What may lead to the erosion of Ouray’s Historic District

atodd's picture

I am writing to follow up on comments I made at the Ouray City Council meeting on Monday, May 15, 2017 regarding language in the Planning Commission’s recommendation and draft ordinance that would seemingly sanction the use of intermodal shipping containers as residences or permissible as a building material. I was particularly disappointed because of the Planning Commission’s and Council’s apparent lack of knowledge and concern about Ouray’s National Historic District and the significant benefits and recognition it provides the community. In fact only five individuals, including my wife and myself, out of nearly 50 present, indicated that they were members of the Ouray County Historical Society.
The issue of Historic Preservation in both the City and County of Ouray goes back at least 35 years and perhaps more.
Despite many obstacles a group of dedicated citizens, led by Ouray native Roger Henn, were successful in getting a considerable portion of the City of Ouray designated as a National Historic District in 1983. At that time more than two-thirds of the buildings in the district were determined to be “contributing.”
Recognizing that change occurs, and concerned that Ouray might be losing its substantial pool of “contributing” structures over the years, in 2007 OCHS and the City of Ouray had a resurvey of the Ouray National Historic District conducted. The results of that resurvey indicated that the number of “contributing” structures in the district had declined to about 30 percent — a 50 percent decline over about 25 years. What will the next 25 years bring?
As a result of that resurvey and recognizing the danger in losing Ouray’s unique character, an effort was launched to establish some type of review on development/changes in the Historic District. While a nonbinding referendum failed by 24 votes, those 24 voters in a nonbinding referendum a decade ago should not control today’s thinking.
It goes without saying that the Western Slope’s and Ouray’s economy has become increasingly tourist, recreational and service sector based over the years. In fact, surveys have shown that tourism is a significant “if not leading” factor in Ouray’s economy – in one survey 45 percent of respondents claimed they come to Ouray due to the city’s architectural heritage and historic ambience.
That heritage and ambience is the result of an eclectic mixture of architectural styles, not just Victorian. To realize that one only needs to review the extensive work done by Jim Opdahl, George Moore and Walt Rule and published in “Ouray’s Architectural Heritage,” available at City Hall or OCHS. Moreover, Ouray’s downtown Main Street business district contains one of the largest and best- preserved concentrations of Mesker iron front buildings in the entire country. The Wright Opera House is a prime example.
Change is inevitable, but it does not need to come at the expense of what makes Ouray so unique, inviting and interesting.
Action by this Council to permit what appears to be language in its codified ordinances that seemingly sanction the use of shipping containers as residences or in the construction thereof will inevitably lead to further erosion and loss of integrity of Ouray’s National Historic District.
In this National Historic Month especially, OCHS would urge Council to recognize its responsibility to be good stewards of this unique, beautiful, interesting and unique asset called the City of Ouray and preclude any language that suggests or encourages the use of shipping containers as residences or permits their use in the construction thereof, in residential areas of the city and especially within the recognized National Historic District.
As always Ouray’s future is in its council’s hands; we hope they don’t squander it.

Tom Hillhouse
Vice-President Ouray County Historical Society