Breckenridge preserves mining-days charm Estimated 150-year-old Fireside Inn part of Historic District

By Heather Jarvis

Photos by Heather Jarvis unless otherwise noted

hjarvis@summitdaily.com

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on historic preservation. Part one focuses on local history and guidelines for preservation, while part two will discuss state preservation and grant funding. Look for part two in next Friday’s edition of the Summit Daily.

As one of only two hostels in Breckenridge, the Fireside Inn on French Street sees a wave of traveling foreigners each ski season. Guests who come back year after year plan their trips to the Inn to overlap vacations of other patrons they met during a prior season. With nine beds tucked into a large room on the third floor, and two other wings of suites and double- and triple-occupancy rooms, skiers gather each night in the community areas to cook dinner and socialize before heading to the hill the next day.

The Fireside Inn, which was home to some of the earliest settlers in Breckenridge, is now a hostel and bed and breakfast. Owner Niki Harris stands in the third floor, which in the winter houses nine beds for a shared sleeping space, and in the summer is its own suite.

Niki and Andy Harris have owned the bed and breakfast since January 2001, watching hundreds of guests from around the world come and go in both summer and winter. They continually sell out of the 32 beds in the hostel during the winter season, and off seasons have continued to shrink over the last few years. But as the house has seen vast amounts of resort-driven traffic since its initial transformation to an inn in 1975, its history dates all the way back to over a century prior.

FIRESIDE’S BEGINNINGS

This photo provided by Niki Harris is of Martha Waltz in front of the Fireside Inn. Harris said the photo was probably taken in the 1950s. Martha was one of the twin daughters of the Curtin family, thought to be the second owners of the home. Martha married Martin Waltz and spent her entire life in the home. She died in 1960, and the home was boarded up for a time before it was purchased by the Wamsleys.

The original structure’s initial occupants were the Fletchers, one of the first families to settle in Breckenridge in the 1860s. Eli Fletcher, who soon after constructed a home on the corner of Harris and Lincoln streets, became a well-known business owner and ski maker in the town. The second family to move into the Inn is thought to be the Curtins, with two generations living in the home before it was boarded up in 1960 after the death of one of the Curtin daughters. Seven years later, it was purchased by the Wamsleys, who opened the original structure as an antique shop and added on to the rear of the home for living quarters. In 1975, Gail Galbreath purchased the home and converted it into an inn, changing ownership two more times before the Harrises purchased it.

Throughout the years, as the home changed hands, multiple additions were added on prior to 1985, creating a maze of rooms along three floors. The original structure is the smaller space that faces French Street, what now houses Niki and Andy’s living room, an estimated century-and-a-half-year-old relic that is protected by the town’s historic preservation guidelines.

PRESERVING THE TOWN’S HISTORY

The Breckenridge Historic District was established in 1980, and is federally designated on the National Register of Historic Places. The district has the highest concentration of historic buildings in the community, encompassing Main Street up to High Street and French to Jefferson streets. There are more than 200 buildings that contribute to the district — which includes smaller sheds and outhouses — making it one of the largest historic districts in the state of Colorado, according to Larissa O’Neil, executive director of the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance (BHA).

Although there are no buildings from the first year of the town’s establishment in 1859, Breckenridge does still hold several buildings, many modified — such as the Fireside — that originated in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

The goal of the district is to protect its character through the careful preservation of historic structures and the sensitive design of new buildings in their context, according to the town of Breckenridge’s website. So while buildings within the district can be modified and new structures can be added, they have to follow design standards. In 1992, the town adopted the “Handbook of Design Standards for the Historic and Conservation Districts” to establish these standards for all new construction and rehabilitation or restoration of existing structures.

Most of the historic architecture in the town is considered from the Victorian era. This period roughly corresponds to Queen Victoria’s reign, which was from 1837 to 1901. There are different styles of Victorian buildings, including Queen Anne or Italianate. A good example of this traditional Victorian structure is the Warming Hut restaurant on Main Street, with its elaborate features and bric-a-brac. Most of the rest of Breckenridge’s construction from that time period, however, is simpler. “A local architect who’s also on my board calls our architectural style ‘simple Victorian vernacular,’ which basically means there is sort of the Victorian styles but not as ornate as you would see in other places that are much more traditional Victorian,” said Larissa O’Neil, executive director of the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. She attributes the simplicity to trying to make buildings that would get through a harsh winter season, and not having the time or funds to give the buildings the more elaborate look. Although Breckenridge was a wealthy community in the mining days, it wasn’t as wealthy as communities like Leadville, she said. Photos provided by Breckenridge Heritage Alliance
“The town of Breckenridge has very strict historic guidelines,” said Janet Sutterley, a local architect who has worked on more than a dozen historic homes in Breckenridge since 1994. “Everything has to be done within the guidelines, that and the town code. It makes it very challenging.”

