“Sweet Vale of Avoca how calm could I rest in thy bosom of shade with the friends I love best…”
This is a sentiment from the poem, The Meeting of the Waters, written by famous Irish born poet, Thomas Moore. Margaret Brown, more commonly known as Molly Brown, took inspiration from this work to name the property, Avoca Lodge, located west of downtown Denver. Most everyone knows about Colorado’s flamboyant Margaret “Molly” Brown, her marriage to James Joseph Brown, her philanthropy, her heroics aboard a Titanic lifeboat, her welfare work, and her stately mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Denver. But, few know about the buttered-brick house standing at the corner of South Wadsworth Blvd. and Yale Avenue that Molly named Avoca Lodge after the aforementioned poem.
As much as Molly and J.J. enjoyed the social whirl of Denver, they also sought refuge. A two and one-half hour carriage ride from the Pennsylvania home served that purpose. This westward location was a peaceful place that provided a view of the majestic mountains. There they might have been able to more readily reflect on early years in Leadville, the little mountain town where they met and married in 1886. In Molly’s own words, “I wanted a rich man, but I loved Jim Brown. I thought about how I wanted comfort for my father and how I was determined to stay single until a man presented himself, who could give to the tired old man the things I longed for him. Jim was as poor as we were, and had no better chance in life. I struggled hard with myself in those days. I loved Jim, but he was poor. Finally, I decided that I’d be better off with a poor man whom I loved than a wealthy one whose money had attracted me. So I married Jim.”
Molly and J.J. had two children, a boy and a girl, both raised at Avoca. Their son was named Lawrence and their daughter, Catherine, called Helen after a favorite aunt. Love may have come early for Molly, but it wasn’t until J.J. struck gold in The Little Johnny Mine that fame and fortune followed. The family moved to Denver soon after and purchased the downtown Denver home on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Meanwhile J.J. began purchasing land on which Avoca would be built in 1893. Construction on the 400 plus acre estate began in 1895 and was completed in 1897 giving birth to Avoca Lodge, with its cascading water. It was the place where Molly and J.J. escaped Denver’s hustle and bustle and found peace and solitude among the trees and farmlands along Bear Creek.
Through the guidance and ingenuity of J.J. Brown, Avoca Lodge became one of the most productive working farms in Colorado. Hundreds of orchard trees in every variety were planted and produced bountiful fruits like plum, peach, apple and cherry to name a few. Along with produce were a variety of fowl, livestock, and thoroughbred horses, all of which combined to create another form of financial success on the stately property. Peace and quiet was not a permanent condition as the retreat also had its share of lavish parties. A large brick dairy barn built near the main house was fitted with an oak floor suitable for dancing and performing. It was the setting for partying until dawn. The barn and dancing floor remained until the mid-1960s, but by then the tunes of the fiddler had long since ceased to play. After many joyful years, the events that once filled the barn and the rooms of Avoca Lodge languished when Molly and J.J. parted ways. After twenty-three years of marriage, Molly and J.J. privately signed a separation agreement in 1909. Although they never reconciled nor divorced, they continued to communicate and cared for each other throughout their lives. At the time of J.J. Brown’s death in 1922, Molly told newspapers, “I’ve never met a finer, bigger, more worthwhile man than J.J. Brown.”
The south side of the Molly Brown Summer House, called Avoca Lodge by Molly Brown.
