On a sunny summer day in 1994, Jeff Winemiller toiled 30 feet in the
air in the bucket of a lift to help his friend and neighbor Starr
Kempfbolt giant steel feathers onto the newest of 10 soaring
sculptures in Kempf's yard.
Within months, Winemiller, who lives across Pine Grove Avenue from the Kempfhome and whose family used to socialize with the Kempfs, would be asked by the artist's family to hide Starr's gun as Starr battled depression. Over time, he would be called on to clean up after Starr's suicide, would feud with the artist's daughter, be arrested, have his window shot out by an unknown assailant and lead a group of neighbors begging the city to halt traffic-generating art tours and ultimately remove some sculptures at the home.
Before the end of this year, it is likely Winemiller will watch as crews take down - by court order - the 41-foot-tall rooster he helped assemble. Five other sculptures and two ornamental lights on his deceased friend's front lawn will be moved away forever.
Since Kempf's death in 1995, anger and bitterness have replaced neighbor lines. Years of charges and countercharges have led to ugly incidents and a series of lawsuits.
Lottie Kempf, the artist's daughter who lives in the Pine Grove house with her mother, blames Winemiller and other neighbors for the fuss over the sculptures and their impending removal. She says they selfishly conspired with Colorado Springs officials to destroy the city's best-known art and to prevent her from making a living.
But the Kempfs' neighbors at the mouth of North Cheyenne Canon, the city and even some of Starr's descendants - including Lottie's siblings - tell a different story. They say she was so bent on making money from Starr's art she would sacrifice her mother's peace and quiet and her father's name, defy the rest of the family, file a frivolous $17 million lawsuit against nearly everyone involved and claim her property was not subject to city laws. Attempts to reason with her to resolve the differences were met with defiance, they say, and publicity over the neighborhood squabble has brought them scorn from the artist's adoring fans.
They say few people know the full story. "I don't think there's anyone who is responsible for this situation - not the neighbors, not the city, not me, not my father except Lottie" said Josh Kempf, the grandson of Starr Kempf who now manages the family's trust that includes his property.
Starr the artist
Starr Gideon Kempf was born in 1917 in the Swiss Mennonite community of Bluffton, Ohio. A farmer's son, he began carving wood sculptures of barnyard animals as a boy.
His sketch of a horse pulling a cart won him a scholarship to the Fine Arts Center of Colorado Springs, and by age 17 he was studying under Broadmoor artist Boardman Robinson. His budding career was interrupted by World War II. He served two years in the Army Air Corps before having a nervous breakdown and being honorably discharged.
Returning to Colorado Springs, he met a nurse named Hedwig who would become his wife. They spent time in Cleveland before coming back to the foot of Mount Cutler, where he bought a plot of land and built the house in which he would produce his giant stainless steel creations. He built not only the house but virtually everything in it, including furniture and tools for the fireplaces.
To make a living, he crafted iron benches, fences and lanterns and sold them to people in the area. By the mid-1950s, he was making small bronze sculptures with names such as "The Devil's Churn," depicting tortured, sinewy figures struggling to succeed in an often oppressive world.
By the mid-1970s, Starr would begin work on the seminal pieces of his career, the 40-foot-tall steel images of birds, arrows, crosses and windmills that decorate the front and side lawns of the Pine Grove Avenue home.
Ten rose into the air from 1978 to 1994. Starr occasionally would explain them to admirers who stopped by, but he wouldn't sell them, turning down some six-figure offers.
The giant pieces reflect nature. They don't just sway in the wind, they move with it. Spheres spin, feathers flap and crosses tilt and twirl as the breezes coming down Cheyenne Mountain seem to breathe life into the figures.
Their uniqueness has captured the fancy of the public and of area art lovers. They stand as symbols of the city, featured in national magazines and television programs aired across the country.
"I think his work has come to be identified with the city and the city with him," area artist Jack Frost said.
Yet Kempf's mercurial personality and devotion to his creations caused problems. In 1992, while erecting an ornamental light on the northeast corner of his property, he cut down an 8-foot-tall scrub oak in the front yard of his neighbors, Craig and Cathy Reed. The Reeds called the city but eventually dropped their complaint.
Even as he crafted delightful creatures, Starr was fighting deep depression. Frost said Starr would call him at 2 or 3 a.m. while intoxicated and talk for hours about how he was unappreciated by the Fine Arts Center, the city's preeminent art museum. Former neighbors reported seeing him stagger down the street with a gun in his hands.
In the fall of 1994, it was discovered he had heart problems. After that, he became unstable and drank more, said Lily Winemiller, Jeff's wife.
Lottie, who lived a few miles away, brought his gun to the Winemillers and asked them to hide it, Jeff said. Starr demanded it back a short while later, and Jeff returned it. But he kept the bullets.
