May 30, 2023

How the Teton Raptor Center Brought Historic Preservation and Natural Conservation Together

Husband and wife Roger Smith and Margaret Creel, both wildlife biologists, started nursing injured raptors back to health in their Jackson, Wyoming, home in the early 1990s. They would eventually go on to found what is known today as the Teton Raptor Center, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, and other birds of prey in the region.

Smith’s raptor expertise and the couple’s naturally caring personalities made them the go-to people in the community for helping wounded birds, said Amy McCarthy, the center’s current executive director.

“People would call them and say, ‘Hey, I just found this owl on the side of the road,” McCarthy said. “And Roger and Margaret would—out of their home, with some gauze and duct tape—do what they could for these birds that were injured, ill, or orphaned.”

Over time, Smith and Creel needed more space for their winged patients, and the couple saw an opportunity at the Hardeman Ranch, which sits a few miles outside Jackson in the town of Wilson. The organization signed a lease on the property in 2008 and began utilizing one of the historic barns on the property.

Now, 15 years later, the Raptor Center owns 27 acres and is in the final stages of a historically sensitive renovation of the land’s historic structures. The revamped space will allow the nonprofit to run programming year-round.

“[It’s] absolutely transformative for us,” McCarthy said.

The exterior of the Hardeman North Barn in Wilson, Wyoming.

photo by: Amy McCarthy

The historic main barn on the Hardeman Ranch was the subject of an extensive adaptive reuse project that will allow the Teton Raptor Center to run its programs year-round.

The Ranch Through the Ages

The 137-acres on which the Raptor Center operates had several different owners during the first half of the 20th century, including a notable aviator named C.C. Moseley, but it takes its name from the Hardeman family, who purchased it from Moseley in 1956 and raised prized cattle there for several decades.

There are several structures on the property, most of which were likely built in the late 1930s. The main barn, constructed by local builder Wesley Bircher, is considered an icon in Wyoming, McCarthy said. With its wooden exterior painted a striking red and its Gothic Revival arched roof (a hallmark of Bircher’s work) the barn is hard to miss, and it harks back to a specific time and place.

While it’s a protected site now, the ranch’s future was once far from certain. As cattle ranching declined in the 1980s, the Hardeman family considered selling their property, and developers closed in. In response, community members forged the Jackson Hole Land Trust, putting together $1.7 million to purchase the 137 acres and its structures.

The nonprofit then sold off parcels of land to recoup some of that money, but they held conservation easements to prevent development. Finally, in 2017, the Raptor Center purchased the 27 acres still owned by the Land Trust and began repurposing the barns to fit the three pillars of their mission: education, research, and rehabilitation.

A peregrine falcon flies on the property of the Teton Raptor Center.

photo by: Steve Poole

Hunter, a peregrine falcon and former avian ambassador for the Teton Raptor Center, soars across the property in 2017.

Rustic Renewal: The Raptor Center Revitalizes the Ranch

The adaptive reuse project was aided by a $12 million capital campaign, which included $10,000 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund for Historic Interiors grant program. The six-year effort saw the Raptor Center both preserve the property’s existing structures (such as the horse barn, the pump house, and the bull barn) and build new ones, some of which serve as housing for the raptors.

The newly built structures match the character of their elder neighbors in order to emphasize the history of the property, McCarthy said, though she adds they come with some green upgrades.

“Everything has a rustic quality, but the new buildings were built in a very modern, more sustainable way,” she said. “We do have solar panels on some of those buildings.”

While it’s a property-wide endeavor, there’s no doubt the completion of the main barn renovation this summer will serve as the grand finale.

Construction work on the roof of the Hardeman North Barn in Wilson, Wyoming.

photo by: Amy McCarthy

Crews had to remve the original roof due to extensive damage, but its replacement matches the historic characteristics.

The Centerpiece: An ‘Awe-Inspiring’ New Home

The barn’s original woodwork remains intact, and visitors will be able to appreciate it in full.

“Those boards really only required minimal treatments, they were in really good shape,” McCarthy said. “So we’ve cleaned them up and now, with the modern lighting that has come into the barn, it really makes that whole space glow. It’s quite beautiful.”

McCarthy noted that when visitors enter the barn, they will also get a full view straight up to the 38-foot exposed ceiling.

“You get that awe-inspiring moment the instant you walk through that door,” she said.

The original metal roof was unsalvageable after eight decades of damage, but its replacement matches its appearance. The barn’s new windows also match the old, but the new versions have upgraded glazing to provide better insulation.

The south end of the building has changed a bit, given that it was previously attached to another structure that was moved during the renovation. That decision created a second entrance to the main barn, which resembles the shape and style of the north entrance.

“Now we’re able to bring light into the space from both ends,” McCarthy said.

The interior of the Hardeman North Barn in Wilson, Wyoming.

photo by: Amy McCarthy

The first floor of the barn will have exhibit and classroom space.

The interior of the Hardeman North Barn in Wilson, Wyoming.

photo by: Amy McCarthy

Visitors will have a clear view of the exposed 38-foot-high ceiling.

12 Months a Year: The Raptor Center Expands its Programming

The reuse project means the Raptor Center will now be able to host public events and lectures on its own turf across all four seasons. In previous years the organization could only showcase its work and educate people beneath a tent on the property during the summer months.

“We have had such strong programming through outreach, and we’ve had limited programming on site,” McCarthy said.

Now, the barn will feature a habitat area highlighting a “bird of the day,” a nature shop where the Raptor Center can sell merchandise and educational material, and a classroom space that will serve as a tactile learning environment where students may utilize lab science equipment or even take an avian art class. The team also put in a new audio-visual system that will allow them to highlight more of their research and diversify their educational content.

All told, the revitalized barn highlights how smoothly preservation of the built environment and conservation of the natural world can intersect.

“[The reuse project] not only gets people to come to our raptor programming and focus on natural history, but it’s by virtue of being in that space, you are brought into the cultural history,” McCarthy said.

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Tim O'Donnell is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He spends most of his time reading about modern European history and hoping the Baltimore Orioles will turn their fortunes around. A Maryland native, he now lives in Brooklyn.

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