Steamboat architect who helped shape Colorado historic preservation is honored
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Jan Kaminski was 16 years old when he was at the bottom of an excavation pit near Chicago, digging up dirt as a manual laborer. He looked up to see a “suit” pointing around and talking with the construction crew.
“I said ‘who’s that?’ and they said ‘that’s the architect,’ and I said ‘I want that job,’” Kaminski said.
Sure enough, the Lake Zurich, Illinois, native went on to become an architect, but instead of making it in the big city of Chicago, Kaminski eventually followed his dream to Steamboat Springs — a most fortunate twist of fate for Routt County, according to local historians.
“Jan Kaminski has played a significant role in the preservation of many local and familiar historic buildings,” said Emily Katzman, executive director of Historic Routt County.
“His introduction to preservation came when he was challenged to restore the Moonhill Schoolhouse near Clark 25 years ago. Since then he’s helped to breathe new life into the Mesa Schoolhouse, Oak Creek Town Hall, Crawford House … and the Arnold Barn to name a few,” Katzman said.
At its recent annual meeting, Historic Routt County awarded Kaminski the 2019 Historic Routt County Preservation Leadership Award. The award capped off Kaminski’s career as he retired from Mountain Architecture Design Group, a firm he established in 1984 with partner Ed Becker.
But even as residents and tourists pass by many of the buildings Kaminski has worked on in Routt County, what few people understand is how he has helped change and develop the way the state of Colorado has evolved its preservation practices.
Kaminski was working with Tyke Pierce Construction on a historic building at Perry Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp in the early 2000s. They were dealing with deteriorating buildings sitting in mud with no foundation and dry rot dotting the project.
• Mesa Schoolhouse, the little red schoolhouse on U.S. Highway 40 south of Steamboat Springs
• Routt National Bank Building, now the Wild Horse Gallery building
• Moonhill Schoolhouse in North Routt
• Rock Creek Stage Stop on Gore Pass south of Toponas
• Clark Schoolhouse
• Oak Creek Town Hall
• Steamboat Springs Depot, now the Depot Art Center on 13th Street
• Maxwell-Squire Building that houses Lyons Drug
• Perry-Mansfield School of Performing Arts and Camp
• Rehder Building, now the Steamboat Art Museum
• Hahns Peak Lookout
• Safeway Store/Nelson Building (Straightline Sports building in downtown Steamboat)
Crossan’s M&A Market in town of Yampa
“We’d have to get in underneath them and either pick them up or put a foundation in in sections underneath the building,” Kaminski said. “Picking up buildings was not an acceptable practice in 2000, and we kept doing it. And all of a sudden it caught on, and it’s now an accepted way to maintain a historical building.”
Historical preservation in Colorado took flight in 1994 with the establishment of the State Historical Fund. Historic Routt County board member and local historian Arianthe Stettner says she and Kaminski found themselves at the birth of Routt County’s effort to preserve history in those days.
“We grew up together with preservation awareness … me as an advocate and him as an architect,” said Stettner.
Known for his prowess with the nuts and bolts of building code, Kaminski soon immersed himself in historical preservation.
“It’s so good to have an architect who knows historic buildings and what’s possible and works with owners to bring it back to its early glory,” Stettner said.
But in the early days it was a whole lot of experimenting, said Kaminski. One of his most well-known projects was the old Routt County National Bank Building at Eighth Street and Lincoln Avenue, which now houses the Wild Horse Gallery. It was built in 1919 but someone thought it was a good idea to “modernize” the outside in the ’70s, covering it with a Mansard roof and stucco siding.
“It was awful,” Stettner said.
Kaminski remembers chipping off stucco to see beautiful architectural details hidden below.
“The historical preferred treatment said ‘use the gentlest means possible’ to preserve the brick underneath,” Kaminski said. “Tom Fox (local builder) got a sand blaster and ground up corn husk and that’s what blew the stucco off and saved the face on the brick below.”
Stettner said after the process, they learned that Carl Howelsen himself, the father of skiing and a stonemason from Norway, had done the original work.
Kaminski said he’s enjoying retirement with more golf and gardening while he waits for his bride of 41 years to retire herself.
“We were high school sweethearts in Lake Zurich. My in-laws moved here in 1968 when I was dating their daughter,” Kaminski said. “When I came out here to ski, I fell in love with the place. I moved out in 1978 and married a month later.”
While Jan waits for his wife, Nancy, to retire, he’s still not quite there himself. He’s taken on yet another historic project — a barn that was built by the son of Steamboat founder James Crawford. The old barn is currently hidden on private property off of The Boulevard.
He is helping descendant Jim Crawford draw up plans to have the old barn moved to 13th and Crawford streets next to his family’s historic stone house.
“Historic preservation is part of our culture, and what makes Steamboat so great is the history,” Kaminski said. “Not only the history of yesterday, but the history we’re creating today.”
Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.
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