Tales from the Tread: The architects of Steamboat: A historical perspective

Arianthe Stettner and Tyler Gibbs
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 846 Oak St., was built in 1913 by master builder Art Gumprecht. It was constructed in just over 90 days with sandstone stone donated from the quarry on Emerald Mountain. The stone from the demolished general store in Mt. Harris nearby was purchased in the 1940s to retrieve matching sandstone for an addition to the original building.(Photo courtesy Tread of Pioneers Museum)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When Steamboat Springs was settled in the late 1870s, there were no local professional architects or builders. Pioneers built simple cabins using native logs, handmade wooden shingles and locally quarried stone. Soon, the town was beginning to grow. The first local sawmill opened in 1883. Photographs from the 1890s show most buildings were constructed using milled wood. Over time, business owners wanted more substantial, fireproof buildings. The first Routt County brick kiln opened in 1886. By the early 1900s, there were at least two brick kilns in operation. The Maxwell-Squire Building (Lyon’s Drug) and the Rehder Building (Steamboat Art Museum) both constructed before railroad service arrived in late 1908, used locally produced brick and stone from the quarry on Emerald Mountain.

Although they were not trained architects, Ernest Campbell, Elmer and Tom Baer and Art Gumprecht were well-respected local builders in the early 20th century whose legacy endures today. Campbell constructed the Albany Hotel (Old Town Pub). The Baer brothers’ work includes the Maxwell-Squire building and the prominent F.M. Light House in Old Town. Art Gumprecht’s buildings include the Stone Chapel of the Episcopal Church and the Routt County National Bank building (White Horse Gallery).

Yet architects were needed for the growing community. Complex public buildings required licensed professional expertise. Noted Denver architects designed several of Steamboat Springs’ important landmarks. The Denver architect of the Brown Palace Hotel, Frank Edbrook, also designed the 1909 Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Depot (Steamboat Creates). Robert Fuller, lead architect of Denver’s City and County Building, designed the Seventh Street School in 1919 and the Routt County Courthouse in 1922.

The Depression and World War II ended the town’s economic and building boom. Steamboat was moribund for nearly 25 years. But changes were in the air.

In the post-war era, Steamboat Springs began to look outward as well as forward. The growing interest in skiing awakened the community to new economic opportunities. Steamboat Springs recognized the natural fit between its skiing heritage and the desires of new winter recreation visitors who would need lodging and other amenities.

The Yampa Valley Electric Association sought to project a modern image with the construction of their headquarters building at 10th and Yampa streets (today’s 910 Yampa mixed-use project). In 1956, YVEA hired Denver-based renowned modernist architect Eugene Sternberg to design it. Sternberg subsequently designed the Methodist Church and the Hillcrest Apartments in Old Town.

In 1966, soon after the Storm Mountain/Mount Werner Ski Area opened, former Boulder architect Lincoln Jones established the first architectural office in Steamboat Springs. In addition to designing some of the first buildings at CMC, “Linc” believed that covering the historic facades of downtown’s original buildings would give town a more contemporary look. Thus began a chapter that saw the use of shake shingles and Mansard roofs, oddly a style that originated in 19th century France, on “updated” historic buildings, as well as on new buildings like the Rabbit Ears Motel and the Old Town Hot Springs. Most of the false fronts on the historic buildings have since been removed to reveal the beauty of the original masonry.

Steamboat Springs was growing again. The economy was able to support another architect. After briefly working with Jones, Denver architect Robert Ralston opened the town’s second architectural office in 1971. He designed the two new Strawberry Park Schools 1979. Both Jones and Ralston mentored many of the next generation of local architects, including Robert McHugh, Bill Rangitsch, Joe Patrick Robbins, Jan Kaminski, Ed Becker and Ron Szerlong, many of whom continue to shape the appearance of our community today.

Arianthe Stettner and Tyler Gibbs are members of the Historic Routt County Board.

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