One of the main standards is that owners are restricted on the amount of square footage they can have on a given lot, Sutterley said.

The Fireside Inn is actually over density for the lot size because additions were placed onto the structure before the guidelines were in place, as most of them were made prior to 1985.

When it comes to modifications on historic structures, there isn’t a ton of leeway on the standards, Sutterley said. New construction is given a little more because the town doesn’t want confusion between what’s new and what’s old, but the design has to be relatively similar, so new construction doesn’t stand out.

Sutterley lives in Eli Fletcher’s second home on Harris and Lincoln, and did a major restoration to the buildings on the property after purchasing it. Sutterley and her husband, who is a contractor, decided to take on the project because they could do much of the work themselves, cutting back on expenses.

For homeowners, these guidelines can sometimes complicate things or create added expenses. The Harrises have placed new windows in the west end of the Inn, but are not allowed to replace, only rebuild, the ones in the original structure. This would require the windows to be taken out and the Harris’ home to be boarded up while they were repaired, which Niki said is costly.

When a driver plowed through their fence one winter, the Harrises had to get a new fence approved by the town. They also had to get approval before cutting down a tree in the front yard that Niki said was likely to fall on the house.

“Even down to the wood siding, is a certain size, so that has to be specially ordered,” she said.

Sutterley said these guidelines are an important piece to historic preservation.

“It’s definitely a very involved process, but it really does protect our historic district,” Sutterley said.

ENCOURAGING PRESERVATION

Fireside Inn circa 1950s, photo courtesy Niki Harris

The town offers incentives to encourage preservation, such as allowing free basement density — which means anything added underneath the building wouldn’t be counted against the allowed square footage. Full restorations can be costly, so Sutterley said these types of incentives encourage owners to spend their money on restoration projects.

“It’s very expensive to do,” Sutterley said. “If you have a really old historic structure, it’s easier to build a new one and replicate the old one, but that’s not the point. That is not historic restoration, that is replication of something that was there.”

The town is protective of its historic structures, and owners of these homes or businesses are not allowed to tear down and start over, or move the buildings, unless it’s very slightly due to sidewalks or other setbacks, BHA’s O’Neil said. But another incentive does allow additions on the lot that are complementary to the historic structures.

“The addition, if it’s done well, is in keeping with the character of the historic building,” O’Neil said.

There is much more flexibility with the inside of these buildings, and they often will take on a different character. This is called rehabilitation; meaning owners are giving new youth to an old structure. The older designs usually incorporated many small rooms, whereas current homeowners want larger spaces. The guidelines allow for these types of changes to create homes for modern-day living.

At the Fireside Inn, over the years, the current owners have made updates to the inside of the building and the furniture, but have integrated old relics from the building’s original days into the décor. For example, Andy crafted the dining room table out of wood from the old barn, and legs from former sewing sets are used as parts to sinks. While it can sometimes be complicated owning a historic home, Niki recognizes the importance of it and the fact that it even brings in tourist traffic drawn to the charm of the town.

"Living in an historic house in an historic town, gives the town its character,” Niki said. “People love the history.”

Owner of the Fireside Inn Niki Harris stands in her living room, which is part of the original structure of the house built in around the late 1860s or early 1870s.

This relic on the wall was found in the barn, which is now used as storage.

The living room is a community area for guests to socialize. This portion of the Fireside Inn was added on in the 1970s by the Warmleys, who used the original structure as an antique shop, and built this end of the home to live.

A community hot tub was added on after the structure was turned into an inn.

The Harrises added historic items they found on the property to the decor, like this old sewing machine used as the legs of the sink.

A set of small stairs leds to a loft above the Harris' living quarters

Owner Niki Harris on the third-floor balcony of the Fireside Inn

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