A Fit Retrofit

Inside the Green Rehab of a Colorado School

Don't Dodge Durango

Situated in southwestern Colorado, Durango (pop. 15,900) is often touted on "best of" lists as a prime location to live in or visit, invest in or retire to. The National Trust named Durango one of its 2007 Dozen Distinctive Destinations, praising its scenery and history and the able way it protects both. Not to be outdone, the local tourist board declares the place "has something for absolutely everybody."

The city is blessed. Straddling the Animas River, Durango is the gateway to a region of natural and cultural splendors—including the rugged San Juan Mountains, which cradle the city, and Mesa Verde National Park, world-famous for its ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings. One popular way to take in the scenery is to hop aboard the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which offers tourists a 46-mile excursion to the historic town of Silverton.

Durango itself, which flourished during the late 19th century as a mining and railroad center, is studded with fine old commercial, residential, and civic buildings. Among the prominent landmarks downtown is the Strater Hotel (1887), one of the National Trust's Historic Hotels of America. The Smiley Building stands not far away at the north end of Third Ave. (often called "the boulevard" for its tree-lined median) in the East Third Avenue Historic District.

Read our cover story, The Old School Approach

High-tech and common sense have come together in the green restoration of the Smiley Building, a former junior high school in Durango, Colo., that has been converted to a center for professional artists and nonprofit organizations. On the one hand are solar panels, sealed-combustion gas boilers, low-flow plumbing fixtures, a geothermal system, and even a lawn mower totally powered by the sun. On the other are basics like windows that actually open.

The Smiley's developers, owners Charles Shaw and his wife, Lisa Bodwalk, are proud of saving and restoring most of the original sash windows (as well as their frames), which play an essential role in cooling classrooms in the summer. Shaw places great store in this timeless, once-common building feature. "Architects don't want to admit that double-hung windows in big commercial buildings were the best invention ever," he says, "and everything you do after that is a step down. Some things were perfected a long time ago."

Retaining the old wood windows, and saving all of their metal-casement siblings, helped maintain the historic ambiance of the old school, which was finished in 1936 using local and federal Public Works Administration funds. Shaw also reused most of the maple flooring, piecing in compatible new material where necessary. For classroom doors, he combed salvage yards, finding 50 doors from a California school of similar vintage. "The quality!" he says. "You just can't buy that stuff new." The oak exterior doors had been tossed out, so he built replicas, complete with multi-pane sidelights, wood paneling, and transoms. He also rebuilt the severely deteriorated parapets that crown the structure, as well as other sections of the brick facade. "They've done a lot of really great things with the Smiley," says Vicki Vandegrift, senior planner for the city, "making a model energy project of a historic building."

For further information on the restoration, its sustainability features, and tenants, visit the project's website at smileybuilding.com 

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