Discovering Steamboat: Historic depot repurposed into arts hub

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— After months of passing by the old Steamboat Springs train depot during runs along the Yampa River Core Trail, I finally scheduled a personal tour of the building this past week. That visit has inspired me to plan a series of columns devoted to the historic building itself, the efforts to save it back in the 1970s and ’80s and the group that breathed new life into the beautiful old structure.

Exploring Steamboat

Lisa Schlichtman's "Exploring Steamboat" column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Schlichtman here.

So I begin this week’s column with a little history of my own. My late grandfather Arthur L. Dougan, a Harvard-trained lawyer who practiced law in Cleveland, was a train buff, and he passed on his love for railroads and their history to me and my cousins. He loved to travel by train, and if we happened to be visiting, he took us along for the ride, entertaining us with stories of the railroad days as we chugged along the tracks.

In particular, I found myself drawn to the historic passenger depots that once served as visitors hubs all across the country. Like my grandfather, I feared the old depots would become extinct and their historical significance lost. And while living in Missouri, I watched in frustration as many communities across the state allowed their depots to fall into disrepair and eventually crumble to the ground.

Here in Steamboat, the story is different. The depot is on the National Register of Historic Places and now serves as home base for the Steamboat Springs Arts Council. According to the guidebook, “Steam Rails to Ski Trails: An Architectural Walking Tour of Downtown Steamboat Springs,” local residents raised $15,000 to construct the depot as part of an agreement with the Denver, Northwestern and Pacific Railroad that brought train service to Steamboat in the early 1900s. Denver architect Frank J. Edbrooke, who designed the state Capitol building, drew up plans for the depot, and the brick and stone used to construct the building was mined from the Emerald Mountain Quarry.

Passenger service into Steamboat Springs ended in about 1968, and two years later, the depot was abandoned and deeded to the city of Steamboat Springs. The story of how the building was restored and repurposed is the subject of next week’s column, but suffice it to say, the community of Steamboat came together to save the historic building.

The circa-1909 building, renamed the Depot Art Center, now houses a visual arts gallery, an artist member gallery, offices for the Arts Council and a multiuse area known as “The Baggage Room.” This large space is outfitted with theatre lights and dance mirrors and is heavily utilized by the many affiliates that fall under the local Arts Council umbrella.

When I first walked up to the Depot Art Center, I was greeted by large, whimsical sculptures of two horses and a scorpion crafted from rebar and pieces of discarded metal. And as I entered through the building’s front doors, a 4-foot-by-4-foot mosaic butterfly created by summer arts camp students welcomed me to the main artists gallery where the latest show, “Bloom,” was on display. The multi-artist, multi-medium juried art exhibition features floral and botanic artwork inspired by the Yampa River Botanic Park in Steamboat and includes works by Gregory Block and R.C. Dieckhoff.

Lena Walker, facilities and office coordinator for the Arts Council who guided my depot tour, said exhibits at the depot change monthly with special openings for new shows held on the first Friday of each month in conjunction with First Friday Artwalk.

Walker’s description of the galleries as “bright, lovely, warm and inviting” was right on target, and I found it simply wonderful that such a gorgeous old building now served as the perfect backdrop for artistic expression in all its forms.

My tour concluded with a trip upstairs to meet Lawrence Block, the newly named executive director of the Arts Council. We sat across from one another and talked for quite a while, but it only took minutes for me to discover that he is passionate about his new position and the status of the arts in Steamboat Springs. His vision for the Arts Council and the historic depot building are inspiring and will be the subject of one of my upcoming columns, but this week, I want to close with his explanation of what it means to him to walk through the doors of the historic depot each day.

“I walk in the front door, into the gallery, and immediately I feel a little give — the softness in the wooden floors — I hear some creaks and it transports you to another time. You can feel the footsteps of thousands of people who have been through this building. It’s there. And when a train comes by, I can’t help but think of all the trains that have come by here and the people who got off. (The history of this building) sort of creates a deeper sense of obligation. It’s some intangible thing.”

The new executive director’s musings on the depot mirrored my own thoughts as I walked through the building’s doors for the first time. I found myself experiencing one of those moments of visceral connection to the past and the present, and I knew I was in a special place.

I invite readers to help me discover more about Steamboat and Routt County by suggesting places you’d like me to visit, people you want me to meet or activities you’d like me to try. You can reach me at lschlichtman@SteamboatToday.com or 970-871-4221.

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