In the details

Craftsmanship of buildings tells city's story

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Thousands of vehicles and pedestrians bustle down Lincoln Avenue on a summer day and never pause to "hear" the story being told in a city where history is young.

To appreciate the tale the buildings have to tell, stand on the south side of Lincoln in the 800 block and gaze across the street. The building that houses the Cantina, originally the Shelborn Grocery, was built in 1909. Where the Cantina joins the Furlong Building, see how the red bricks from a local brickyard wrap around the front corner of the building in an irregular pattern to meet up with rectangular blocks of sandstone on the west side. The stone was quarried from Emerald Mountain when the building was erected in 1919. It's a story about craftsmen at the turn of the century who relied on indigenous materials to create Steamboat's downtown district.

The Furlong Building had unpretentious beginnings. It originally housed Steamboat Creamery and Produce. Yet, the builders put great effort into the detailed brick work that topped the structure's façade.

"A lot of what we have is turn of the century," Towny Anderson said last week. "The wealthier merchants could afford brick architecture. They reflect a very modest heritage in wealth."

The oldest buildings on the main street aren't yet 150 years old -- they are infants by New England standards and modern by European ones. But in a community where western expansionism passed by more than once, they tell a story of pioneer days.

The story is one of humble beginnings in agriculture and coal mining. Steamboat doesn't have the ornate Victorian buildings seen in precious-metal mining towns such as Breckenridge and Aspen.

Arianthe Stettner, of Historic Routt County, agreed with Anderson.

"The lack of high style makes it a challenge to appreciate the merit or (architectural) vernacular," she said.

Historic restoration expert Ron Straka told people attending a workshop in Steamboat last week that the design characteristics of Steamboat's historic buildings are what set it apart from every other mountain town in the Rocky Mountain West.

"Detail and craftsmanship produce energy," Straka said.

As Denver's deputy director for urban design, Straka had a hand in the revitalization of the LoDo district along Blake Street by Coors Field.

Architect Cyd Pougiales of Thira Incorporated in Steam-boat said the craftsmanship in downtown Steamboat is evident in the way stonemasons at the turn of the century joined native stones into walls. For Pougiales, even small details are worthy of consideration. When she undertakes a restoration of brick or stone walls, she does her best to ensure the mortar used in the new work is consistent with the original mortar.

"We have it analyzed to make sure the aggregate" used in the mortar reflects the historic materials, she said.

One of the best places in town to see historic stone and mortar is in the dining room of the Steamboat Smokehouse. Built in 1895, it housed the J.W. Hugus and Co. General Store in its early years.

Restoration: What it takes

When it comes to restoring downtown buildings, elaborate measures aren't always called for, city official Linda Kakela said. She said that during a walking tour of downtown, Denver architect Dennis Humphries pointed out buildings on the south side of the 700 block of Lincoln that could be improved simply by removing architectural details that were added within the past 25 years.

Kakela said the city is eager to get the word out to property owners in the downtown historic district that restoration doesn't always need to be costly and that there are programs available to make it even more affordable.

Preserving historic buildings is worthwhile, Anderson said. Despite the modest materials that went into them, the stories they tell are no less rich, said Anderson, who built a career preserving historic communities in Vermont.

The ability to see the ski complex at Howelsen Hill from downtown side streets is exceptionally rare, if not singular, in North America. Those views draw the historic ski area and ski jumps into downtown.

And it's not insignificant that Carl Howelsen, who planted the seeds of Steamboat's skiing tradition, also was a bricklayer by trade. He worked on the original Routt County State Bank at 806 Lincoln.

A new resolve

There has been a determined effort in the past decade to recognize and preserve the history embodied in Steamboat's historic downtown. But the work has taken on new energy this summer as plans have come forward to redevelop buildings such as the Harbor Hotel.

In some cases, members of the historic preservation community would like to save older buildings, such as the hotel, from demolition. In other cases, they want to make it feasible for owners of existing buildings to restore some of their property's original character. They want to work with developers to incorporate some of the design characteristics that make Steamboat, Steamboat. Kakela said the city can provide interested property owners with historic preservation design guidelines and standards for Lincoln Avenue. In addition, property owners and developers can get help to pursue historical surveys and historic structure assessments, as well as grants and tax credits that can help to underwrite restoration projects.

Main Street Steamboat Springs and its design committee have taken on a role in encouraging the preservation of key buildings that give the downtown shopping and dining district its sense of place.

Stettner thinks the resurrection of the Routt County State Bank in 2001 was a touchstone for the historic preservation effort in Steamboat.

"That was a defining moment for Main Street," Stettner said. "That's when many people realized, we do have historic character here."

Its handsome brick and native stone, along with an unusual round window on the Eighth Street side of the building, had been hidden for decades beneath a stark, white stucco exterior.

When the stucco was painstakingly removed, one of the best stories on Lincoln Avenue was restored.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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