The Challenge of Building in a Town That Treasures Its Past


It takes a village to preserve a village — especially one like Telluride, Colo., where Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank in 1889 and where the streets, at 8,750 feet elevation, are still dotted with storybook Gold Rush cabins.

“These were little mining towns that when they were built, probably weren’t meant to last,” said Jonna Wensel, the historic preservation director for Telluride, one of Colorado’s 19th-century whistle-stops. “They knew miners were coming in and would make their fortune — or not — and then leave. Very few of the structures were built with longevity in mind.”

And yet in Telluride many of these dwellings, made of local pine and spruce between 1880 and 1910 and often set on the dirt, without foundations, still stand.

It was this storied atmosphere that drew the Houston-based designer Linda Eyles of Linda Eyles Design and her husband, Simon Eyles, an oil trader, to purchase a getaway house here.

“When we wanted, as so many Texans do, a place to get away from the heat, we decided to take a couple of weeks and drive through all the Colorado towns,” Ms. Eyles said. Telluride (population 2,426) charmed them instantly because, unlike Vail, which was incorporated in 1966, it’s “not just a ski town.”

“You feel the sense of history,” she said.

The couple built a 3,000-square-foot house in 2005. Finding it too cramped for their many visitors, they purchased an adjacent plot that came with a special advantage: Building plans had already been approved by the town’s Historic and Architectural Review Commission, which can be a complicated process.

But building in a community that values its architectural heritage poses challenges beyond the approval process. It is also about designing a home that blends in with the older structures on the outside, while meeting the needs of the owner for something contemporary and comfortable on the inside.

That was the hurdle for Ms. Eyles.

“The architectural board is filled with a variety of people: architects, designers, just local bigwigs, and they were all sitting there,” Ms. Eyles said of a meeting she attended. “Somebody was trying to get this covering for their hot tub approved and this committee spent — I’m not kidding — 45 minutes or an hour having a discussion about what to call this structure. Was it a pergola? A pagoda?” Typically, the total approval process takes a minimum of nine to 12 months, said Ms. Eyles’s contractor, Dave Gerber of Gerber Construction, though Ms. Wensel said getting the go-ahead from the architectural board takes just two months.

Among their more unexpected recent approvals: a home with an elevator for parking a single car in a below-ground vault (parking is limited in town) and a rooftop Airstream trailer cabana that wouldn’t be visible from the street.

One thing they won’t restrict is paint color. “They can’t legislate it,” said the Eyleses’ architect, Peter Sante of Sante Architects. “You can only imagine what some municipality or one person’s interpretation of what beautiful is in a color combination, right? ‘Which fuchsia meets our standards?’ That’s a step too far.”

The Eyleses completely redesigned what the original plans envisioned for the interiors in their new home, which was completed in 2018, but made only modest changes in the board-approved exterior architectural plans (once plans are approved, a review committee can authorize small changes).

For example, they swapped French doors in the kitchen for a fully retractable folding sliding door that opens to the deck (a bug screen pulls out when needed).

One trick that can work with a historic architectural review board: “Our previous architect did this amazing book in which she went around and basically reviewed all of the windows, doors and roofline details in the area so she could come back and say, ‘This is why we use this thing,’” Ms. Eyles said. “So the board couldn’t say no to her.”

They also reduced the amount of glazing, or window surfaces. “One major concern is light spill — it makes a lot of sense that at night you want to see beautiful stars and not everyone’s windows,” Ms. Eyles said.

Also, Mr. Gerber said: “Historic structures didn’t have lots of glass, because it was cold and glass was expensive. If there’s too much glass, it doesn’t look appropriate.” Mr. Gerber said people pushing the envelope with the review board often try for more or larger windows and more modern, flatter rooflines; the traditional roof is at a 45-degree angle to shed heavy snow.

When it came time to design the interiors, Ms. Eyles went, much as a workaday 19th-century miner might have, for hard-wearing surfaces.

“We were looking for a ‘soft modern’ that really focused on comfort and ease of use,” she said, so “if we’ve got a house full of people, we don’t have to scream about something because it got left on a countertop or you can’t sit in a chair because it’s too fancy.”

But Ms. Eyles rejected anything that seemed too much in a Colorado or mountain-chalet theme. “There are no antler chandeliers!” she said. There is, however, a Roll & Hill modern antler light made of white resin sitting on a countertop. “We have that in a guest bedroom as our only tongue-in-cheek reference to the Colorado style,” she said.

Ms. Eyles selected the color palette to avoid competing with the views, which in some rooms are postcard-worthy overlooks of Little Wasatch Mountain and their street below, where black bears occasionally saunter.

“These are just soft grays and blues, sky colors. Mountain colors. The deep blue-green that you get in the underbrush,” she said. Durable finishes such as concrete floors, hair-on-hide rugs and indoor/outdoor fabrics would stand up to ski season’s slosh (Telluride is home to the highest concentration of 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks in the continental United States).

Ms. Eyles also improved efficiency by installing a cubby-lined mudroom where guests could stash ski helmets and other outdoor gear. One guest bedroom is edged with four twin bunk beds, which have accommodated adults as well as children.

The couple’s lone devil-may-care decision is the veined white marble slabs for the kitchen countertop, which are easily stained and scratched. Ms. Eyles had gotten used to the surface in her Houston home.

“The first few times it happens, it’s very upsetting — your beautiful new material, and now you can see a circle from where somebody’s glass of lemonade was — but the truth is, marble’s like a leather saddle. It can become more beautiful over time,” she said.

Ms. Eyles did install a more indestructible black granite counter on her island, which she says doesn’t damage. “It doesn’t scratch, it doesn’t stain — the worst thing you get on that is a fingerprint.”

Outside, they were careful to leave room for a 500-square-foot patch of grass for their two dogs, Tasha and Sherman. “We do a lot more indoor/outdoor living these days, and for reasons you can appreciate that’s very desirable, but historically when you look at our town, porches didn’t tend to be bigger than 30 or 40 square feet,” Mr. Sante said. “They were a stoop. So decks and outdoor living areas are scrutinized and chiseled away at and reduced.” One way homeowners get plans passed is putting outdoor living areas behind the house.

The couple originally considered installing an elevator, which would be helpful for carrying in skis, but they couldn’t make it fit. Instead, they chose an open staircase that winds from the first to the third floor in glass, metal and white oak.

As her real estate agent advised her, “If you are in Telluride and you can’t walk up stairs, you don’t need to be there,” Ms. Eyles said.


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