Amid Development, Steamboat Springs Grapples With Preserving Its History
Steamboat Springs prides itself not only on its world-renowned ski slopes, but for its agricultural and ranching roots. But it hasn't always been able to hold on to that history.
At the Tread of the Pioneers Museum, curator Katie Adams walked through the latest exhibit.
"Steamboat Springs was founded in 1875 by the Crawford family and had really modest beginnings," Adams said.
In "This Place Matters" there are two walls of photos. One highlights locations around town still in existence. The other pays tribute to those that are not.
"We weren't the product of a boom town of mining or minerals or things like that that maybe some of our other Colorado towns are well known for," Adams said. "We were just kind of people getting together to make a community using whatever they could. In the construction preservation world, we call it 'cowboy construction.'"
The houses are smaller and modest. Many feature river rock cobble foundations. Some were built by Karl Hovelsen, a ski pioneer who brought ski jumping to Steamboat Springs. His signature can still be found in the mortar of the foundations.
"This kind of 'do what you had to do to make a home' (attitude) is how Steamboat Springs was founded and it's really amazing and unique," she said. "And those are some of the sort of unassuming stories that we like to tell."
But this exhibit isn't just about expressing pride in the community. It's part of a larger effort to save historical sites.
"My favorite quote is: in the end, our society will be defined not by what we create but by what we refuse to destroy," said museum executive director Candice Bannister. She's also the president of Partners in Preservation, a group tasked with saving locations in Routt County.
There are about a dozen locations on the local historic registry and no neighborhoods. Bannister said it's harder to know what homeowners are planning to do, but that those homes are just as important to the overall authenticity of Steamboat.
"We all have a play a part to play," she said. "We can't all value those things, but then do nothing individually within our own property."
But residents here are known for being big on small government and property rights. That's why the group is starting its campaign with education rather than regulation, Bannister said. A big part of it involves educating homeowners and realtors in the area on the benefits to preservation, such as tax credits.
"When we think about progress and we think about fitting our needs, sometimes people viewing buildings as disposable," she said. "We'd like to really change that around and be looking at the architect and the builders and the time and the energy that goes into creating what in some cases are masterpieces."
Successes and failures
There are successes, like the Arnold Barn.
Last year, the old dairy barn — which had been languishing in a man-made wetland at the base of the ski resort — took a slow journey up Mount Werner Road to its new location 1,000 feet away. The trip drew onlookers and media from all around, documenting the unique move. One of them was longtime local preservationist Arianthé Stettner.
"There was a whole cadre of people walking alongside the barn," Stettner said. "Moms and their kids in strollers. People with their dogs and old people with their walkers. It was quite a scene."
The project started in 2006, she said. But when the economy tanked, the barn — and the effort to save it — was forgotten. Ten years later, when the economy picked up, so did interest in the barn.
"But what interest was it?" Stettner said. "Not necessarily good. 'This old barn is derelict. Let's get it out of here. Let's demolish it.'"
Two years of complicated negotiations followed between the grassroots group Save Arnold Barn, the the ski resort that owned the property, and the nearby Grand Hotel where the barn was eventually relocated.
There have also been some failures, like the construction site on Pine Grove Road. It's become a sore spot for many.
The 2.2-acre property was once the site of a rustic cabin built in 1941 and a large grove of pine trees protected by a tall wooden fence and signs that read "Private property. Wildlife preserve. Keep out." Now it will be home to a 115-room hotel.
When asked how she feels standing outside the site's chain-link fence, watching the construction crew work, Stettner didn't mince words.
"Sick to my stomach," she said. "I'm very sad."
Attitudes around preservation aren't always on the same page.
F.M. Light & Sons has been selling Western wear in the same location for nearly 115 years. Ty Lockhart is the fourth of five generations to run the store. He says Steamboat is like the proverbial frog in a pot of boiling water.
"Somebody builds something there and then they build something there and then pretty soon you look around and the water's pretty hot," Lockhart said. "Over the past 40 years, it's just kind of grown like that. The last 10 years or so, it seems like the temperature has been turned up quite a bit."
The store, however, is a nod to the past. Along with tons of old photos on the walls, it still has the original glass display cases and the first sign, a giant stained glass piece that was delivered by stagecoach. Copies of books and DVDs about F.M. Light & Sons history can even be found for sale near the registers.
But while he appreciates history, Lockhart is also a strong proponent of property rights.
