Hanging on to the Harbor
Some worry hotel's demolition will compromise potential historic district
June 4, 2005
The northwest corner of Seventh Street and Lincoln Avenue holds many memories.
Most of those start with the Harbor Hotel. For decades, people have made first impressions of downtown from the hotel’s curved windows and taken casual strolls along the roomy sidewalks in front of the building.
But memories and pictures may be all that’s left of the hotel if a prospective buyer pursues plans to level the building and develop a mixed-use project in its place.
Bolstering that decision are architects’ and engineers’ reports citing serious structural problems, Realtor Jim Cook said.
“There’s so much functional obsolescence … that you couldn’t really redevelop it into anything that makes economic sense,” he said.
But the thought of downtown without the Harbor is unsettling to residents such as Laureen Schaffer, a historic preservation specialist with the city of Steamboat Springs.
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She argues that the building’s prominent location, “international-style” architecture and history — the original structure was built in 1939, and it was remodeled in the mid-1950s — make it a key to downtown character.
“It’s really one of our best landmark buildings,” she said. “It would be detrimental to downtown and probably will have an adverse affect on other historical properties if it went down.”
Schaffer and others involved in historic preservation are particularly concerned that the Harbor’s demise will threaten attempts to have the area from Seventh to 12th streets designated as a national historic district.
The buyer, who Cook declined to name until the sale closes, has agreed to have a historic structures assessment done on the building. Such an assessment should help clarify renovation possibilities and strengthen requests for grants and tax credits for restoration projects.
However, Cook doesn’t ex-pect the report to reveal any new information or change the buyer’s mind.
“The building is going to come down,” he said. “People are just going to have to understand that.”
The Harbor Hotel was built as a “motor court,” a series of three buildings composed of a restaurant and hotel, with basements and street-level floors. The buildings soon were connected and expanded to two stories.
The Harbor, built not long after the historic Cabin Hotel went up in flames, became Steamboat Springs’ grand hotel, and for a long time was considered the nicest place to stay in the area, said Arianthe Stettner, executive director of Historic Routt County.
Through the years, the Harbor had several owners and underwent a series of renovations, including the addition of a circular drive in the front of the building and brown shingling, which hides most of the architectural details of the international style, Schaffer said.
Popular in Miami and Los Angeles, the international style was a streamlined offshoot of art deco. Characteristics include curved corners and round windows, elements still apparent in the Harbor building, Schaffer said.
Cook, a self-described architecture buff, questions the style’s significance or charm.
“International style was a catch-all in the 1940s to 1950s — I’d call it bastardized art deco,” he said. “(The Harbor) was a poor example at that.”
Style may be subjective, but architecture provides a roadmap into history, telling the stories of its people and roots, Stettner said.
“We have all heard the question of what is Steamboat’s character,” she said. “The answer is eclectic: When you look at Steamboat, it tells a story of the town’s evolution over time.”
The hotel’s modesty, for example, hints at a town not built on fabulous wealth but the hard work of people making it in the West.
“These stories help us know who we are,” Stettner said.
Price of history
The Harbor’s historical significance may be up for debate, but its structural quality presents clear challenges, Cook said.
Among the problems are building levels that don’t match or are leveled by layers of sand.
Worse, several large columns of concrete were removed from the basement. Eng-ineers, after excavating a portion of the foundation, also discovered the building’s design did not account for poor soils and a high water table.
Improvements would be expensive and render the basement useless, Cook said.
“So the decision (to demolish) was a simple one,” he said.
But as Western towns and communities scramble to save vestiges of their past, preservation advocates aren’t so quick to pass off the Harbor’s potential.
“I think the building clearly presents challenges, and they’ve done a pretty detailed analysis of the structural integrity of certain parts of it. … I don’t know that it rules out the possibility that it could be renovated or parts of it renovated,” said Patrick Delaney, president of Historic Routt County.
Delaney and others point to the Routt County National Bank building on Eighth Street and Lincoln Avenue, a red brick Romanesque-style building built by Carl Howelsen in the early 1900s.
In 2001, the owners partnered with the city of Steamboat Springs, Historic Routt County and the Colorado Historical Society to restore the building at a cost of $320,000. More than half of that was recouped in federal and state income tax credits, a city sales tax rebate and a state historical fund grant.
Cook, who is a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and said he has restored “more buildings than there are in Steamboat,” said he is sensitive to preservation concerns.
The bank building was a worthy project because it was built as one structure, unlike the Harbor, composed of a series of structures and additions, he said.
Cook leafed through photos of regal buildings with columns and clean brick facades he restored in Indiana.
“If it had the character or any chance of being something like one of these, we’d do it in a heartbeat,” he said.
But preservation advocates emphasize the Harbor is part of a much bigger piece of history. It is the cornerstone of a downtown district they hope will be listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Demolishing the building likely will hurt the credibility of that application, which requires a certain ratio of contributory and noncontributory buildings, Schaffer said.
“If this building goes, it will … remove part of the development pattern that has occurred and can’t be replaced,” she said.
Far outweighing that argument, however, are the costs of restoring the building, said Cook, adding that engineers have estimated it will cost nearly $3 million just to make the building structurally sound.
“We are not going to restore a structurally-deficient building just to preserve a historic district application,” he said. “That wouldn’t make any sense.”
Maximizing the site
Perhaps the only point on which Cook and preservation supporters agree is the importance of the Harbor Hotel site to downtown.
From Cook’s perspective, it’s crucial that developers maximize the site’s potential with an economically sustainable project.
“The site has an opportunity to become a tremendous mixed-use building of residential, retail, even some quasi-public use, and a real focal point of the city,” he said.
Tracy Barnett, manager of Main Street Steamboat, said that though the group has encouraged the buyer to explore restoration possibilities, members understand it should not be restored at all costs.
“I think we have to just wait and see what happens with the structural assessment and work with the developer if the building does have to come down,” she said.
Ultimately, preservation ad–vocates will have little control over the new owner’s plans.
The city’s historic preservation ordinance allows Schaffer’s office to schedule a public hearing within 28 days of when developers file a demolition permit.
Depending on the outcome of that hearing, which will focus on historical issues, Schaffer can request a cooling-off period of as long as 90 days for discussions between the city and developer.
Although restoration is the ideal outcome, all may not be lost if the building is demolished, said Dennis Humphries, a Denver architect who will conduct the month-long historic building assessment.
“The level of preservation is, to what extent does it physically have to be there,” he said. “Sometimes (restoration) is not an economical and efficient way to create that legacy.”
The Harbor’s memory may be preserved by incorporating facades or elements of the building into the new structure. An educational piece in the new project also may commemorate the site’s former identity, he said.
“Preservation is not necessarily about creating museums,” he said.
— To reach Tamera Manzanares call 871-4204 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org