By Chris Casey | University Communications
SOUTH PARK, Colo.—The skies cleared, the birds chirped and the mountain air over Buffalo Peaks Ranch settled into a hushed reverie.
Just minutes earlier, a late-spring squall of sleet, hail and dark clouds roared through the valley. But now, as Jeff Lee spoke to a gathering of 50 people about the concept of a "land library," a powerful calm fell over the 150-year-old homestead. It seemed as if the weathered ranch, which already had a few shelves of books resting on the front porch, was welcoming the words of this man of literature, nature and vision.
"The Rocky Mountain Land Library’s (RMLL) hope has always been to create a place where people can slow down to nature’s rhythms and appreciate their ties to the land," Lee said. "We can all do that just looking around at what we see here."
CU Denver's College of Architecture and Planning and the Center of Preservation Research (CoPR) has been a key player in bringing the land library—a nature study center that combines a large collection of books with residential facilities—to this pristine piece of Colorado history. The RMLL will be a slice of outdoors heaven, offering naturalists, book-lovers and scientists a place to study and stay for a period of days, weeks or possibly longer.
In his words of thanks to the many people and entities involved in the RMLL, Lee extolled the "great good fortune" that he and his wife, Ann Martin (couple at right), enjoyed in working with Kat Vlahos, associate professor and CoPR director, and her students. Their relationship with CU Denver has spanned many years and countless restoration concepts.
"As many of you know, Kat's students have produced inspiring designs for Buffalo Peaks Ranch's future," Lee said. "The common trait the students shared was they honored the past while looking forward to the future. They not only respected the ranch buildings, but they also fell in love with the landscape."
By next summer, the 1,840-acre ranch, just a few miles southeast of Fairplay, will take greater shape as a natural history library and residential study center. Lee and Martin, who met while working at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, have collected more than 30,000 books on nature and history over 25 years. "Those books and several outreach programs have been in place for years now, but the site search (for the land library) took longer," Lee said. "That search finally led to South Park."
In addition to CU Denver, project partners include Park County and land-owner Aurora. Aurora bought the property in 1985 to help replace the loss of South Platte River access when Spinney Mountain Reservoir was built. Vlahos's Senior Studio classes have studied the history of the ranch, working to restore the main house and outbuildings. Her Home on the Range class created program plans for the library. Documentation students used state-of-the-art Leica LiDar 3D scanning technology to document the various ranch structures.
More recently, CoPR produced a historical assessment which details the rehabilitation projects needed by the buildings and their cost. Meanwhile, Abigail Christman, CoPR's survey coordinator, is working on an application to get Buffalo Peaks Ranch on the National Park Service's National Registry of Historic Places. The designation will make the property eligible for grants from the state historical fund.
When it opens, the RMLL will be a one-of-a-kind attraction within an even larger national resource. In 2009 Congress approved a bill designating the South Park National Heritage Area. It's one of 49 areas in the country representing the history of the nation.
Linda Balough, director of Park City Heritage, Tourism and Business Development, and executive director of the South Park National Heritage Area, said the Rocky Mountain Land Library will be an international draw where people can "drink in" the history and scenery of the Rockies. "The fascination with the West is huge—everybody is interested in the history of the West," she said. "The ranch is only an hour and a half from Denver, and it's 100 years from Denver. The draw will be huge, and people will get an opportunity to see and feel the struggle of establishing the civilization of ranching, and what it still is."
During the recent lease-signing luncheon—RMLL will lease the ranch from the city of Aurora—the CU Denver student-produced designs of possible reuses for the ranch's buildings were displayed in the main ranch house. "Kat is too young to have a library named after her, but her work and the students she has inspired will be a part of this old ranch for a very long time," Lee said. "... They are inspirational."
While the involvement of CU Denver's students and professor have been a "dream come true for us," Lee said, the experience students get from working at Buffalo Peaks Ranch and other historic sites around the state typifies the hands-on learning students receive at the university.
"You want to bring some meaning to your teaching by helping students learn through direct experience," Vlahos said. "Buffalo Peaks Ranch is a tangible place that lets students engage beyond the classroom and think about the world beyond CU Denver."
'Let it evolve'
Vlahos is passionate about the relationship between architecture and the land, especially the way ranches have adapted to the landscape over time. "You just have to let it evolve," she said of places like Buffalo Peaks. "It's about developing these relationships with communities, people and students, so that it's sustainable and long term."
The project includes a children's library and an urban-homestead collection to be located in Denver. Vlahos has been helping Lee and Martin scout for potential inner-city sites.
Balough said she doesn't know of a place in the United States that "has the depth and breadth of this project." She noted that Buffalo Peaks Ranch's residents far precede French immigrants Adolphe and Marie Guiraud, the 1863 homesteaders. The scenic valley, bookended by snowcapped Silverheels Peak to the northwest and the South Platte's headwaters to the southeast, is home to arrowheads and other Native American tools dating to more than 12,000 years ago.
"We're not going to have Disney World here," Balough said. "We're going to have a place people can come and spend some time letting this place speak to them. It will probably take three days before it really sinks in, and then you'll see the change in the way people look at the landscape here and the way they look at their studies."
Later this summer, the ranch will host a Plein Air Arts Celebration. Next summer, teams from Historicorps, a volunteer group that works to rehabilitate historic sites nationwide, will be at the ranch refurbishing the buildings, in accordance with the CoPR-produced historical assessment, in the final push to get them ready for books.
"So, books will come, programs will begin," Lee told the festive gathering as puffy clouds interrupted the celestial blue above him. "Good changes for this historic ranch. Buffalo Peaks Ranch will have many more important stories to tell.”
In this exciting new chapter for a treasure of the American West, CU Denver researchers will have left a lasting mark.
Published: July 17, 2014