Tom Ross: Historic Mansfield cabin awaits tenants
December 26, 2009
Steamboat Springs — Don't look now, but you may have just missed the best chance you'll ever have to rent one of Portia Mansfield's historic log cabins in Strawberry Park.
The one-bedroom home is in a bucolic setting amidst hay meadows and views of Buffalo Pass just north of Steamboat Springs city limits. Built in 1950 by one of the most famed figures in the Colorado arts scene, it has a rustic front door handle, a stone patio and a quaint-looking wood-burning stove that supplements the gas heat.
I should mention right off the top that Mansfield's own cabin is right next-door — she didn't actually live in this one. But that doesn't make it any less desirable. It's a bona fide link to Steamboat's claim to being Art Town USA.
The members of the extended Bowes family almost never advertise the cabin for rent because it's always occupied. But it's been available for a month early this winter.
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"The previous renter always has someone else lined up to move in after they leave," Heidi Bowes Nunnikhoven explained Wednesday. "To have it open for a month is pretty unusual. Someone came by last night, and I think we may have it rented."
Oops, there goes your chance to live in a cute 60-year-old cabin with a handmade built-in rustic dining table.
In the midst of a recessionary economy, with stagnant employment in the construction industry, there are many more single-family homes available for rent here than at any time this decade — maybe more homes for rent than there have been in 30 years. So, the little cabin in Strawberry Park has been overlooked for a time.
Mansfield was an explorer, dancer and filmmaker who co-founded Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp with Charlotte Perry in 1914. To put that date in perspective, 1914 also was the year Carl Howelsen organized Steamboat's first Winter Carnival on Woodchuck Hill.
In the early days, the two women were known to commute to town and back in a little buggy pulled by a mule named Tango.
Perry and Mansfield would own and manage the thriving arts camp for 52 years until they gave the camp to Stephens College. That same year, in 1965 (if you noticed, the math doesn't compute; the first year the camp operated in Eldora was actually 1913), Mansfield completed a doctor of education degree in sociological anthropology.
Mansfield's lifetime of teaching and adventures is too rich to do justice to in this space. However, I can't resist pointing out that beginning in her late 60s, she undertook a six-year effort to study and film the traditional dances of the Conchero Indians in Mexico.
That, in part, explains some of the architectural details in her two cabins at the Bowes compound in lower Strawberry Park.
Nunnikhoven's parents, Bill and Marie, came to Steamboat in November 1962 and moved in next door to Mansfield. Heidi, their sixth child, was born a month later.
"Portia was like my grandmother in town," she said. Among her favorite memories are those of Mansfield hosting gatherings of Perry-Mansfield guests and students in the arts around the fire pit in the center of the communal stone patio.
"Serving root beer floats was her big thing," Nunnikhoven recalls. "As kids, we liked the hand-blown glass Mexican spoons she used. They were combined spoons and (drinking) straws."
Throughout the years, Perry-Mansfield attracted many budding dancers and actors that would someday become famous, along with their famous instructors. Nunnikhoven doesn't specifically recall the names of any luminary figures that came by for root beer floats. However, she has not forgotten the day Robert Redford, while visiting his daughter at Perry-Mansfield, stopped his blue four-wheel drive out front and got out to photograph their home.
The cabin the Bowes family has been offering for rent this winter wasn't Mansfield's primary residence — that house already has a tenant. Gerry Verdoner and his girlfriend are the latest in a long line of Steamboat locals who have enjoyed living in the cabin with its authentic Mexican fireplace.
"The moment my girlfriend and I moved in, we discovered four or five different friends of ours who had lived here or had friends who lived here," Verdoner said. "Lots of us have skied on the hill out back."
If the cabin didn't rent during the holiday weekend, it's probably available for $950 a month including utilities and snow removal. Root beer floats are extra. Keep your eyes peeled. This historic opportunity won't soon come again.
Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published Tuesdays and Saturdays in Steamboat Today.
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