As Old Town changes, what’s next?

As Old Town changes, what's next?

6 Fort Collins buildings you probably never knew existed

As Fort Collins grew and changed, so did its buildings. Here are six that were lost to time.

Erin Udell, Fort Collins Coloradoan

For the first time in months, 528 W. Mountain Ave. will soon rumble back to life.

The lot’s former home — a modest Folk Victorian house built in 1885 — was demolished in February, clearing the way for construction to soon begin on its new, modern replacement and marking an end to the historic fight over the future of the Old Town Fort Collins property. 

After being purchased by new owners Jason and Misha Green in 2020 and slated for demolition months later, 528 W. Mountain Ave. was swept up into the first nonconsensual historic designation attempt of its kind in Fort Collins last year.

Community members who nominated the property against the Greens’ wishes cited its Folk Victorian architecture, modest size and one of its longtime owners — early Fort Collins educator Jessie Moore — as reasons the house could be considered historic. 

“What we used to say, up until 528 W. Mountain, is that we haven’t seen (an involuntary historic designation) happen for a residential property,” Fort Collins Historic Preservation Manager Maren Bzdek said, adding that while the city’s code does allow for involuntary designations of single, private homes, such designations were previously unheard of in Fort Collins and are notoriously hard to predict.

While the property was ultimately deemed historically significant and recommended by the Historic Preservation Commission for historic designation, the 136-year-old house had fallen into disrepair leading up to its 2020 sale. 

Tests of its interior also came back positive for methamphetamine, prompting Fort Collins City Council to ultimately vote against its involuntary designation in December, citing health and structural concerns and fears that an involuntary designation could discourage people from buying potentially historic homes in Fort Collins.

Almost all council members also recognized 528 W. Mountain Ave. as a cautionary tale — a sign of what’s at stake if historic preservation isn’t prioritized and potentially historic homes aren’t identified early enough to be landmarked and preserved. 

And, for the preservation-minded citizens who made a first-of-its-kind designation nomination against its owners’ wishes, it represented something else in Old Town — a tipping point.

‘The Wrecking Ball of Progress’

Plodding through his backyard late last month, Fort Collins historian Wayne Sundberg pointed out his tombstone. That’s what his wife, Joan, jokingly calls it, anyway. 

The stone arch is no more than 3 feet long and carved with a delicate, swirl design — “carved in the middle and heavy as hell,” Sundberg said.

It’s been in the couple’s yard for decades now, becoming an immovable fixture flanked by the tulips and grape hyacinth popping out of its surrounding spring soil. 

Almost 140 years ago, it was one of the many stone lintels built above the windows of Abner Loomis’ imposing brick home, which the entrepreneur built at 405 Remington St. around 1885.

In 1980, after nearly 100 years in Fort Collins, the end came for 405 Remington St. when the home was demolished in favor of a larger Safeway store at the corner of Mulberry Street and South College Avenue. It’s now home to a Target. 

While driving by the demolition site, Sundberg said he asked about the lintels’ fate and was offered one by the project’s builder. He piled it into the back of his Plymouth hatchback and drove it ever so carefully to its new home.

The Abner Loomis house, like many other historic homes in Fort Collins, was an example of the properties preservationists couldn’t save. Sundberg would know. Now 83, the retired middle school history teacher lived through much of Fort Collins’ “scrape and build” era of the 1960s and 1970s — or as Sundberg called it in a 1977 historical report, “The Wrecking Ball of Progress.” 

The 1950s, 1960s and 1970s saw tremendous growth in Fort Collins with each decade experiencing 40%, 42% and 33% population increases, respectively. From 1950 to 1980, the city’s population grew from 14,937 residents to 65,092, according to the Fort Collins history archive. 

Because of that growth and other factors like the rise of the automobile, Fort Collins’ footprint began to change to serve an increased need for housing and parking lots as well as a growing push for new and modern buildings. 

Just before Christmas 1961, the stately First National Bank — “long regarded as one of the handsomest of Fort Collins’ business structures,” according to Sundberg — was razed at the southeast corner of Mountain and College avenues.

The bank built a 12-story building for itself elsewhere downtown and its historic former home was replaced by the newly-constructed Columbia Savings & Loan bank, a modern structure with floor to ceiling windows and a drive-thru. 

Other older homes and buildings followed, but the First National Bank building “was the one, I think, that really got the people in town upset enough to say, ‘we need to do something about this,’ ” Sundberg recalled.

