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Brook Forest Inn coming back to life under new owners

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Couple take hands-on approach to managing historic inn with 19 guest rooms, dining room, pub

By Vicky Gits

A couple with ambition, imagination and a healthy supply of entrepreneurial instinct have purchased the historic Brook Forest Inn and are determined to turn it into a destination hotel, restaurant and wedding venue.

Jon and Melissa Barton of Barrington, Ill., 41 and 40, became the new owners of the national historic location on Aug. 9 and immediately closed it for two months and began a massive kitchen renovation.

The inn is now open for business, and the restaurant and bar are open six days a week. The Bartons have introduced live music in the bar on every other Friday night and free Texas Hold ‘Em Poker Nights on Tuesdays. The restaurant is open on Valentine's Day with a special dinner menu.

Opened in 1919 as an inn by Edwin F. and Marie A. Welz, who immigrated from Vienna and Switzerland in 1910, the Brook Forest Inn is 6 miles southwest of Evergreen on Brook Forest Road, next to the national forest.

The unique quartz-stone structure consists of 19 guest rooms plus a bar, restaurant and creekside patio, perfect for weddings. Rooms all have private bathrooms. The ambience is rustic, elegant and romantic. The owners are looking forward to their first wedding on Valentine's Day.

Chef Larry Cotton, formerly of Isabella's, which was in the same space, has a new dinner menu, with meaty entrees, wild game, pasta, salads and appetizers. Pub fare includes brick-oven pizza, grilled paninis and wild board sausage. Bread is made fresh daily.

"It's like stepping back in time," said Jon Barton. "A historic building, a fantastic setting, you feel like you are 100 miles away."

The Bartons remodeled and replaced equipment in the kitchen, fixed the leaky roof in the bar area, installed outdoor lighting and bought a roomful of chairs from a casino sale to outfit the grand dining room. Carpets were cleaned and grout replaced.

"We didn't really decorate; we un-decorated," Melissa said of removing dozens of silk plants and other objects that were gathering dust.

Jon Barton found a craftsman in Wyoming and brought him to Evergreen to install acrylic window inserts to better retain heat on cold days. Every window had different dimensions.

The Bartons also spruced up the banquet room and installed new hardwood flooring and a projector with a remote-controlled screen that drops from the ceiling, in order to cater to the corporate market. Many walls have been newly painted.

Customers will appreciate the ability to make contact by cell phone, an activity that was impossible before Jon Barton installed a couple of new mini-cell-phone towers that operate on Internet connections.

Enthusiastic and energetic, the Bartons live in a house 10 minutes away. They say they are in this for the "long haul."

"We are actually managing this ourselves. We like to talk to our customers, employees and vendors," Jon Barton said.

The couple first visited the Brook Forest Inn as guests in May 2009 when they were thinking about moving from the Chicago suburbs to Colorado with their four young boys. They came to Evergreen with the idea of finding a house and stayed at the inn for almost a week.

Sitting on the second-floor deck, looking at the creek, the Bartons thought of the possibilities.

They asked their real estate agent to approach the owners, Rubel and Betty Atencio to see if they wanted to make a deal. Eventually, they agreed to sell.

So far the couple have invested more than $200,000 in the kitchen alone, which says something about how serious they are about food. They even replaced the old "Fry Daddy," with a commercial deep fat fryer.

The couple’s four young boys range in age from 11 to 9 to 7 to 6. Jon Barton owns a multimedia technology company, Barton Media Group, but has given up most of his accounts to others. Melissa is a former advertising executive. They both grew up in the Chicago area and both went to the University of Kansas and met in Kansas City after graduation.

The couple became engaged on a vacation in Beaver Creek 15 years ago, so Colorado has always been a magnet. They have been looking for a family-type business to purchase for a number of years.
"In Chicago it's too cold in the winter and too humid and full of mosquitoes in the summer. I had to cover my kids head to toe with Deet," said Jon. "The kids used to come home and play indoors with electronic devices. Here they immediately run outside. That's why we're here."

In October 2009, the Brook Forest Inn was named to the National Register of Historic Places for its architectural significance, as an example of rustic design with Bavarian and gothic influences.

Brook Forest Inn hours

• Lunch: Saturday and Sunday beginning at 11 a.m.

• Dinner: Wednesday through Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m..
• Casual dining in pub: Tuesday through Sunday from 4 to 9 p.m.; pub hours, Tuesday through Sunday, 4 p.m. to close.

• Main office, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; room rates range from $65 to $215.
For more information, visit www.TheBrookForestInn.com.