Tom Ross: Find yourself in John Rolfe Burroughs’ ‘Dog House’
June 8, 2010
Steamboat Springs — Steamboat's most famous dog house needs a new home. More precisely, someone needs to adopt it and carefully dismantle it so it can be conserved.
John Rolfe Burroughs' old chinked log writing shed, dubbed "The Dog House" by the prolific writer, is to historic structures in Routt County what Aldo Leopold's shack on the Wisconsin River is to the international conservation movement — a precious shrine.
Burroughs was a civilian war hero during World War II who helped defend Wake Island in the Pacific theater while working as an engineer for a construction company. He was captured by the Japanese in 1941 and endured four years of hard labor as a prisoner of war until his release in 1945. He received a series of medals for his patriotism.
That was when he returned to Steamboat, where he'd lived since he was a toddler, and took up his writing career. He wrote, "Steamboat in the Rockies," "Where the Old West Stayed Young" (I cherish my copy), and "I Never Look Back." One of my favorites is "Head First in the Pickle Barrel," an account of growing up in Steamboat in the early part of the 20th Century.
Burroughs' books were good enough to have twice earned him the Western Heritage Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Burroughs built three log homes on the knob at the west end of Maple Street that overlooks much of Old Town Steamboat. He occupied the most modest of the three himself.
So why, after all these years, is the writing retreat that is on the Routt County Register of Historic Places in danger of being demolished this month?
A married Steamboat couple, Bert Halberstadt and Susan Handloff, purchased the Burroughs cabin and its writing shack on a triangular-shaped piece of land in October 2009 with the intent of modernizing the interior of the cabin and adding onto it to make it their permanent home.
Halberstadt said he intends to save the squared-log exterior of the cabin which is being remodeled to accommodate a bedroom suite. He's tearing down a log coal shed on the back of the cabin, but salvaging the logs. Then his contractor will build a more modern home addition on top of the site where The Dog House always has stood.
"The Dog House is sitting out in the middle of my living room," Halberstadt said.
City Historic Preservation Advisor Laureen Schaffer said the couple received City Council approval for a setback variance for their addition over the objections of the Historic Preservation Advisory Commission.
However, when Halberstadt and Handloff sought to have The Dog House moved to the front of the home where it would have encroached on the street right-of-way, the Advisory Commission objected again.
This time, the property owners did not appeal to City Council. Halberstadt said he polled his neighbors, who weren't enthusiastic about moving the shed, and also realized moving The Dog House would involve destroying the largest shade tree in the neighborhood. After five months of working his way through the city's historic preservation process, he acknowledged that he's frustrated and unwilling to spend more money on saving The Dog House (even though he's become a collector of Burroughs' books).
"I've already spent $50,000 on this process," he said.
Besides, the contractor's heavy equipment is on site and he's eager to see the construction of his home addition started.
On one hand, the property owners would seem to have the upper hand in this impasse — they already have a demolition permit in hand should they choose to act on it.
But Halberstadt would not have made several attempts to get my attention this month if he wasn't genuinely concerned about saving the historic writing retreat of Steamboat's most celebrated author.
"I'm not looking for a medal," Halberstadt said. "We're just looking to preserve the uniqueness" of The Dog House.
I understand that there are nuances to the interactions between the property owners and the city's representatives that I haven't captured. I know that the members of the Advisory Commission and city staff are principled and sincere. The Dog House is more than a shed worth saving, it's part of a recognized historic district comprising the three homes built by Burroughs.
But at this point, I'm most interested in finding out whether by publicizing the fate of The Dog House, we can find a benefactor for Burroughs' legacy.
Halberstadt's contractor, Jamie Letson, says he'll kick in a few days of labor to help dismantle The Dog House in a way that would allow it to be stored, if necessary, and later re-assembled on another site. That's a start.
I also know that historic preservation advocates Arianthe Stettner and Towny Anderson already are working on this project.
What we need is a some cash, some land and a book lover who wants to write his or her own chapter in Steamboat's history.
If that description fits you, call Halberstadt at 875-1199 and you might find yourself in John Rolfe Burroughs' permanent dog house.