February 3, 2014

Colorado's 1911 Silverton School Hits Preservation High

  • By: David Weible
Silverton’s 1911 school serves grades K-12 and sits at 9,305 feet above sea level. Credit: Scott Smith
Silverton’s 1911 school serves grades K-12 and sits at 9,305 feet above sea level.

Everything is a little tougher in Silverton, Colo. Take, for example, breathing. At more than 9,300 feet, the town of some-600 sits in pretty thin air.

Then there’s the issue of getting there. Accessible only by high-mountain pass or the historic Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, making the trek is nothing to sneeze at.

Needless to say, residents of this former mining town and National Register Historic District in southwestern Colorado are a hearty bunch, so when it came time to preserve their historic 1911 schoolhouse, there were no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

The space, which hosts roughly 60 K-12 students, is the longstanding center of community life in Silverton, and serves as everything from the site of the annual quilt show to the staging area for the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run.

“The Silverton School is the heart of this remote mountain town,” says Elizabeth Hallas of Anderson Hallas Architects, which oversaw and executed the restoration project. “All generations of the community utilize and enliven the school’s buildings and campus year round.”

The original woodwork on the school’s staircases and cabinetry was refurbished by local workers. Credit: Scott Smith
The original woodwork on the school’s staircases and cabinetry was refurbished by local workers.

The impetus for the restoration was pretty straightforward. In late 2008, the school’s 98-year-old coal-fired boiler gave out. Students and teachers spent much of the next two Colorado winters teaching and learning in the cold. But community members didn’t want to fix just the boiler; they decided to restore the whole building.

The town took an "anything goes" approach to funding the project. They secured 80 percent of the $9.1 million price tag from the state’s Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) program. Another 10 percent came from a levy passed by the town’s residents, and the remainder was supplemented by the school’s annual budget, the Department of Local Affairs, and the State Historic Fund.

Work began in the fall of 2010 and included reconstructing the building’s parapets; restoring the woodwork on its staircases, cabinetry, and window sashes; and cleaning its brick facade. Crews used historic photos to recreate the building’s main entrance, which had been removed in the 1970s and replaced with a garage-like structure. The school’s 1937 WPA gymnasium was stabilized and received a new roof, windows, and insulation.

The school's restored library. Credit: Scott Smith
The school's restored library

“The project is really a good example of blending preservation with sustainability,” says Hallas. In the end, simple solutions like using historically appropriate low-energy lighting fixtures and utilizing historic openings for more direct daylight helped the school achieve LEED Gold status. (In fact, sustainable efforts with the school date all the way back to the original construction, when many of the school’s current attic truss struts were recycled from the previous 1870s wood-frame schoolhouse.)

In addition to the school building itself, the community has also aimed to restore a historic barn across the street from the site. They’ve even used it as a hands-on lesson in historic preservation as students have taken measurements, created as-built drawings, and researched its history.

In the meantime, students and teachers got to start enjoying their restored and revitalized school at the beginning of the 2012 academic year. Since then, the resilient residents of Silverton have been able to breathe at least a little easier.

David Weible headshot

David Weible is a former content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation is inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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