In 1966, following growing nationwide calls to protect historic buildings, the National Historic Preservation Act was passed, establishing a federal and state preservation program to be administered by states in partnership with the National Park Service. 

Fort Collins’ Landmark Preservation Commission, now the Historic Preservation Commission, was created two years later,

In its early days, the commission landmarked the city’s original waterworks building in 1971, the historic Avery House in 1972, the Nelson Farm milk house in 1973 and the Linden Hotel in 1974, according to Sundberg’s 1977 report. 

All told, Fort Collins has seen the historic designation of 262 individual properties, including 10 special objects like the Birney Car 21 streetcar and the World War I-era cannon in City Park, according to the city historic preservation office’s historic property database.

A changing Old Town

Whether it be through historic preservation or a general love for its charming older homes, the Old Town area — which the city broadly defines as the combined boundaries of its Old Town Neighborhoods and Downtown Plans — has largely remained, well, old.

Of the area’s current 3,506 single-family residences listed in Larimer County property records data, 217 were built less than 50 years ago — the age threshold for a property to be considered for historic designation.

Within the city’s Old Town boundaries, the median year its single-family homes were built is 1927 and the median square footage is 1,163. Outside of the city’s Old Town boundaries, the median build year for single-family homes in Fort Collins was 1991 and the median square footage was 1,796, according to Larimer County assessor’s office data. 

Home to charming neighborhoods, high walkability and a proximity to Old Town’s historic core, the Old Town area has become a desirable area to live in Fort Collins. Its high concentration of older and smaller homes, compared to the rest of the city, also makes it rife for development and change. 

“There just aren’t a lot of lots in Fort Collins at all, so if you want to be in Fort Collins you’re pretty much remodeling unless you can afford to buy something and do a rebuild. And the only neighborhood you can really do that in is Old Town,” said Jordan Obermann, who founded Fort Collins home design and building firm Forge + Bow Dwellings with his wife, Annie Obermann, six years ago. 

The firm is currently working on three renovations and two “scrape and build” projects in Old Town, including the design and construction of the Greens’ forthcoming 3,300-square-foot modern Tudor-style home at 528 W. Mountain Ave.

“Old Town is the one that has a low floor and a high ceiling,” Jordan explained, noting that while the area’s housing prices are going up, you can still often purchase a small Old Town home for around $450,000. 

“If you get it on a 8,500- to 9,500-square-foot lot, now you can build a 3,000-square-foot home that, with today’s real estate prices, could be worth $2 million,” he said. “… You can put millions of dollars into it and still have positive equity when you’re done. I don’t know another neighborhood that’s like that.”

Since 2017, 35 demolition requests have been processed by the city’s Historic Preservation Services office for single-family properties over 50 years of age, according to Senior Historic Preservation Planner Jim Bertolini. 

By the Coloradoan’s count, 20 of those properties fell within the city’s Old Town boundaries, 18 of which have been demolished and used as sites for newly-built homes.

To be approved for demolition, homes more than 50 years old must go through a public notification process, which includes historic preservation staff presenting any information they might have on file about the property in a staff report to the Historic Preservation Commission, according to Bzdek.

“I appreciate what (the Historic Preservation Commission) does. I feel like they’re taking reasonable approaches, and I get it — I would hate to see the Pike house go down,” Jordan said, referring to a nearly century-old East Pitkin Street house Forge + Bow is currently renovating.

While the Obermanns’ firm has demolished and rebuilt homes in Old Town, Jordan said Forge + Bow’s projects lean more toward large-scale renovations and additions.

“We’re really trying to design towards something that can last — that looks like it could have been there 80 years ago or today,” Jordan said. “I think we’re achieving that with a lot of our projects, but I guess that’s probably in the eye of the beholder.” 

Ever since he started renovating and rebuilding Fort Collins homes, Jordan said his work has drawn mixed reactions ranging from support from some neighbors to ire from others.

“I think some people think they can stop Fort Collins from growing, which means stop Fort Collins from being good,” he said. 

“… If you don’t want people to come here then somehow we as a city have to stop being so awesome,” he added. “And then what are you protecting?”

Historic preservation protections

It’s hard to tell now — after 80-some years — which room used to belong to Virgil Thomas.

Both of the former bedrooms in 308 Cherry St. feel somewhat the same. They’re small with lemon-colored walls offset by thick white trim around their doors and windows.

