A Brilliant New Chapter

Residents converted a Colorado high school into a state-of-the-art, ecofriendly library

Joseph Montalbano still remembers the day nearly five years ago when he first visited the old high school in Walsenburg, a once-thriving coal mining town in southern Colorado. The building—designed in the Collegiate Gothic style by Isaac Rapp, a leading southwestern architect in the early 1900s—sat vacant and threatened with demolition. Preservationists and area residents, many of whom once attended classes in the three-story, red-brick structure, had hatched an ambitious plan to save it. The town's library needed more space: The cramped 1950s house that had served as the local branch was no longer adequate. Why not transform the old school into the new library?

Montalbano, a principal at Studiotrope, a Denver architecture firm, took a tour that day with Monica Birrer, the director of the library district. After he had walked past antiquated systems and crumbling concrete windowsills, Birrer asked him if such a project was possible. "I told her, 'Absolutely,'" Montalbano recalls. "And I drove back to Denver asking myself, 'Why did I say that?' If you had seen the building that day, the shape it was in, knowing how little money they had—that was an insane thing to say."

The library district had considered spending $450,000 on an addition for the existing branch. Converting the high school building would cost more than $3.5 million, not to mention the cost of purchasing the building from the school board. But Montalbano's initial optimism proved prophetic.

2010 Green Issue IconThe library district hired him and began fundraising, securing a variety of grants. For instance, the Colorado State Historical Fund, administered by the Colorado Historical Society, contributed more than $800,000, not only helping to purchase the building but also paying for masonry work and other projects. The historical fund also gave a grant to install replicas of the original windows, which had been torn out in the 1980s and replaced with aluminum substitutes.

The grants from the historical fund came with a stipulation that Montalbano maintain the integrity of the building according to the Secretary of the Interior's historic preservation guidelines. One of the largest challenges was ­configuring the new heating and cooling ­systems. In the end, an ecofriendly ­geothermal system, which operates using groundwater, proved the least intrusive option. Other green features incorporated into the renovation included recycled rubber flooring and a fireplace hearth and chimney fashioned from leftover blackboards.

The project could not have succeeded without the citizens of Walsenburg (population 4,200), who passed a $1.75 million bond issue. "This was a totally community-based project," says Mark Rodman, the former director of Colorado Preservation, Inc., a nonprofit group that helped save the building from demolition. "If not for the people, that school would not be standing here today."

At the grand opening last summer, the community was, by all accounts, wowed by its gleaming new library. Some work does remain: The upper two floors still need to be finished, and the library district hopes to attract education- or arts-based groups to take over that space. But already Birrer hopes that the new library can become a transformational place, where generations can gather and grow. "We'd like to be the catalyst for new things in this beautiful old space," she says.

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