Drugs, all it seems located within just a few blocks of each other. It was a fire that consumed Sayer & McKee Drug Store’s first location, the present day site of Pueblo Bank & Trust on the northeast corner of 6th and Harrison.
After the fire, founder Bill McKee relocated the business to the 615 Harrison which had been vacated by Safeway, having moved to its current location north of town. It’s this building that brings back the memories of trips to the “soda shop,” or to buy that perfect birthday gift for a little friend’s party. People got their vacation pictures developed at Sayer & McKee and of course, it was the only pharmacy in Lake County during most of the late 20th century.
During these decades, it was kind and caring owner Tony Hren at the helm, steering the retail ship through the leaner years, as growing competition from the big box stores in expanding, neighboring counties offered jobs, and shopping options, more likely to be found in the bigger, Front Range cities. Eventually, the big chains won out and the historic drug store officially closed its doors on November 30, 2012 after selling the pharmacy component of the business to the Safeway Corporation.
So, as the dust settled after the roof collapse in 2014, many wondered the building’s fate. Could Leadville’s iconic Sayer & McKee arise again? And who could take on such a project, as many main street businesses were simply trying to keep their doors open? The night the roof collapsed, KW crews were called out to secure the situation. In snow-driven freezing conditions, the building and its tightly-close neighbors were stabilized. But many wondered what next, now that Leadville’s main street had a big gap in its smile.
At this point in the Sayer & McKee history, the building was owned by Sharlene Hren, Tony’s widow who had been challenged in subsequent years to find a sustainable tenant for the space. Shortly after the collapse, Kyle met with Sharlene. Welch picks up the story from here during his speech to attendees last night.
“I gave her four options about what she could do with the building,” explained Welch, ranging from re-building, to selling, to the option that Welch “really didn’t want her to pick: that he would take over the building.” But Sharlene jumped at the opportunity. And for most Leadvillites, knowing that a Native Son would be the driving force and vision behind the renovation brought new hope for 615 Harrison Avenue.
Kyle Welch grew up here, his parents moving the family to Leadville when he was only 2 ½ years, where he started swinging his first hammer as the Welchs built their new home.
“I was a working kid, always mowing lawns, delivering newspapers or shoveling snow,” Welch shared with an audience of more than 200 attending the Grand Opening. After graduating from Lake County High School in 1982, the same year Climax closed its doors, he noted, Welch went on for studies at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. Upon returning to Leadville, one of his first jobs was laying the sidewalk pavers on Harrison Avenue during the “mill levy-for- sidewalks” project in the late 1980s.
“I removed the old flagstone in front of the opera house. That was tough!” stated Welch.
Eventually after a brief two year stint in California, the Native Son would return to his roots and started KW Restoration and Construction in 1988.
Now grown to a company who employed 200 workers over the course of the three-year Sayer & McKee renovation project, KW has expanded to include satellite offices in Salida and Colorado Springs. But it’s still Welch’s passion for Leadville that marks his company’s success, evident in the more than $300,000 donated to local causes over their 29 years they’ve been in business.
“You all are very special to me,” expressed Welch as he stood on the stairwell platform along with his wife Susan, and their two daughters Chelsea and Tess; son Jesse who lives in Indiana as a firefighter, and is expecting Welch’s first grandchild was not able to attend.
But perhaps the most touching moment of the evening came as Kyle addressed his parents, Irene and Gary Welch who were beaming proudly in the front row, while having sadly just lost another Native Son a week before. For those who may not know, Kyle’s brother Brent passed away suddenly just one week before the Grand Opening.
“I’m proud to be your son,” he addressed his parents who have been mainstays in the Leadville community for decades, his father being one of the most beloved band teachers Lake County High School has ever known. As a few tears were wiped away, Welch did not miss a beat, announcing his next project.
“I see my employees and teachers in Leadville that have nowhere to live,” said Welch, addressing the current housing crisis facing Lake County, as its next Boom cycle starts to kick in. So to remedy that, one of Leadville’s Native Sons will be partnering with a developer out of South Carolina and also a longtime KW associate “who does good work.” They have bought 34 acres in Lake County and are making plans to build 100 new homes.
“This town needs housing,” concluded Welch to an explosive round of applause.
Yes, yes it does. And it also need a lot more leadership and vision like yours, Kyle. Congratulations to KW, its crew, and family on a heart-felt renovation that will continue to keep Harrison Avenue’s heart beating for many years to come!