With that gun, Starr ended his77-year life on April 7, 1995. It was Lottie who found his body in his foundry. Winemiller came over at Hedwig's request and later cleaned up the scene.
It was a tragedy, but it was not unforseen.
"Starr did say to me one time, 'Nobody remembers an artist who dies in their sleep,'" Winemiller said.
The changes begin
Lottie, now 55, moved back to the Pine Avenue home right after Starr's death.
The only one of the three Kempf children who remained in the area as an adult,
she felt someone should be there at all times to take care of her elderly mother.
With the arrival of Lottie came changes.
Her first order of business was to undoan agreement Starr had with the University of
Colorado at Colorado Springs in which Hedwig would live in the house until her death
and it would then be turned over to the university. Lottie wanted to run the property
as a museum.
The university could do nothing, said Martin Wood, vice president for university
advancement. Starr never signed the agreement meaning CU-Springs had no
legal basis to contest the family's revised wishes. Lottie and her mother were
"obviously thrilled that we weren't going to make their life difficult or take them
to court," Wood said.
The community remained quiet for a few years. Then neighbors began noticing tour buses pulling up and dropping loads of visitors at the Kempf house. It wasn't just one at a time - Assistant City Attorney Tom Marrese said he has photos of three full-sized buses at the home at once.
Problems ensued. Neighbors' fences were damaged by cars turning around in nearby driveways. Street signs were knocked over. Lines of traffic on Pine Grove sometimes blocked residents from their driveways.
Neighbors called the city, and the city called Lottie, who confirmed she was adver tisingthe "Starr Kempf Sculpture Garden and Gallery" and offering tours. This was a problem, the city informed her, because such business activities were not permitted in her residentially zoned home. City development review manager Paul Tice said she would have to apply for a variance if she wished to continue.
Lottie hired architect Morey Bean to help her obtain a historic designation to allow her to run the business. She proposed as many as five bus tours a day and weekend wedding receptions and seminars on the lawn.
But the city and neighbors opposed the request, concerned about excessive traffic in the neighborhood.
Lottie charged, as she still does, that neighbors knew about the Kempf home when they bought in the area. But residents say Starr never charged people to see the property and never advertised it in the Yellow Pages or on the Internet, as she was to inform swarms of potential customers about the attraction.
"Both my father and I feel Starr would have been disgusted by the idea of tours for money, and he also would have been disgusted by the idea of disrupting so completely his wife's peaceful home," Josh Kempf said.
The city's historic preservation board refused to grant the special designation. Soon thereafter, Lottie withdrew from an planning commission agenda a separate application to zone her property commercially.
At that point, said neighbors and city officials, the goal was not to get rid of the sculptures but simply to avoid the traffic that would be generated from a business there.
Then-city planner Brett Veltman wrote to Lottie the city would support her if she applied again to the planning commission for a variance that would bring the tall sculptures in the yard into zoning confonformance - as long as she did not try to run a business. Several of the sculptures were too tall or too close to the road for residential areas, according to city zoning rules.
But after the rejection by the historic preservation board, Lottie had become frustrated by the process, Bean said recently.
So by early 1999, Lottie had turned away from the system and embraced an idea that would take the neighborhood dispute to a bitter new level.
She turned to a little-known concept called a "land patent."
A land patent is a document certifying when a piece of property originally was deeded from the U.S. government to its first private owner. Although historically interesting, it does not grant the holder any special rights, said Ken Lane, spokesman for the Colorado Attorney General's office.
But according to a group called Team Law, which supports land patents — and says the U.S. government has not held lawful elections since before 1944 — the documents make the land immune to seizure because of mortgage or tax liability. According to Lottie, who bought one of these patents for about $300, it exempts that property from any city or county zoning laws.
Lottie recently steered the focus other legal defense from the land patent and toward what she considers her grandfathered rights to run a business on her property. But for a while, the land patent was the pillar on which her arguments stood.
In May 1999, Lottie told the city it no longer had zoning jurisdiction over her family's property. Soon, at the suggestion of those who sold her the land patent, she began rejecting mail from city officials, marking letters with the phrase, "Refusal for cause without dishonor," and sending them back unopened.
Next she put up signs that warned against trespassing under threat of federal law, which she said could bring a $1 million penalty for anyone who disobeyed. Lily Winemiller said men in black suits began patrolling the property, staring at neighbors when they watered their gardens. Lottie said friends associated with the land patents may have been there but never officially patrolled.
One of the "no trespassing" signs wound up on a fence between the Kempfs' residence and the Reeds' to the east. The Reeds said it was on their property line. After being told by police they could remove it if Lottie didn't, they clipped it down.
