Home on His Range: Ted Turner's Casa Grande Relaunch

© Jen Judge

DEPARTURES exclusively debuts the transformation of Ted Turner’s private house Casa Grande, in New Mexico, into a luxury lodge—and shows why the property matters for protecting the American West. 

Billionaire Ted Turner should be grateful to an earlier owner of his western residence Casa Grande, who covered its floors with ugly gold carpeting. Once the showplace of Vermejo Park Ranch, in northern New Mexico, near Raton, the house was boarded up and hidden behind aluminum storm windows for decades leading up to a nearly four-year, multimillion-dollar top-to-bottom renovation. Tile by tile, inch by inch, every room and piece of furniture has been brought back to its original gilded beauty. All that gold carpet had protected the now glowing mosaic floor tiles. Those aluminum storm windows kept the original glass panes from damage. Gilt had covered the original subway tiles in the bathrooms, but they are, once again, gleaming white. 

In 1996 Turner bought all 580,000 acres of the vast ranch. Casa Grande was built from 1907 to 1909 by a wealthy Chicago grain trader, William Bartlett, who aimed to bring luxury to his western hunting and fishing paradise. He moved huge marble columns once destined for a Chicago bank to New Mexico and hired one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentors, Joseph Lyman Silsbee, to design his casa. Over the decades it has been a private home, a fancy lodge, and even a club for such Hollywood stars as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Now Casa Grande, which reopened in February, is a new lodging option for Vermejo’s guests (usually 4,000 to 5,000 of them annually). Many are repeat visitors who come for the skiing, hunting, and fishing, and who have stayed at the ranch’s two other properties: Casa Minor, which was built near Casa Grande for Bartlett’s son, or Costilla Lodge, 25 miles from the main house. 

One person who hasn’t seen the stunning Casa Grande renovation is Turner, who, with about 2 million acres of land, is the second-biggest private landowner in the United States (only John Malone, another cable magnate, surpasses him, with 2.2 million acres). With a fortune estimated at $2.2 billion by Forbes, Turner calls the ranch his private Yellowstone, and it’s not much of an exaggeration: Vermejo, which is believed to be the largest piece of privately owned contiguous land in the U.S., is about one-fourth the size of the national park. It’s not easy to get to Vermejo on commercial airlines, as the nearest major airports, in Denver and Albuquerque, are both more than a four-hour drive away.

Casa Grande is the luxurious cornerstone of Ted Turner Expeditions (TTX), the mogul’s new ecotourism company that now gives travelers access to more than 1.1 million acres of Turner’s land through four different properties in New Mexico: Vermejo, Sierra Grande Lodge in southern Truth or Consequences, and the south-centrally located Ladder and Armendaris Ranches. Like Vermejo, the other ranches have all been owned and run by Turner for years, but now that they are being overseen by TTX, the properties will be geared toward initiatives in line with Turner’s conservation vision. The idea is to one day have all of Turner’s land—including that in Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Argentina—under the TTX umbrella. In fact, Turner’s South Carolina island, St. Phillips, recently became a TTX location.

 At age 77, Turner is still ruggedly handsome, with hair and mustache turned white. “I see our Expeditions as a complement to the national parks,” Turner told me when I met him at his office in Atlanta, where he founded CNN, once owned the Atlanta Braves, and can run downstairs to his chain restaurant, Ted’s Montana Grill (he has 46 of them). Bison is the house specialty. “They breed like crazy,” he said with enthusiasm. He should know; he has the largest herd in the world. 

Naturally, a giant stuffed bison head lords over the large ballroom that is the centerpiece of Casa Grande. In a different corner, there’s another huge mounted animal, a lion that bears a resemblance to the MGM mascot. (Turner owned the movie studio at one time, in part because he wanted to own his favorite movie, Gone with the Wind.) There are two Steinways, one a concert grand from the now-defunct Denver Symphony, the other an upright that had been burned and had sat in the basement for decades. Among hundreds of restored antique pieces is a large snooker table. 

It is easy to get lost in the casa, which has seven guest rooms, two of them masters. The first thing you stumble upon is a replica of William Bartlett’s office, with a huge old bank safe and meticulous ledgers of every visit, including the $14.50 the Boyle family was charged for eight days of horse riding (at 50 cents an hour) in 1927. The renovators even found a place in Chicago that provided a small amount of period wallpaper similar to the original. 

The historically exacting redo of all the rooms, spread out on two floors, is quite dazzling. In the grand ballroom and sumptuous sitting rooms, all with fireplaces and cozy areas for reading or having cocktails, you can almost hear Scott Joplin tinkling the keys of those Steinways.