Back in what must have been the former home’s living room, a kids table sits against a wall, stacked with colorful toys and books. Potted plants are also sprinkled throughout, with green tendrils vining up and across the tidy building’s walls and living room archway. 

For roughly 10 years, until 1940, John and Mamie Thomas rented the simple Cherry Street house. It’s where Virgil, the couple’s only son, lived when he attended Fort Collins High School. He graduated in 1940, likely becoming the first Black student to do so in the school’s history, according to the city’s Historic Preservation Services office. 

For nearly the last decade, the house-turned-office has been home to Kimberly Baker Medina’s immigration law practice. Last year, following some of the city’s research efforts around Black history month, Medina successfully nominated 308 Cherry St. for historic designation, making it the first Fort Collins landmark specifically associated with the city’s Black history.

In 2019, Medina and her husband also designated 129 N. McKinley Ave. — a modest brick house that was built on their street in 1948. Medina said they purchased the home for her in-laws to live in. 

Like 308 Cherry St., the home on North McKinley Avenue is small and simple — a sunny midcentury time capsule that largely remained untouched by its longtime owners, Lois and Chuck Struble. Even its cabinets are original, Medina said, along with its windows, fixtures and a 1952 electric stove in the home’s small basement apartment. 

Chuck Struble died in 1989 and Lois went on to live more than 30 years in their home. She died in 2019 and Medina and her husband purchased her home. It was a no-brainer for them to designate it as a way to honor Lois and her family.

“My kids grew up in that neighborhood. They called Lois ‘Grandma,’ ” Medina said. 

Lois was the neighborhood historian,” she added. “Even up until 97 (years old), Lois could sit on her porch and point at a house and she could tell you the exact history of every family who lived there — what their parents’ names were, what the kids’ names were, what their occupations were.” 

Medina said she also wanted to designate the home as a way to honor and protect McKinley Avenue’s history as a street with small homes for working-class families.

“I grew up in this town and it’s scary to me to see the amount of scrape-off that’s going on,” Medina said. “We live on that street. Our kids grew up on that street, and to the extent that we can, (we want to) preserve the character of that street through landmarking.”

Last year, Medina followed the fight to designate 528 W. Mountain Ave. She attended the commission and council meetings and got up during public meetings to say her piece. 

When City Council struck down the designation of the home, “it made me think about what are priorities for the city,” she said. “Affordable housing should be a priority, preserving historic neighborhoods and communities of color should be a priority. Personally, I don’t think that 6,000-square-foot, single family-homes in historic neighborhoods should be a priority for our city.”

Currently, the Struble house is one of two historically designated homes on North McKinley Avenue. When asked if the houses on her street have been part of any “scrape and build” projects, Medina rapped on her wooden desk and gave a succinct “no.”

“But it doesn’t mean they couldn’t, right?” she said. 

Making historic preservation a priority

Once designated as historic, properties are protected from exterior alterations, demolition and new construction that doesn’t fit under a set of national historic property standards. 

That’s why Bob Bailey — who bought a West Mountain Avenue Craftsman home around the corner from the Medinas’ street in 2001 — decided to go through the designation process in the first place, his daughter Laura Bailey said.

Bob got to work meticulously restoring the tidy home and designating it in 2014. His former next-door neighbor Anthony McNeill even remembers Bob searching high and low for an old glass-covered wire for a historically accurate doorbell.

“He was much more staunch about it than I was,” said McNeill, who also designated his home at 1300 W. Mountain Ave. before selling it and moving in 2017. 

After Bob’s 2019 death, Laura sold his beloved home to new owners last spring. Since its purchase, the new owners proposed a 887-square-foot addition to the back of the 1,097-square-foot home as well as construction of a new garage on the lot’s northeast corner. 

Given the home’s landmark status, the proposed project made its way to the Historic Preservation Commission early this year. And, citing its significant size compared to the compact Craftsman design of the home, the Historic Preservation Commission struck down the proposed rear addition in February.

“I’m happy the city chose to stand by its commitments to my father and our community and all the landmark home owners,” Laura said.

So how many more potential historic properties might be eligible for such protections in Fort Collins? 

Answering that question would take some time and money, according to Bzdek. 

The city’s best bet for identifying potentially historic properties before they are demolished, severely altered or reach the point of a nonconsensual historic designation attempt, like 528 W. Mountain Ave. did, is through sustained proactive survey work.

