By Matthew Beaudin
It’s old and a little breezy. It’s a bit dirty, eternally dusty. It’s all these things, but it’s something else, too. The building is more than its rough, warped wooden floor, more than its perpetual draft: It’s become home for a growing number of local artists. The place is Stronghouse Studios, a Telluride take on a partially subsidized space for creation of all things artistic, from paint to plaster to pen. The idea is simple: Give artists a venue where they can convene and create for a fair price, and watch them flock to the space.
“There are cracks you could read a book through,” says Liz Lance, the executive director for the Telluride Center for Arts and Humanities, who now makes her office inside the studio’s walls. “There’s nothing that this building is more suited for, it seems. It’s got the character, it’s got the rough edges. It’s cool.” So cool, in fact, that last winter’s heating bills shot upward of $400. The long-gabled building was not initially intended for inhabitants. It is constructed from rubble and was built for storage. Historic records didn’t record an owner. On one of the building’s exposed interior walls, beneath countless layers of whitewash, the year 1892 is crudely carved into the stone; the date is presumed to be the year of completion.
The 1890s were Telluride’s heyday. The surrounding mines were proving prosperous. Otto Mears had laid the track for the Rio Grande Southern and built Telluride’s railroad depot. The train made daily runs in and out of town, delivering supplies and transporting ore to smelters. Many prominent structures that now contribute to Telluride’s historic landmark district designation were built, including main street’s Tomkins Cristy Hardware (the Excelsior), the Mahr, First National Bank (the Nugget), the Pekkarine, Examiner and Painter buildings. To accommodate the shipping and delivery needs of the growing community—materials for building, foodstuffs, livestock feed, ice for refrigeration, and home furnishings—on the south side of town, along the train tracks, the Warehouse District was developed. Although few remnants of that neighborhood remain, La Marmotte is housed in a pre-refrigeration icehouse, and the large stone building just north of the Stronghouse on the corner of Fir and Pacific still stands. In the 1970s, the roof collapsed on this magnificent building that once housed a livery stable, another warehouse and the Telluride Transfer, which operated a garage and gas station in the 1960s.
Railroad freight cars approached the south side of the Stronghouse, and a loading dock was positioned on the east, at what is now the building’s front door. The trains carried with them, as longtime local William “Senior” Mahoney says, “only God knows what.” Historically, the Stronghouse served primarily as storage for hay, concrete and anything else anyone wanted to put inside its walls. Until the Stronghouse, “There was no such thing as a storage place in Telluride,” Mahoney says. In the early 1940s, as a 14 year old, Mahoney helped pack bags of cement into the building.
In and around the Stronghouse are telltale signs of the mining boom. A scale sits just inside the main doors, presumably for weighing freight. An ancient oven resides in the basement, and a lift, once used for moving cargo between floors, still exists. It has been fixed on the main floor for now, and a desk sits just under its boom, as if waiting to be lowered into the basement. Outside the building, if you look hard enough, you’ll find remnants of the narrow gauge railroad tracks that once ran through Telluride on San Juan Avenue.
The Stronghouse’s owner, John Lifton-Zoline, says the structure came by the name when he and others noticed that the old building looked as if it had been fortified. “It was like a secure warehouse,” Lifton-Zoline says. “It had bars on the windows.”
Though the look, feel and early history of the building gives a nod to rough, honest work, the space has also housed elegant restaurants, most notably Chez Pierre, a fondly remembered French restaurant that occupied the Stronghouse from 1972 to 1977. “I loved being in the historical building,” says the restaurant’s owner, Annie Vareille Savath. “It wasn’t easy, because the walls were kind of crumbling down.”
A Mexican menu beckoned guests to the Stronghouse in the 1980s, when Bill Barks owned La Paloma, and after his establishment closed, the building remained vacant until January 1993, when The Daily Planet filled the quarters. The bustling newspaper battled the difficult combination of dust and computers for 12 years before moving to a newer, more technology-friendly office.
After almost one year of vacancy, Lance reports that the building is far from that today. “When we opened in December, we had 13 artists in residence, and the number has increased since. Currently, we’re working on renting out the remaining space in the basement,” she says.
The studios are possible through TCAH and the Commission for Community Assistance, Arts and Special Events, the Telluride Foundation and independent fundraising. On the main floor, artist space rents for two dollars and fifty cents to three dollars per square foot, “…which is insanely cheap,” Lance points out. Leases work on a per-month basis: Should an artist want to sign a longer-term lease, prices drop slightly. In comparison, Lance says that artists rent spaces down valley for as much as $15 per square foot, but they miss out on daily artist interactions and the hubbub of downtown Telluride. Another benefit to the studio is the availability of a place for an artist to work any hour of the day, one that isn’t their living room or kitchen. “You want a separate place to be able to create—you want that sacred area,” local artist and Stronghouse Studios manager Brittany Miller says.
In addition to providing room to create, the studio also offers up a display wall for a revolving exhibition of Telluride artists. “They’re getting exposure that they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten,” Lance says. And while the coffee shop showings are good, Lance says, it’s not quite the same as an opening in a studio. “There is a need for gallery shows,” she adds. Public viewing hours are Thursdays from 3 to 7 p.m. “We don’t want this to be closed to the public,” Lance says. “We want to encourage people to come through.” Additionally, a mentoring program to pair kids with artists is in the works.
TCAH has the building leased through 2008, but Lance hopes the studios have found a home. “I would like for this to remain, for it to grow into its own. My vision is that this becomes a central piece of the community, a bricks-and-mortar part of the community.”