Bricklayers piece together historic Emma Store | AspenTimes.com

Bricklayers piece together historic Emma Store

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

EMMA – With an audience of Highway 82 commuters keeping tabs on their progress, a band of bricklayers is patiently piecing together a bit of Pitkin County’s history.

The rescue of the historic Emma Store buildings, located within spitting distance of Highway 82 just west of Basalt, has moved into its masonry phase.

Already, the west wall of the crumbling, century-old buildings has been rebuilt, crafted from original bricks that were rescued from partially collapsed walls, and mortar that was specially made to match the original material.

“The real challenge is trying to make it look like it hasn’t been messed with – trying to make it look as original as possible,” said Rip Kindell, head of the bricklaying crew. They are with Vogelman West, a subcontractor on the restoration project.

A sample of the old mortar was sent to Denver and analyzed in order to come up with a matching mixture. The mortar between the newly re-laid bricks may appear slightly lighter in shade, but a year or so from now, Kindell expects it to blend perfectly.

Kindell’s crew is matching more than the materials. The pattern laid by their predecessors isn’t the perfectly aligned one that would be expected today.

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“These guys were all about getting it up. It’s a challenge,” he said.

The bricks lack a stamp from the manufacturer, but a few are imprinted with the fingerprints of their maker. Kindell suspects they may have been fired in Basalt’s historic kilns, but there’s no way to know for sure. At any rate, matching bricks would be difficult to come by, so even broken ones are being used – inserted into the middle of walls that are three brick layers thick, he said.

“When you see it driving upvalley, the west wall, it’s amazing how good that looks,” said Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman, an Emma-area resident. “I think it looks great.”

The scaffolding has now moved to the east wall, and work is under way on a dividing center wall, as well. What appears as one building is actually two separate, side-by-side structures.

In the rear, cement blocks have been inserted to keep one of the buildings from potential collapse. Repairs to that surface aren’t part of the current project, and Kindell believes the wall will need to be completely dismantled and rebuilt.

“Basically, it needs to come down and go back up,” he said.

When the brickwork is complete, general contractor RA Nelson will put a new roof on the buildings, supported by internal pillars rather than the walls. The old roof collapsed inward, exposing much of the interior to the elements and tearing down parts of the exterior brickwork.

The repairs should be done in September, but what comes next for the old buildings is unclear.

Pitkin County Open Space and Trails purchased the 12.5-acre parcel that contains the old store buildings in 2008. The property also encompasses a small, crumbling structure to the rear called the powder house, and a brick, Victorian house. The buildings date back to 1898.

The open space program put up $2.6 million for the purchase, including $250,000 from the town of Basalt, then spent another $121,000 shoring up the walls and covering broken and missing windows with plywood. A State Historic Fund grant is paying 58 percent of the restoration, currently priced at $295,411. Further unexpected encounters in the brickwork could alter that sum.

The former owner of the property, Owen Minney, had at one time proposed a commercial use for the store buildings; commissioners rejected that plan. He was later prepared to demolish the historic structures to make the parcel easier to sell, then contemplated a restoration plan that would move the old store buildings back from the highway and convert them into condos. No formal application was made for that proposal, and he wound up striking a deal with the county, which purchased the property largely to ensure the buildings would be saved from collapse.

The Emma Caucus, in its master plan, has left the door open to location of the Open Space and Trails offices on the property, though that use would require a rezoning, Newman noted.

Part or all of the property could also be sold to reimburse the Open Space and Trails fund.

“Right now, it’s really just in a preservation mode. It’s not in a renovation mode,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards. “I’d like to finish one step before thinking about the next.”

“The future use – I’m not sure,” Newman agreed. His support for the preservation work, he said, was about saving the unique buildings, once part of a thriving commercial and social hub along the Rio Grande Railroad.

“That’s a part of the history of Pitkin County and the midvalley, and certainly one of the most prominent structures in the state – it’s seen by so many people every day,” he said.

janet@aspentimes.com