At the intensive level, those surveys amount to mini research projects on selected properties, according to Bzdek.

Once created, an intensive survey file needs to be updated within every five years to make sure the property hasn’t undergone any alterations that would change its designation eligibility, Bzdek said.

The idea of increased historic surveys was brought up by Mayor Jeni Arndt at December’s City Council hearing about 528 W. Mountain Avenue’s fate. It’s also supported by Jordan Obermann, who — as a builder — said he’d love to have a clearer picture of older homes’ histories before starting a renovation project.

“Why do we have to wait until clients purchase something, invest a boatload of money in plans and have their whole lives’ plans and have it completely diverted?” Obermann said. “It’s Russian roulette, right?” 

The Historic Preservation Services office funds the majority of its survey work through grants, but that process can be expensive and take years.

“You just burn through a lot of time and money,” Bzdek said of the grant-funded survey process. “(In a community like ours) in 2022 — with things changing so rapidly around us — it feels too slow.”

The city’s most recent grant-funded survey of the 15-block Loomis Addition — one of Fort Collins oldest neighborhoods — had a price tag of $70,000, the cost of which was split evenly between a State Historical Fund grant and the city. There are currently 23 individual Fort Collins landmarks in the Loomis Addition, including five that came forward for landmarking since the sweeping survey project was done in 2016 and 2017, according to Bzdek.

Aside from larger scale grant-funded surveys, applicants can separately order intensive surveys of their property for $850. That survey work is done by contractors, who have a range of other projects to tackle and sometimes take anywhere from two to six weeks to complete a survey, Bzdek said.

And, like in the case of 528 W. Mountain Ave., if a group of community members nominate a property against its owners’ wishes and initiate an involuntary designation attempt, the city’s historic preservation is required to gather survey data on the property if there isn’t any already on file. 

While the resulting surveys are useful, the patchwork approach to them is not ideal. The most efficient way to build a database of information about potentially historic Fort Collins properties would be through a dedicated historic survey staff member, Bzdek said.

Over time, that employee would amass a knowledge of Fort Collins properties, making them an efficient survey expert and a go-to resource for the city, according to Bzdek.

After getting approval for it in the 2019-20 budget, Bzdek said the Historic Preservation Services office added a two-year contractual staff position for someone whose sole responsibility was conducting surveys and managing grant-funded projects. 

While the position was “a huge watershed for us,” it was short-lived. The survey position didn’t survive the city’s widespread pandemic-related budget cuts, Bzdek said. 

At the time of this article’s publication, the Historic Preservation Services office had recently submitted a budget offer to re-establish the historic survey staff position lost because of the pandemic, Bzdek confirmed.

The budget offer, if fully funded, would cover the salary and benefits for a new full-time position for $76,085 in 2023 and $86,004 in 2024, she said.

If its funding is not approved, the Historic Preservation Services office will continue to do proactive survey work through grant-funded projects and use whatever staff time it can spare for additional survey work, Bzdek said in an email to the Coloradoan.

In Bzdek’s perfect world, one day Fort Collins homeowners will flock to the Historic Preservation Services office’s website. They’ll go through the process of nominating their home for historic designation, and they’ll get denied. 

That’s right. The Historic Preservation Commission would say no.

“We would then know that there’s enough understanding and support for the idea of preservation and its financial benefits that people are clamoring for it,” Bzdek said.

But for now, “we have the opposite problem,” she said. “We have a lot of qualified properties and for one reason or another they don’t all end up being protected properties and landmark properties.” 

Bzdek later clarified in an email to the Coloradoan that it’s often due to the absence of comprehensive info about historic properties that Fort Collins loses them, “because people don’t have enough time to consider alternatives.”

“If we were all fully informed, we could imagine a scenario where people would know the history of their property and be enthusiastic about it, even if it didn’t qualify as a landmark,” she wrote.

Is your home historic? 

If you live in a home that’s more than 50 years old, there’s a chance. Peruse the city’s list of existing local landmarks and recently-surveyed properties to see if yours is listed. If it’s not, and you’re interested in learning more about whether your property is eligible for historic designation, you can contact the city’s historic preservation staff by emailing [email protected] or calling 970-224-6074. 

You can also use the city’s historic preservation research guide to do your own research before submitting your findings to Historic Preservation Services.

Erin Udell reports on news, culture, history and more for the Coloradoan. Contact her at [email protected] The only way she can keep doing what she does is with your support. Thank you for subscribing.