Pitkin County rushes to save pieces of midvalley history
EMMA Pitkin County is nearly $78,000 into the preservation of several 19th-century structures known as the Mather buildings or the old Emma Townsite, and signs point to a long-term project that could cost much more.The aging buildings, crumbling from exposure to wind, snow and changing temperatures, are shaping up to be a big, and immediate, challenge for Pitkin County.The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program bought the buildings from former owner Owen Minney last year, for $2.65 million, and is now trying to figure out how best to save them and use them. Newly seated County Commissioner George Newman, whose district includes Emma, has called the red brick structures, which sit just steps from Highway 82 west of Basalt, about the most important historic buildings in Pitkin County.They have stood for more than a century as the lands around them were transformed from pastoral ranches and farms to subdivisions, commercial centers and paved roads. The Emma buildings are about all that remains from an era that is not only fascinating to modern residents, but is all but gone in terms of visible clues.Officials continue to wrestle with the fate of the complex, given current fiscal constraints and the need for fast action to ward off further deterioration.At a Jan. 29 meeting of historic preservation specialists and government officials, the discussion veered between putting up a temporary roofing arrangement to keep out snow and rain, and the costlier option of erecting a permanent roof structure, said Dale Will, director of OS&T.The argument was that it would be better to bite the bigger bullet now [and build a permanent roof] than to bite a smaller bullet [the temporary arrangement] now but still be faced with biting the bigger bullet later, Will said. What were trying to do now is measure the two bullets, meaning the county is awaiting cost estimates on the two options before making a final call.One possible source of funds is grants from state historical agencies, he said.
From the day the sale went through in July 2008, Will has worried about finding money to stabilize and protect the Emma buildings.Will said OS&T is prohibited from using its funds for historic preservation work, because the taxpayer-funded program is supposed to focus on the purchase and maintenance of open space. But the programs charter does permit money to be spent to maintain its assets, which is what the buildings are, so the Open Space & Trails Board agreed to pay for the stabilization work and signed up Basalt contractor John Black of J.D. Black Construction for the job.The most important issue from the start was the safety of the work site, officials agreed. Bricks, timbers and other material could tumble from the walls at any moment, posing a serious hazard to work crews.This perilous circumstance prompted a special assessment of the site and the safety precautions that would be taken, submitted by the contractor to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Only after that was done could work begin last fall, said Blacks project supervisor, Doug McMillin.After safety issues were addressed, McMillin said, the first order of business was to remove all the snow and roof debris that had been falling into the building on both sides of the central wall.The next task was removal of rotted or disintegrated roof timbers. Tied into the tops of the walls, the timbers were pushing downward on the upper reaches of those walls, causing them to bow inward and begin to collapse.Most of that work, McMillin said, was accomplished over the course of several days with the help of a crane from Myers & Co. of Basalt. Company owner Bob Myers said he gave Black a short-term favorable rate for having a crane, an operator and a rigger on the site, because of the historic-preservation nature of the project and because the location wasnt too bad from a marketing standpoint.In recent weeks, the crew has shored up walls, knocked down loose bricks, and stored as much of the brick and timber as could be used to rebuild the walls or, in the case of the timbers, sold as salvage.Following the mid-January collapse of a significant portion of the back wall, however, work was essentially halted until the entire project could be reassessed on Jan. 29.
The three surviving structures of the Emma complex, built in 1898 by merchant and postmaster Charles Mather, stand on 12.5 acres between the Roaring Fork River and Highway 82 west of Basalt, like sentinels from a dusty past. They served as the commercial and social hub of a thriving midvalley ranching and farming community from the late 1800s until the 1940s.A Victorian-style house remains habitable, if in need of some refurbishing, and county officials have debated whether to rent it out to a caretaker or convert it to office space or some other use.There is ongoing debate about what went on in the other two buildings on the site.One, called the Powder House, sits in a field at the back of the property, overlooking the river, and is believed to have been used to store explosives. Because the roof is solid, the building is in better condition than its neighbor, a larger structure closer to Highway 82 that thousands of passing motorists see every day.Many believe the easternmost portion of the larger building, which was built prior to the western portion, might have housed a store and post office. It may also have held a jail in the basement at least thats what the discovery of a barred window low on the eastern wall has led officials to believe.McMillin says the finished wood floor on the eastern side indicates an area of public use, consistent with a store of some kind.But Almeda Duroux, 84, who grew up in the middle part of the Roaring Fork Valley and went through the fifth through eighth grades at the nearby, equally historic Emma School building, remembers it differently.As far as I know there was never a store in there, said Duroux of the surviving larger building on the highways north side. She said her parents and two siblings lived on the property for two years in the late 1940s, when her uncle owned it and hired her father to manage it. She recalled that the store was in a different building on the property, further to the west of the surviving structures, and that it burned down in the 1940s.She recalled her dad telling her that at one time, when he was a young man, and that was a long time ago, there was a saloon in one part of the building, and that it also was used as a dance hall.The western side of the larger building is rougher, in terms of materials and building techniques, and might have been a storeroom, McMillin suggested.Will and county historic preservation officer Suzannah Reid are compiling stories from people and printed sources to patch together a history of the Emma area, and Reid said this week, It will be interesting to, at some point, try to gather all these stories together and form a comprehensive, coherent narrative about the area.The history of Emma has yet to be written, said Will. But a 1999 survey of historic resources in Pitkin County has provided a beginning of Emmas written history.The three buildings, along with the schoolhouse, are the last remaining buildings of the Emma railroad stop [on the Denver & Rio Grande line], according to a portion of the survey narrative.The location of the rail stop in this section of the mid-valley served the regional ranching and farming community in this area, the survey continues. Emma was the source of goods and services, a place to buy and sell the products of local ranches and farms and the connection to transportation to the outside world. At this time the railroad was the only way in or out of the valley, other than by foot. Along with the store, a livery stable, jail, and a warehouse operated out of the buildings over the years. The decline in mining impacted Emma as well and the post office was closed in 1920. It reopened in 1931 and was operated until 1949.
Contractor Black, who has several other historic preservation jobs under his belt, told The Aspen Times that the buildings are in good shape below the top ranks of bricks.Most of the brick damage happened in the fairly recent past, Black explained, adding that he is certain the buildings can be saved. Everything can be done with careful handling and attention to detail.This was a well-built building, noted McMillin, pointing to the triple-thick brick walls that have remained solid in spite of water intrusion, decades of freeze-thaw cycles and the collapse of the roof joists. The complex was fine until perhaps 15 or 20 years ago, Will said, when leaks caused the roofs to disintegrate and then collapse.Twenty bucks worth of tar paper 50 years ago could have saved us a hundred thousand today, quipped Will.Black, summing up his feelings about the Emma buildings, said emphatically, This is right up there with the Hotel Jerome and the Wheeler Opera House, two of Aspens most historically significant buildings by just about any measure.This is one of the oldest town sites in the valley, this and Satank (now a rural neighborhood near Carbondale), he continued. So this is the start of the midvalley. This must have been the focal point, between Satank and Woody Creek.He also noted the Powder House at the back of the property, and added, The reason there was an Aspen is because we were a mining town. And thats probably where they got the majority of their blasting powder.Will pointed out that an 1881 map of the entire valley shows that Emma was a town site at the time, the same year the Ute Indians were removed from the valley, and seven years before the Midland and Denver & Rio Grande railroads raced to be the first to serve the Aspen firstname.lastname@example.org
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