Another distinctive part of the mansion is Ted’s master-bedroom suite, where I stayed during a January visit. It has a queen-sized bed with a big carved headboard, a huge sparkling-white bathroom with an antique tub and modern shower, and two dressing areas, one reserved for Turner. There aren’t many of Turner’s personal effects here, except for family photos. It’s the casa’s most expensive room, starting at $650 per night (most of the other large rooms begin at $550 per night).

Because Casa Grande is so full of marble and mahogany, there is little about it that screams West except the breathtaking landscape. It would be a perfect spot for a fancy wedding, a hunting party, or a corporate retreat, with guests enjoying the hiking, hunting (the place abounds with wildlife), archery, skeet shooting, riding, and fishing in several lakes and streams. 

Turner—and his ranch—take hunting, fishing, and the environment very seriously. The turkey hunt begins April 15, followed by summer fishing and fall hunting. The outdoors is the real reason to visit. Doug Johnson, a real-life cowboy who’s been at the ranch since 1974 and is in charge of the horses, is a fabulous guide. 

I toured the property by truck on two snowy days with Doug and another ranch hand, Keith Johnston. Doug is less crazy about bison because they’ve gored a few of his horses. Around the property, Keith hides fragments of old pottery and elk antlers to show guests. They shared facts about Turner’s land, pointing out that he’s even stocking streams and lakes on the ranch with Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

The experience of driving in a truck in hopes of seeing animals was reminiscent of being on an African safari, but better in some ways. We happened on a large number of elk gracefully crossing the icy road, saw many bison and wild turkeys, and watched bald and golden eagles soaring above us. But on safari, especially when touring by jeep, large numbers of other vehicles packed with tourists often swarm the areas where animals are sighted. Vermejo’s privacy and quiet are a great privilege. My cowboys had a perfect sense of the terrain and where the animals might be spotted. 

In the snow, the bison were especially beautiful to watch, although they made me feel guilty about our first meal at Casa Grande: grilled bison, served with lobster and asparagus. The ever-solicitous general manager, Wonny Rengersen, was busy supervising the installation of WiFi (there was no cell service). She was also awaiting the arrival of a new executive chef. But the two men who cooked my meals were so terrific that, on my last night, I asked to eat in the kitchen and watch them cook.

Unsurprisingly, Turner has big ideas for Vermejo and his other New Mexico ranches, where former president Jimmy Carter came for some bird-watching. “It’s like the national parks without the large crowds,” Turner said. “I love the national parks, but this is a nice change of pace.” In fact, he told me, he had a dream recently that he bought Yellowstone. Ted dreams big.

One such larger-than-life vision is the Turner Foundation, created in 1990 to prevent damage to the water, air, and land. He envisioned returning America’s western lands to their pristine preindustrial condition. He has placed much of his 2 million acres under conservation easements to prevent future development. His Turner Endangered Species Fund, founded in 1997, protects a wide range of imperiled species, from bison and bighorn sheep to whooping cranes and wolves, supporting wildlife research around the globe. 

These efforts haven’t won him the love of his cattle-ranching neighbors, who resent his advocacy of bison and banishment of cattle. They also dislike brash statements from Turner, who once said he might have to buy the West to save it. And some say he’s used public partnerships for private gain.

 Though Turner has donated billions to various causes, from the United Nations to conservation to eradicating nuclear weapons, he’s hoping that transforming Casa Grande into a luxury destination for outdoor adventure will also “help pay the bills.” He expects his massive

properties not only to be ecologically pure but also financially self-sustaining. Some of the money the ranches earn comes from bison meat, which has gained popularity in the U.S. because it is leaner than most beef. Turner also gets a portion of royalty payments for the natural gas on Vermejo, which Pennzoil once owned.

Although Casa Grande is still his own private home if he so desires, Turner hasn’t been there in nearly six years. He’s still an avid fisherman and hopes to visit soon, perhaps with one of his 15 grandchildren. Some of his five children are actively involved in helping to oversee the ranches, and, through a foundation, he intends to keep his properties in the family after he is gone. 

He brushed off as silly a question I asked about whether he might donate the land to the U.S. National Park Service, like what Kristine Tompkins, the American former CEO of the Patagonia clothing brand, is doing in Patagonia. Kristine and her late husband, Doug Tompkins, the founder of the North Face, gifted land to the Chilean and Argentinean governments to make national parks. The three biggest projects total more than 2.1 million acres. But unlike the Tompkins’ philosophy, Turner’s belief is that his family can serve the land as well as the government can.

At the end of the interview, Turner showed me the Oscar he keeps in his office, one awarded to Gone with the Wind in 1940. He remembers seeing the movie as a boy and can do a fabulous imitation of Gerald O’Hara, Scarlett’s father. “Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for,” Turner boomed, nailing the script word-for-word. “Because it’s the only thing that lasts.” 

For more information, call 877-288-7637, or visit tedturnerexpeditions.com.