This is an open letter to the Rio Blanco County commissioners and the Town of Meeker administration.
I read the Rio Blanco Herald Times on a regular basis and have followed the recent dialog about the transfer and reuse of the old Meeker Elementary School with great interest.
I was a student at the old Meeker Elementary School and a 1961 graduate of Meeker High School. Currently I am a professor of architecture at the University of California in Berkeley, Calif., and an architect. Over the past five years, I have had the opportunity to return to Meeker for special events, memorial services and class reunions and have gotten some sense of the nature of the changes and clearly the dynamic environment of the town and White River Valley.
This issue is not just about the future of the old elementary school. It is more than a situation to preserve an important cultural and historic building in Meeker, but it is about what Meeker was and is as a place.
Buildings play an important role in determining the meaning and identity of a place. Meeker has a rich and important historical and cultural heritage in the development of Western Colorado, from its struggles in the beginnings with the Native Americans to the courageous families who settled the White River Valley and established the town of Meeker as its center of community.
In that process, there were several major buildings constructed that still exist in one form or another. They define and make Meeker a unique place and community. They include the courthouse, the old elementary school, the old Meeker High School, the U.S. Post Office, the Meeker Hotel, the First National Bank of the Rockies, the original Oldland store and, of course, the historical buildings on Park Avenue.
There are many more important buildings, individual houses and community centers that add significant meaning to Meeker as a place.
As I read the Rio Blanco Herald Times it is clear that there are a number of families with deep generational roots who still live and make their livelihoods in the town and valley. These are families from the traditional agricultural richness of cattle, sheep and other of nature’s bounties that were the economic and cultural engines of Meeker as a place.
It is also clear that there are many new families that have moved to the valley to secure their future in coal, gas, oil and other services. Each of these groups have a vested interest in preserving the historical past and creating a continuity for the future of Meeker as place of significance in the history of the West and Colorado.
With this as the context, the importance of saving the old elementary school is a significant component of preserving the past and establishing a framework for a future physical environment of the Town of Meeker.
First of all, the site of the old school is a core location for creating a “center” of the town.
Secondly, as most of you know, there were two phases to the old school — the original phase that fronts Main and Fifth streets and a second phase that fronts Park and Fourth streets.
I believe it is critical that the original phase of the old elementary school be preserved and adapted to a new set of uses that will anchor the east edge of the downtown. The second phase is less important and could be razed to create and expand the “green space” of the downtown.
The proposals I am aware of, an art center, a cultural community service center and even the expansion of town and county services (not a jail) are all excellent new uses that should be considered.
I am aware of the economic issues involved in this process, but it will take the community to commit and become imaginative in how to secure outside funding to make this a workable project. There are numerous private and governmental agencies and foundations that would be happy and interested in preserving the cultural heritage of places like Meeker.
Don’t rush to judgment on this critical issue. Give the community the opportunity to take action that has the potential to preserve one of the Meeker’s most prominent historical structures and create a new anchor to downtown.
W. Mike Martin FAIA, PhD
Professor of Architecture
University of California-Berkeley