Plan to tear down building in Old Town Steamboat splits preservation community

Tom Ross
A group of local preservationists opposes the Tread of Pioneer Museum’s plan to tear down this building and replace it with a facility to better store its collections.
John F. Russell

A group of local preservationists opposes the Tread of Pioneer Museum’s plan to tear down this building and replace it with a facility to better store its collections.
John F. Russell

— Plans to tear down a 1900-era building in Old Town Steamboat and replace it with a modern facility better capable of storing the Tread of Pioneers Museum’s collections have created a schism in the local historic preservation community.

The Steamboat Springs Planning Commission will consider tonight development permits that would allow the museum to build a new collections building and expand display space on Eighth Street adjacent to its other buildings.

The Historic Preservation Commission voted 3-1 on Sept. 14 to recommend that the city approve the plan, including the demolition. The vote went against the recommendation of Historic Preservation Planner Alexis Casale Eiland, who asked that museum officials explore rehabilitating the old house instead of razing it.

Although the house is considered historically relevant, it is not on any historic registers. City planning staff stated in its report on the development plan that demolishing the building and replacing it with a new facility to store museum collections still will have a “net benefit to preserving cultural heritage.”

Prominent local preservationists, including the dissenting Historic Preservation Commission member, Cami Bunn, sent a letter to the museum board objecting to the demolition plans and forwarded a copy to city planning staff. The letter states that the house where the museum currently stores its collections that aren’t on public display is from the earliest days of Steamboat and is eligible for listing on the local historic register.

“For keepers of our history and heritage, preservation of our resources is not a choice. It is an ethic. … If we are not living this ethic and promoting it as a community norm, who is? … If you choose to demolish the collections building, you set the standard for every person who comes after you. “

The letter suggests that other property owners will reason that “if the Tread of Pioneers Museum can tear down a building eligible for listing on a historic register, why can’t I?”

The letter was signed by Towny Anderson, Kathy Cline, Pam Duckworth, David Epstein, Todd Hagenbuch and Arianthe Stettner, in addition to Bunn.

Museum board members and their architect, Eric Smith, told the Historic Preservation Commission in September that they estimated rehabbing the house likely would cost more than building a structure designed to safely store historic objects. They also rejected the possibility of using storage space off-site because of insufficient staff.

The old house has a leaky basement and a steep staircase to the second story, where collections are subjected to extreme heat during the summer. The walls and floors are not stout enough to meet minimum commercial loads, Smith told the Historic Preservation Commission.

The new building, when fixtures, furniture and landscaping are taken into account, will cost about $1 million. The museum board said it already has about $600,000 on hand from sources other than the property tax for historic facilities.

City Planner Seth Lorson said variances to parking, side setback and the ratio of the size of the building to the lot are not problematic.

“We’re pleased that the new building is consistent with the commercial neighborhood design standards,” he said.

The minutes of the Historic Preservation Commission’s September meeting reflect that its members recognized the complexity of the issue.

“I really struggled with this one because I agree with you that we’re here to try to preserve historic structures,” Historic Preservation Commissioner Sally TeStrake said. “Clearly it meets the criteria, but I think the location of the museum in downtown Steamboat Springs as a prominent location is what makes it so important. It does have this campus with these two other structures, which are fairly sound. I think that we have to look at that overall picture.”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email

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