The Valley Floor—A National Perspective
The American people are learning to love their historic
places as never before. The problem is that in some cases they are
loving them to death.
People are especially flocking in record numbers
to upscale historic resort communities like Martha’s Vineyard,
Santa Fe and, of course, Telluride, primarily because these places
uniquely combine natural beauty with a preserved historic community.
But, increasingly, they are coming under enormous pressures that threaten
the characteristics that make them so special.
The consequences are all too familiar. People who
work in many of these places can no longer afford to live there. Once
distinctive downtowns are transformed into thinly disguised strip
malls. And, alarmingly, attractive older homes are demolished and
replaced with “McMansions” that are totally inappropriate
in scale and design to their surroundings.
This past June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation
put Nantucket Island on its 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list
to bring attention to this growing “tear-down” phenomenon.
Thanks to a broad and deep commitment to preserving
its historic character, Telluride has probably dealt with these pressures
more effectively than any other historic community in the country,
certainly better than places like Aspen or Park City. New in-fill
construction, for the most part, has blended in with existing streetscapes.
Restorations have been largely faithful to original designs and materials.
And, importantly, the bulk of new development has been far enough
removed from the town itself so as not to collide with or compromise
its contextual integrity.
All of these things combine to make Telluride a place
that appreciates its heritage and uses it in enlightened ways to provide
an enviable quality of life for its residents and visitors.
Allow the Valley Floor to be developed, however,
and that will inevitably change, perhaps not all at once but certainly
over time. It will place Telluride on a slippery slope to becoming
just another resort that puts a higher premium on commercial development
than on preserving its natural and cultural heritage. It will send
an unmistakable signal that this is not such a special place after
all, and that will almost certainly mean fewer people coming here
either to visit or to live. Travel writer Arthur Frommer says that
people do not come to places that have “lost their soul.”
The economic case against developing the floor deserves
more attention than it has received, particularly from those whose
livelihoods depend on increased visitation. But as strong as it is,
it is not the most compelling case. That belongs to the undeniable
fact that Telluride’s physical character and integrity will
be profoundly and forever compromised by the loss of its context.
The two things that provide Telluride’s context
are the mountains that surround it and the Valley Floor that is its
approach—its front yard. Take either of them away and you have
a different place, a much lesser place. A national historic landmark
district like Telluride does not exist in a vacuum; it exists in a
context and it depends on that context for integrity.
In the end, issues such as this invariably come down
to a question of values, and it is encouraging to see so many in the
area coming down on the side of valuing the Valley Floor’s beauty
and heritage. But there are obviously powerful forces on the other
side who don’t share those values and whose considerable resources
may, in the end, allow them to prevail.
Maybe Telluride should be a candidate for the National
Trust’s 2001 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list.
Richard Moe is president of the National Trust
for Historic Preservation, the nation’s largest preservation
organization, based in Washington D.C. He is also a part-time Ophir
resident. This commentary was written in August 2001. Since then,
Telluride has been placed on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered
Historic Places list.