"Just because it's old doesn't mean it's pretty, or it's 'worth saving,'" he said. "I mean, you know, not every building is pretty."
For Lockhart, it all comes down to perspective. He remembers growing up next to the Arnold Barn, even playing in it as a kid.
"And it looks a lot different now than it did back then," he said. "So one could argue that, in my opinion, that's not truly historic, that they've repaired it and fixed it up and it's a lot nicer than it was."
A middle ground
But sometimes historic preservation and progress meet in the middle.
For almost 60 years, the building at 910 Yampa Street was home to the Yampa Valley Electric Association. Now, it's condos, an outdoor gear store and the city's daily newspaper. It's also the site of Mountain Tap Brewery.
"We wanted a community-centric gathering place, preferably with big roll-up doors," said owner Rich Tucciarone. "We love Yampa Street. And the opportunity to work with the developers here to re-purpose an existing building was also very attractive to us."
Tucciarone incorporated the former maintenance bay's roll-up doors into a patio feature, and reclaimed cable spools from the electric association were used to create the bartop.
"It's not maybe the most economical way, but it's nice to preserve some of Steamboat's history," he said. "And it's pretty fun when the Yampa Valley Electric Association retirees or employees come in and reminisce about their days working here on the trucks and the maintenance bays and now they can drink beer — and not get in trouble."
Avoiding what he calls "cookie-cutter" construction was important for Tucciarone, but it wasn't without some challenges. Like the vents for the brewery's kettles and wood-fired pizza stove, which had to take a complicated path especially with the condos on the second floor.
But while Tucciarone went into this project knowing he wanted to preserve the past, the building's developer, Steve Shelesky, did not. Many around town have taken to calling him an "accidental preservationist," a name he acknowledged fits.
"When I underwrote the opportunity, I was not pursuing historic tax credits and I didn't necessarily set out to do it to preserve history," Shelesky said.
Briefly, Shelesky even considered demolishing the building, but he said there was something there. The ready made plaza area and the bay doors were perfect for open patios.
"We embraced the bones of the building," he said.
Shelesky also embraced its history. He learned that the building was designed by Denver architect Eugene Sternberg, who was revered for his mid-century modernist style and distinctive butterfly roofs.
Sternberg was also known for having a "soft spot" for rural electric co-ops, Shelesky said. He respected their pioneering spirit — so much so, that in Steamboat's case, he donated much of his design services.
"Today, it very well could be that he is the most famous architect to touch the town of Steamboat Springs," he said. "That's pretty cool."
The project was a significant shift for Shelesky, who had spent his career strictly in "ground-up" development and moved to Steamboat to retire.
"Personally for me after years of mercenary development, I decided in my sort of encore career that the projects I did had to be fun," he said. "And I had to be involved as a principal in a meaningful way and they had to be good for the community or I wouldn't do them."
Shelesky said more work needs to be done — especially along the main strip that runs downtown and defines Steamboat. And he thinks there needs to be some kind of oversight to keep historic buildings, historic.
"My fellow developers would obviously shoot me for this, but I really think there actually needs to be some control over the historic district," he said. "And it doesn't have to be a draconian kind of oversight, but there should be some oversight because right now you have these historic storefronts that can never be duplicated."
That's exactly the reaction Tyler Gibbs is hoping for. The former Steamboat planning director is an active historic preservationist.
"There's a real opportunity for better education in the community and a better discussion about what preservation means and the value that it brings," Gibbs said.
It isn't just about heritage or sentiment, he said. Sometimes it's about cold, hard cash.
"Particularly when you're in a community like this where tourism, heritage tourism, is so important," Gibbs said. "And so many of our visitors say, 'I love coming there because it's a real town.' That historic character is a part of what they're referring to and a part of what they want to experience. And that adds tremendous value."
And it doesn't just bring tourist dollars. Residential property values benefit as well. A 2017 study in Manitou Springs showed that over a period of 26 years, homes within the historic district increased in value by 119%. Homes just outside the district increased in value by 29%.
"So we need to do a good job of educating them on the value that they have in the building that they've got and how to maintain that and how to invest in that," Gibbs said. "And the fact that it doesn't just raise their value, it raises the values of the entire district, the entire community."
Colorado is growing, and that’s leading to all kinds of tension across our state. This week, as part of our ongoing “Growing Pains” series, we’re exploring how Steamboat Springs is meeting the challenge.