Heavy Metal Buildings in the Wet Mountain Valley

Column by Hal Walter

Mountain Architecture – September 1999

I’VE ALWAYS MARVELED at the environmental practicality of mobile homes. While many take a dim view of trailers, they make more sense than trophy homes in Colorado, where historically every economic boom has ended in bust. Once the current real-estate cycle crashes, trailers could be rolled away and disposed of properly. They could be recycled like cans.

There should be a law requiring a person to live in a trailer on his or her property for one year as a qualification for receiving a building permit for any structure larger than 1,500 square feet. That way, trophy-home wannabes could really get an idea about the social and geographical climate of an area before investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into ridgetop eyesores that end up vacant after reality and a real winter sets in. I have other outlandish ideas too, like taxing the bejesus out of real-estate sales in order to offset the additional services with which unchecked growth overburdens small communities, like schools, hospitals, roads and the like.

The trailer is usually associated with the poor, but its history is actually quite rich. The trailer is probably an evolution of the tent. Lazy yet industrious like most humans are, somebody probably got tired of pitching his tent in the dirt, and decided to put a floor and wheels under it. Gypsies used tent trailers like these in the Old World. In the American West, the first mobile homes were canvas-covered wagons pulled by mules, oxen, and horses over trails with names like Chisholm, Santa Fé, and Oregon.

Phrases from our nomadic culture still frequent our speech and thus we say things like “circle the wagons,” and “cart it away,” and no small western town is complete without a restaurant called “The Chuckwagon,” even though these eateries rarely have wheels.

It’s odd how things change. In the middle part of this century, trailers evolved from wood-and-canvas wagons to something akin to the railroad boxcar. But now most trailer homes are made of wood and called “manufactured housing,” while the fastest-growing trend in structures, at least in Custer County where I live, is the metal building.

The first metal building that ever got my attention was the feed store, which has been standing for years. I never thought much about metal structures until the owners invited me back to the living quarters one day. It was cozier than I’d imagined, affecting the ambience of a mountain lodge; its spacious views framed the Sangre de Cristos. I suddenly realized that you really can’t judge a house by its cover, and that you can’t see the outside from the inside, either.

Then my neighbor, a trainer of horses, put up a steel building when she first moved onto her property. Half of the building is a tackroom and stalls; the upstairs is a hay loft. The other half of the downstairs is her living quarters. The entire outfit is neat, clean, homey and efficient, though from the road it looks just like a brown steel garage.

Down in the Westcliffe/Silver Cliff clusterplex, metal buildings are popping up like mushrooms after a monsoon. The new sheriff’s office is steel, and so is the new grocery store, which many residents jokingly refer to as “Metalmart.” There are several new metal buildings occupied by contractors. The new medical clinic is currently being constructed of steel. A small metal building across the road from the fairgrounds sports a hand-painted sign that says “Western Wear.”

Rising out of the wildflower-studded prairie south of town, like Emerald City in the Land of Oz, is the huge and shiny new hardware/electronics store. The most ironic Westcliffe metal-building tenant is a local log-home dealership. A large metal residence recently was sold and will soon be made into a steel old-folks home. Metal buildings in the clusterplex also house a hair salon, the county shop, a surveyor’s office, a tire shop, and, of all things, a metalworker’s shop.

Copper Spur Metalworks is owned by my friend Andy Kagan. He says that metal is naturally the way to go for roofing material in the mountains, and that people are just now wising up to the idea of using it for exterior walls as well. Properly constructed metal buildings are virtually impervious to hail, fire, wind, moisture and snow load. In addition to little or no replacement or maintenance costs once the building is up, the initial investment runs roughly half that of conventional wood construction, and, depending on the size, a building can be erected in about two weeks.

Really the only drawback to metal is æsthetics. Some metal-building owners have improved the looks of their structures by using different colors of sheeting and trim, facing the building with wood, brick or stucco, and by employing windows of various sizes and shapes. Andy notes that some of the newer materials available include sheeting or “skin” that is already treated with a stucco-like coating, and metal roofing tiles that come in many colors.

BUT MANY of the metal buildings going up in Westcliffe are just basic brown boxes, and some people find the æsthetic appeal lacking. One friend and neighbor who grew up as an Air Force brat says the metal buildings in Custer County remind him of military barracks and detract from the mountain scenery, the reason he moved here in the first place.

I find the prevalence of metal construction fascinating from the standpoint of our culture and the current state of growth in Central Colorado. The first thing that strikes me is that metal buildings are practical, and in our society practicality is generally the last quality with which most people are concerned. In fact, what most people look for is looks. On the other hand, metal buildings are quick, easy and cheap — the three most important qualities in our get-it-now culture.

It’s also interesting to compare architecture in Custer County to that in other areas of Central Colorado. Towns like Leadville and Salida have some bodacious buildings to show for their industrial histories. Both towns have buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Leadville leads the way with its recently refurbished Delaware Hotel and Vendome, as well as the Tabor Opera House and Old Church. Still, both Leadville and Salida have their share of metal buildings on their outskirts, revealing the demands of growth and the realities of new construction costs.

Despite the area’s mining heritage, no buildings of any historical or architectural significance really stand out in Westcliffe or Silver Cliff, except perhaps the old Westcliff (sic) School, the Lutheran Church, and the Hard Times Hotel. A few older buildings have been nicely remodeled as new businesses move in. Pizza Madness is in the old brick building that for years housed Clever’s Mountain Tavern. The Old Wet Mountain Trading Post is currently undergoing remodeling to house a restaurant and furniture store, and one older residence is being gutted and will reopen as a bed and breakfast.

But the predominant material of choice for buildings in Custer County, it seems, is metal. Like ’em or not, these steel structures don’t have wheels, and they’re likely to be here for a good, long time.

Hal Walter lives in a fir-sided home with an asphalt-shingle roof near the old mining camp of Ilse, where a metal-skinned mine shack still stands as a reminder of bygone economic booms.