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Thoughts on boomtown architecture
Editor’s note: As I was going through old photos recently, I encountered this one of Chef Bernie’s Restaurant in Farmington and was reminded of a little essay I wrote a decade ago. Here it is, updated.
On a trans-Wyoming reporting trip years ago, as I made my way from a new wind power facility on the plains to a once-booming gas field along the border with Colorado, I pulled off the interstate to check out the little town of Rawlins.
I made my way through the industrial sprawl and rundown chain motels typical of interstate towns and headed toward whatever kind of “downtown” I could find. When I finally arrived at the historic core, I was struck by what was there: A real, solid downtown area, anchored by stone and brick buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s. An old theatre sported dozens of lightbulbs — old school neon — in its doorway, and a grand brick structure had elegant trim and a nice little balcony attached to a second story window. True, many of the best buildings were abandoned, or housed Fast Cash Payday Loan places, but the town had good bones.
Unfortunately, some of those bones had weird growths on them, as I discovered as I turned a corner and stumbled upon what can only be described as a freak of architecture. Something hideous jutted out from the front of one of the more solid of those early 1900s buildings, the Elk’s Lodge — a facelift gone wrong, it seemed.
As ugly as it was, it had significance. In that one building, I was looking at a partial history of Rawlins’ booms: Constructed during the initial buildup of the early 1900s, the lodge’s aging veranda was replaced during a later boom, most likely spurred by the 1970s energy crises, when much of Wyoming was sacrificed on the altar of that ever elusive “energy independence.” When it comes to what Western boom towns look like — architecturally, their layout, etc. — a town’s culture, its government, planners and aesthetic sensibilities often turn out to be less important than when the biggest booms took place (or failed to take place).
Take Durango, Colorado. The downtown “historic” zones and the stately brick and stone buildings popped up during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Durango was a booming supply and smelter town for the hardrock mining industry that had colonized the surrounding mountains. Things quieted down after that for a few decades. Then the calm was broken following World War II, when a great Westward migration coincided with the region’s uranium and oil and gas booms.
Sagebrush-covered mesas were converted into full-blown suburban-style neighborhoods in just a few years’ time. Durango’s footprint doubled in size, the population increased by more than 40 percent, and a 1950s suburban aesthetic was imprinted on most of the western and eastern sides of town. The aesthetic endures in what the Crestview and Riverview neighborhoods (aka Tupperware Flats or Tupperware Heights), where hundreds of homes sprouted between 1953 and 1958.
The mega growth spurt of the fifties hit almost every corner of the West. The DenverUrbanism.com blog did a fascinating series breaking down when all of Denver’s 130,000 homes were built, with a histogram that, in blogger Ken Schroeppel’s words, “beautifully reflects the economic and political history of Denver and the nation and the many wars, booms, and busts that influenced the number of homes built annually in the city.” Far more homes (about 31,000, compared to just 5,000 in the '80s) were built there during the 1950s than during any other decade. Denver’s downtown historic district, meanwhile, was the victim of urban “renewal” efforts in the sixties and seventies, when many older, mixed-use buildings were razed to make way for parking lots and skyscrapers. Only during the last couple decades have many of the resulting vacant lots been filled in again with mixed-use spaces — the modern equivalent of what was destroyed.
Farmington, New Mexico, also exploded with population and infrastructure in the 1950s, adding tens of thousands of residents and hundreds of homes in just a few years. While Durango built up its historic core in the four decades after its 1880 founding, Farmington — largely an agricultural community until then — didn’t have a solid architectural base when the big boom came. The result is that postwar development — there were booms in the seventies, nineties, and early 2000s, as well — has come to dominate the community and today there is a lack of any sort of cohesive architectural sensibility from any era. The historic downtown deteriorated as the business district sprawled into the big box-chain restaurant zone, and for years was littered with empty storefronts, abandoned businesses, and payday loan joints. Farmington didn’t turn its attention to reviving the downtown until the natural gas industry slumped chronically beginning in 2009.
Sometimes, though, it’s the lack of a boom that has the most influence over the streetscapes. Tiny Silverton, Colorado, was founded in the 1870s, solidly established as the hub for a booming mining district in the 1880s, and, fueled by mineral wealth, continued to grow until 1918. When the 1950s boom swept the West, Silverton had a solid, historic, mostly brick and stone business district and government buildings, ripe for the sort of “renovations” that I witnessed in Rawlins. But the uranium and oil and gas boom didn’t make it over the mountains, and Silverton was downright depressed during the 1950s (known by many as the “Black Decade.”) Without any money coming in, no one was motivated to modernize the old buildings — it was historic preservation by poverty. By the time the mines were cranking again and the money flowing, a preservationist ethos had crept into the local scene, and residents set about saving the old buildings rather than bulldozing them. The Town Hall was almost demolished in the 1970s, but a group of citizens and the young San Juan County Historical Society managed to save it.
Many of the West’s boomtowns busted and boomed and busted again. Now there’s a different sort of frenzy — an amenities-driven one, a Zoom Boom if you will. It is already leaving its own architectural fingerprint on the region’s communities: Durango’s Tupperware Heights is getting gentrified and new development is erasing every trace of Denver’s urban renewal. But for now, Chef Bernie’s is still standing tall.