The south side of the Molly Brown Summer House, called Avoca Lodge by Molly Brown. Between 1910 and 1915 the house and land were put up for sale with no takers. The Browns had created a beautiful, but expensive ranch which was monetarily out of reach for many of their peers who admired the property. The retreat that J.J. and Molly had labored over with love was leased for a short time to wealthy friends who hoped to continue its financial success. This situation continued until 1928 when Robert V. Fehlmann and his wife, Rose, purchased the legendary summer home of the Browns which at this point included just under 100 remaining acres. The Fehlmann family’s legacy of love for Avoca Lodge began at this time accompanied by additions to the retreat. The Fehlmann’s daughter, Ferne (Fehlmann) Kurtz, recalls moving to Avoca when she was fifteen years old and remembers being disappointed that there was no electricity, a conundrum resolved in due time. A full working farm ensued complete with livestock and sheep that meandered on the grounds serving as natural lawn mowers. Beautiful flora was grown and cared for by Rose. Tending to sweet white Pascal celery was a specialty of Roberts. Cantaloupe, watermelon, and all varieties of fruit and vegetables also flourished. The Fehlmann fortitude was foundational and working the lands of Avoca that meandered along the fertile Bear Creek became a family affair for Robert, Rose, and their four children. Daughter Ferne and youngest daughter Jane developed a special love for the family home and have fond memories of Molly and J.J. Brown’s former servants dropping in to visit with Robert and Rose from time to time. Jane recalls that they often enjoyed reminiscing about old times working as Molly’s upstairs maid or the Brown’s carriage driver. “Mom loved showing them the house,” Jane recalls. “As a child, I knew it was a special house, not because the Brown’s had lived there, but because it was our farm and the Fehlmann home.”
The Molly Brown Summer House is really the story of two families, the Browns, who built Avoca Lodge 120 years ago and five generations of Fehlmanns who have grown up with the heritage of Molly and J.J. Brown and now work to keep the heritage alive. Ferne likens the Fehlmann family to the Brown family because “the Browns and the Fehlmanns were courageous people. Dad and J.J. were both innovative farmers and the Fehlmanns picked up where the Browns left off to make Avoca Lodge a productive farm.” Jane echoes her sister’s sentiments adding, “I think Molly and J.J. would be proud to see how the Fehlmann family has kept, restored and taken great pleasure in owning their beloved property. They obviously created Avoca Lodge with love and hope, and they treasured the surroundings as much as we do.”
In order to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, a property’s exterior must remain in its original state. Avoca received this honored status on January 26th, 1990 as presented to Jane Fehlmann Garland and her beloved sister Ferne Fehlmann Kurtz. The Register describes the house as a two-story brick construction with a sandstone foundation, a pyramid roofline, and lovely eyebrow windows in the attic. The retreat maintains its own special and unique architecture. Avoca reflects a sturdy yet popular architectural style of its time known as the “Denver Square” (later expansion would give it its current L-shape), so named for two Denver architects that designed many such square houses throughout the burgeoning metropolitan area. These buildings stood in contrast to the flamboyant structures on and around Pennsylvania Avenue.
Many architectural details that grace this retreat is unique, such as the original porch rail design known as Chinowaserie paired with beautiful rooftop finials, eyebrow windows, and a grand circle drive crowned with iron gates.
Today this is one of the last historic buildings in this area. As Jane says, “My sister Ferne, my daughter Mary Rose, and I have worked hard for many years to preserve and share Avoca with our community, Colorado, and visitors both nationally and internationally.”
Mary Rose “Mo Mo” (Garland) Shearer represents the third generation of the Fehlmann family women. Her passion to preserve the house is as strong and indomitable as was the unsinkable Molly Brown’s and that of Fehlmann women past and present. “Our family home built near Avoca was just a field away and surrounded by hundreds of age-old Maple and Cottonwood trees. There was a well-worn footpath from our door to our grandparent’s,” Mo Mo remembers. “There were oceans of wheat grass that were as tall as I was. In the summertime, my brothers and I waded through the fields on a daily basis to visit our grandmother and explore the fields, trees, and grounds. Baseball, tree houses, beehives and ponies were our childhood. I can remember sitting with her on the squeaky glider porch swing as we sat silently watching the traffic rush by. I’m sure she wondered if all the hard work, sweat and tears of that farm would soon be forgotten as city life encroached upon us.”
With great determination, Mo Mo and her mother, Jane, have ensured that Avoca Lodge will survive for generations to come with the addition of the newly built Denver Pavilion at the Brown’s Event Center, the structure being inspired by the original brick dairy barn. History still comes alive by visiting Avoca Lodge, The Molly Brown Summer House. The property also hosts a variety of special events from corporate gatherings to weddings. It’s a place to dance where J. J. and Molly themselves once whirled to the sound of music and friendship.
Tours conducted by Jane and Mo Mo relate the stories handed down through the generations along with interesting Colorado history from the turn of the last century to the present. A History of the Molly Brown Summer House and Avoca Lodge