In Ouray, a Renovation Rodeo

[May 2019 | San Juan Silver Stage | By Samantha Tisdel Wright]

Downtown Ouray is bristling with scaffolding and buzzing with energy this spring, as five of its iconic Victorian-era buildings are in various stages of renovation. Here’s a roundup of the projects that are breathing new life into Ouray’s Historic District:

Friends of the Wright Opera House found board members Nancy Nixon and Dee Williams in the newly expanded lobby area. (Laurie Casselberry, Samantha Tisdel Wright.)

Wright Opera House – 472 Main Street. A multi-million dollar, multi-year renovation is well underway at the 131-year-old Wright Opera House, even as the building continues to actively serve as a performing arts venue. On one recent day, there were six separate subcontractors in the building at the same time – wrapping up a street-level lobby expansion and ADA accessible restrooms; transforming the basement into a luxury apartment and future classroom space; and sprucing up a building next door that the nonprofit Friends of the Wright Opera House recently purchased with plans to integrate it into the ongoing Wright Opera House renovation.

Project architect Kit Meckel has cleverly dubbed the new acquisition “Wright Next Door”. The historic two-story structure on the corner of 5th Avenue and Main Street will house dressing rooms, a green room, and several apartments and new businesses whose rental income will help sustain Wright Opera House operations. Look for Base Camp Ouray, a climbing store and coffee lounge with indoor bouldering walls, to move into the corner storefront where Ouray Candy used to be, sometime in May.

Citizens State Bank (Prevost Building) – 600 Main Street. Citizens State Bank has inhabited the Prevost Building at the corner of 6th Avenue and Main Street for 101 years. The two-story Queen Anne/Romanesque brick behemoth dates back to 1899 and is currently undergoing an extensive multi-million dollar renovation that will bring the building (and bank operations) into the 21st century.

Old office spaces upstairs are being turned into an elegant conference room and two airy apartments that will be available for employee housing. The vast rooftop will become an outdoor events venue. A temporary lobby in the basement is the future site of a rentable space for community events – an indoor extension to the rooftop venue. And the formerly cave-like historic lobby will get a bright new look, with a glass vestibule entryway, modern teller line, and windows restored to their original dimensions.

Top left and top right: Citizens State Bank. Left: Ouray County Courthouse. Far right: Columbia House. Stuart Gillespie climbs onto the rooftop of the Columbus House, which he plans to renovate into the Imogene Hotel and Rooftop Bar. (Images. Exteriors: Laurie Casselberry, Interiors: Samantha Tisdel Wright.)

Columbus House – 740 Main Street. Built of native “ballpark bricks” and adorned with a painted metal Mesker cornice, the storied Columbus House at the northwest corner of 8th Avenue and Main Street in Ouray has a colorful history as a brothel, saloon and pool hall. These days, it is perhaps best known to locals as the home of Thai Chili, a popular Thai restaurant.

Under the new ownership of Stuart Gillespie (a 30-something lawyer who just moved to Ouray from Tennessee), the historic building is in the early stages of a meticulous renovation. Gillespie’s new business venture, the Imogene Hotel & Rooftop Bar, is set to move into the building sometime in 2020. The hotel will be service-light, with guests able to check themselves into their rooms with a key code. The basement will be transformed into garden-style short-term rental units. And a rooftop bar will serve up craft cocktails and 360-degree views of Ouray’s famous mountain scenery.

Ouray County Courthouse – 541 4th Street. Built by Frank Carney in 1888 with locally manufactured brick and cut stone trim, the Ouray County Courthouse is also in the midst of a much-needed shoring up. The building site is somewhat of a zoo at the moment, with a merry-go-round of subcontractors at work on various aspects of the $8.2 million project, from gingerly stripping the red paint off the brick exterior to digging the foundation for an expanded county annex building across the alley. The former Sheriff’s Office on the upper level of the old county jail behind the courthouse has been gutted, and will soon be converted into an auxiliary courtroom, judge’s chambers and jury room. If all goes according to plan, the entire project should be done by March of 2020.

Ouray County Museum – 420 6th Avenue. Lanky museum curator Don Paulson used to have to stoop when he entered the basement of the Ouray County Historical Museum, housed in the historic 1887 St. Joseph’s Miner’s Hospital. Now, he can stand up straight, thanks to a nearly-complete $275,000 renovation that, among other things, has converted the damp, cramped basement area at the back of the building into a spacious new workspace and storage room. The basement floor was lowered the old-fashioned way – one bucketful of dirt at a time.

In spite of all the noise and the mess around town, “It’s an exciting time,” said Kat Papenbrock, executive director of the Ouray Chamber Resort Association. “It’s cool to have so many different renovation projects going on at the same time.”

Above. Don Paulson examines renovation plans for the Ouray County Historical Museum (right) in the old Hospital. (Samantha Tisdel Wright, Laurie Casselberry.)