Rio Blanco Herald Times Editor Sean McMahon’s “From my Window” editorial column commented Feb. 4 about the tan brick appearance on the south entrance to the soon-to-open new Rio Blanco County Justice Center reported very unfavorable and widely shared opinions by many Meeker taxpayers and voters.
The reason for this criticism is based on assurances that were given by the county commissioners and project architect in March of 2014 during the community meetings to present the justice center design proposal. The commissioners indicated that they were committed to preserving the original 1939 old elementary school’s red sandstone historic appearance (which graced the downtown area for 75 years and saw thousands of Meeker students educated in that venue).
The March 2014 story appearing in the Rio Blanco Herald Times, quoted the commissioners and architect and is excerpted as follows:
“…He said that utilizing the old school offers several advantages in that: there is no significant dirt work needed; 10,000 square feet of the project will be reused because of the old school; the site already has all utilities; no road work needs to be added; parking is already in place and 10 additional parking places will be added with the project; and the sandstone that will be utilized in the front of the center is already there and it fits in with downtown architecture. Johnson added that the center offers a good way to separate staff, the public and the inmates from each other, making it safer for all…”
The 1939 school was constructed by skilled WPA masons using beautiful hand-hewn native red sandstone extracted from local quarries in the upper White River area of the county. A 1939 Meeker Herald article about the old elementary school described the remarkable community efforts that went into constructing the original and classic De Mourdant Art Deco architecture, which was the last WPA community project built in the nation that required the special approval of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to go forth. Thus, the school was truly an historic landmark of the downtown Meeker area.
The 10 square-block downtown area containing 48 eligible historic structures is currently in the process of being evaluated in preparation for a nomination for designation as a National Historic District by the USDOI National Park Service. The historic residences and original military cantonment log cabin barracks and officer’s quarters that now house the Rio Blanco County Historical Society’s White River Museum are a pivotal part of the proposed district,
In 2013, prior to the school demolition, and with the endorsement of History Colorado historic preservation consultants, the elected officials were urged by citizens to approve designating the historic school as a National Historic Place.
Unfortunately, that request was denied.
A county official was recently asked why the south portal to the justice center was constructed of tan brick rather than native red sandstone that the building was originally constructed with. The response was as follows:
“As for why the entrance to the RBC Justice Center, there are a number of reasons why it looks the way it does:
“After an extensive amount of investigation, it was determined that we could not obtain the particular stone used for the 1939 section of the Meeker Elementary School. They had not used the same stone for the northwing as they had for the 1939 section. We could not find a quarry that produced the same stone as the 1939 section, and Mr. (Joe) Fennessy’s collection of stone does not match the 1939 section of the building, nor does he want to part with that stone.
“The only quantity of stone we could find that is the exact match to the 1939 section of the elementary school was the 40-foot chimney that we took down by hand piece by piece to then re-cut and used on the front entry.
“As for the rest of the finishes, the brick was chosen to try to mesh with the other brick buildings on main street like Mountain Valley Bank and the Bank of the San Juans.
“We knew we would never match the existing 1939 Elementary School Building perfectly, so the intent was to make a nice entrance to the facility that would meet the county’s needs.”
It is essential to consider solutions and alternatives that may still permit an architecturally appropriate modification to the entrance that sustains and complements the original classic red sandstone historic Art Deco architecture.
It is known by local residents and historians that the native red sand stone used to build the historic elementary school in 1939 came from the D.B. Cannafax quarry near the former Delbert Pollard Ranch on Rio Blanco County Road 8.
An article in the Steamboat Pilot of July 21, 1949, is quoted:
“…Volunteer help is being asked at Meeker to quarry stone for the community hospital being built there. The rock will be quarried on the D. B. Cannafax ranch on upper White River and 25 are asked to report for several days to load and haul the building material …”
Not only was the red sandstone from the Cannafax Quarry utilized for the old elementary school in 1939, but also is believed to have been utilized for the elementary school addition built in 1950, and for Pioneers Hospital also built in 1949. Local citizens were reported to have volunteered their time and trucks to harvest the stone and haul it to the building sites for those buildings in an effort to save funds.
More recently, the 1935-era County Courthouse building was recently remodeled and two new entrances were added that utilized native red sandstone that perfectly matched the original red sandstone of the structure. This stone is believed to have originated from the same quarry from which the original stone was harvested more than 80 years ago.
It is entirely possible that sufficient quantities of high quality red sandstone from this quarry could still be obtained and utilized to replace the tan brick on the portal to very closely emulate the original red sandstone utilized in the 1939 construction of the school.
Other sources of native Colorado red sandstone include the Lyons quarry in Lyons, Colo., from which most of the stone utilized for the nationally renowned and beautiful Italian Rural Renaissance architecture buildings at the University of Colorado at Boulder was obtained over many decades and is quite similar to the sandstone from which the old elementary school , old elementary school addition , the County Courthouse , and Pioneers Hospitals  were constructed.
Tan brick matches no other building in the immediately adjacent downtown area.
The rest are constructed with rust-colored brick and/or limstone, including Mountain Valley Bank, the Public Library, the Bank of the San Juans, et al. Moreover, “attempting to match the exterior of adjacent buildings” is not a legitimate or desirable reason to build an attached portal that is completely foreign and incongruous to the architecture of the structure to which it is attached.
It is interesting that the previous courthouse remodel added two new building entrances that were very appropriately and tastefully designed using the same red sandstone as the original masonry from which the building was constructed in 1935.
The issue is what was planned and promised to the voters and taxpayers by the elected officials and architects, and was not delivered as promised.
Historic structures are community treasures that belong not to the elected officials but to those who are the taxpayers and voters as constituents. The constituents were deprived of a vote on whether the historic school should have been turned over to the county to demolish and build a justice center. Those choices will forever impact the appearance of the downtown historic area.
It is respectfully and urgently recommended that the elected officials make every effort to remove the tan brick from the south entrance and replace it with matching and appropriate red native sandstone as they originally promised to do.
Meeker Community Task Force