This led a land patent advocate and friend of Lottie's to call Craig Reed's office and tell several coworkers Craig would be arrested by federal marshals and subject to a $1 million fine if he did not return it.
"It really made me look suspect," he said.
In Jeff Winemiller's case, Lottie did more than threaten arrest.
Jeff, who had become exasperated with Lottie, said he told her at one point he still had her father's bullets in case she wanted to do to herself what her father had done. Lottie got a temporary restraining order, saying he had threatened her life.
On Aug. 26, 1999, someone at the Kempf residence reported to police Jeff had parked his car on their side of the street, violating the distance restriction on the order. He turned himself in to police and spent the night in jail. The next day, his daughter told her second-grade teacher at Canon Elementary School she was going after school and "getting daddy out of jail."
A magistrate eventually denied a permanent restraining order, but the chasm between Lottie and the neighbors widened.
The day Jeff returned home from jail, Cathy Reed told Hedwig, who was unaware of what happened, she should be ashamed of Lottie. That night, police showed up at Reed's door and served her a complaint from Lottie.
Lottie said the neighbors were harassing her. Neighbors felt they were the victims.
"That's when the neighborhood really got cemented together, when everybody realized there was a threat to our way of life by people who were desperate to be unreasonable," Lily Winemiller said.
Unable to persuade Lottie to stop the tours or advertising other home, city staff asked the City Council what to do. Officials decided to sue.
The battle had grown from a neighborhood issue to a legal matter.
The courts takeover
In September 1999, the city of Colorado Springs asked the district court to quash the tours and marketing. Such activities were causing traffic congestion and parking problems and impairing residents' ability to quietly enjoy their homes, Marrese said.
It was the first time Marrese, who has worked for the city for 13 years, had filed a suit to stop a zoning violation. But with Lottie's insistence city laws did not apply to her, he had no choice, he said.
With the suit came written testimony from neighbors, who complained traffic was choking a formerly peaceful neighborhood. Litter from the throngs of tourists was attracting bears near homes, one wrote.
The suit included letters showing Lottie's refusal to comply or even acknowledge city law.
"None of the city's zoning regulations have any force and effect on our property," she wrote. "We have no intentions for submitting any requests for a nonuse variance. . . nor will we comply with any of the other, alleged zoning requirements mentioned in your letter.
The lawsuit brought with it the first major print and television coverage of the struggle on Pine Grove Avenue, and public sentiment swung heavily toward Lottie.
Onlookers flooded the streets. Kathy King, who lives on nearby Mesa Avenue, once counted 40 cars in a day that turned around in her driveway, she said. One day a car hit her dog in her driveway, crushing its pelvis and thigh bone.
Area residents walking their dogs were subjected to rude remarks and obscene hand gestures by tourists, former Pine Grove resident Kristin Shannon said.
King, a defender of the neighborhood, awoke one morning to find a hate letter on her doorstep. Letters in the media referred to residents as "petty and small-minded."
Many problems were reserved especially for the Winemillers, who about four years earlier had their front window shot out after newspaper reports that problems with neighbors may have been in some way linked to Starr's suicide.
They came home to find people tramping in their garden to take pictures and playing on their children's swings. Cars constantly were clogging their driveway, and several people felt no compunction about urinating in their front yard.
Phones at the police dispatch center rang throughout 1999 with calls from the neighborhood.
Lottie or her house guests called officers nine times, repeatedly claiming harassment. Neighbors complained about illegally parked cars near the sculpture garden. In several cases, complaints proved unfounded, police said.
Finally, in March 2000, District Judge Ed Colt ruled Lottie must stop the tours. Another judge later found her in contempt of court when buses continued to roll up to the property.
The city went out of its way to try to abate the contempt citation, Marrese said. He offered to call bus companies himself to tell them the tours were finished, and he volunteered to call the Internet company to get ads taken down, he said.
The judge ordered Lottie to pay fines, which she has not done because she is appealing the ruling.
But it was litigation of another type that would escalate the enmity between her and the neighbors.
On July II, 2000, Lottie filed in federal court, without aid of an attorney, a $17 million lawsuit against the neighbors, the city and Judge Colt, alleging a cornucopia of conspiracies inflicted upon her.
That was it for the neighbors. Suddenly, the one subject that had been out of discussion — the viability of the sculptures' very existence in the neighborhood — was in play, Cathy Reed said.
'As soon as she did the lawsuit, that was the nail in the coffin," she said. "The whole, entire neighborhood said 'Enough's enough.'"
In the coming months, the process would lead to the recent ruling that stunned many in the city: that some of the birds, swords and lampposts must come down.
Turmoil Tarnishes Kempf's Legacy
-After years of Controversy, neighborhood nears a resolution
-Lawsuits, accusations pit former friends against artist's daughter