Saving Emma: the work has only just begun | AspenTimes.com
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Saving Emma: the work has only just begun

John ColsonAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

EMMA The bad news is that the well-known complex of old buildings, perched right alongside Highway 82 in the historic townsite of Emma, is not in the best shape.Snugged up to a concrete barrier about halfway between the Basalt Avenue stoplight and the upvalley Willits Lane light, the roofs on both sides of the 110-year old main mercantile building have caved in, one far worse than the other, although the original brick wall separating the two halves of the building is in remarkably good condition.Support beams have been driven downward through the floorboards at the center of the eastern portion of the main building, under pressure from the roof and the annual accumulations of snow.The outer walls at both ends, however, are leaning inward, succumbing to the stresses of the collapsing roof beams in a gradual process that, without serious and immediate bracing, could soon bring the east and west walls tumbling down.In the back, the old armory structure where the creator of the complex, Charles Mather, once stored gunpowder, dynamite and other explosives to keep them separate from his main mercantile store also is in danger of sudden, catastrophic collapse. The roof, in fact, is propped up on one side only by a narrow column of shaky brickwork, which could disintegrate at any moment.There is, however, good news related to the property, starting with the fact that the old Victorian house next to the commercial buildings is in much better shape, having been lovingly cared for by the former owner.Owen Minney, from Newport Beach, Calif., recently sold the entire property, on 12.5 acres with a half-mile of Roaring Fork River frontage, for a price of $2.65 million to Pitkin County.But for the past decade or so he has lived in the house where Mather once lived, and is proud of the fact that he has accomplished some limited renovations that have left the house in close to its historic state.

The buildings, known collectively as the Emma Store complex, all date from 1898, a decade after the first post office was established, along with a small railroad station and section house alongside the Aspen branch of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad line that ran from Glenwood Springs to Aspen.The area is reportedly named for Mrs. Emma Robinson Shehi, who cooked for the railroad crews who stopped there, according to information from a 1999 Pitkin County Reconnaissance Survey conducted by Front Range Research Associates.The first postmaster was Robert Morrison, who also ran a small store in a location west of the surviving buildings. Morrisons businesses were taken over by Charles H. Mather at some point.Mathers operation flourished, and in 1898 he built the brick commercial buildings, the storehouse and an associated brick dwelling that remain, stated a memo on the property from Suzannah Reid, the countys historic preservation officer. Mather continued to operate the businesses until he sold them to Aspen businessman Harry Pinger in 1901…The location of the rail stop in this section … served the regional ranching and farming community, said the memo, quoting from the survey. 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 …Along with the store, a livery stable, jail and a warehouse operated out of the buildings over the years, Reids memo continues. The decline in mining [which devastated Aspens economy] impacted Emma as well, and the post office was closed in 1920. It reopened in 1931 and was operated until 1949.Minney said the buildings, including the house, might have cost as much as $50,000 to build, a fairly hefty sum at the time. Reid wrote that the property conveys the economic success of its owner through the style and construction of the buildings and his commitment to the prosperity and longevity of the Emma community.Reids report also noted that no other examples of Victorian Era commercial buildings exist in this county, although examples can be found in the municipalities of Aspen, Basalt and Carbondale.Dale Will, director of the countys Open Space and Trails program that has taken charge of the property, lamented that there is not a lot of written history about Emma, while the nearby town of Basalt has been well-documented.I think the rivalry between Basalt and Emma finally tilted toward Basalt, he remarked. You know, history is written by the victors.

According to Will, the roofs started leaking in the late 1970s and began to collapse several years ago, with the central sections splintering downward.At the tops of the walls in the eastern space, for example, the small notches in the brick where the roof beams once fitted are either gone or the beams are still seated but pulling against the wall. At the lower reaches of the walls, the brickwork remains intact along with sports graffiti from a century ago, a record of lives gone by.The original wood floors of both buildings, from a century ago, are in good shape where they can be seen at the front of the two adjoined spaces. But in the upvalley side of the main building, the floor is covered with debris from the roof collapse, along with various bits of gear and furniture left behind after a half-century of occupation.In the downvalley side of the main building, the flooring material is trashed where the supporting beams have rammed through the floorboards over time.Will said the county hopes to get crews into the buildings as quickly as possible to begin the process of shoring up the structures and removing debris.Were trying to pull together a group of people who have expertise in various aspects of all this to help us figure out what to do, he said. He hopes to hold the first formal meeting of the group in the next week or so, to perform what he termed a kind of a triage assessment of the structures to determine if they can be saved and, if so, how.Contrary to popular opinion, Will maintains that the deterioration of the buildings is not necessarily being caused by the proximity to the highway.A lot of people think that vibrations from the highway are knocking these buildings down, he said, but Im not so sure. He feels the more serious cause is the roof collapse and the consequent folding of the building in on itself.That, he said, will be the first order of business to stabilize the buildings, repair the roof and floors and begin the work of cosmetic restoration.There also are proposals to move the store buildings back from their current location, only feet from the downvalley lanes of Highway 82. Although there is nothing specific planned yet, Will said it might be done through the use of railroad tracks to shift the buildings with as little disturbance as possible.Will said Suzannah Reid will take the lead in determining the fate of the old commercial structures and the house.Among the possibilities, he said, is to move the Open Space and Trails offices into the Victorian and, once the commercial structures are rehabilitated, using them to store OST equipment and supplies.Other possibilities include the establishment of a historic park, making use of some of the old farming and ranching equipment that dots the grounds to educate the public about Emmas agricultural heritage.jcolson@aspentimes.com


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