Avon residents work to save historic barn
About the barn
Who built it? Albert and Frances Hahnewald, sometime between 1900 and 1910.
Where is it? Along the north bank of the Eagle River, near Avon Elementary School.
Who owns it? The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.
Is it used today? Yes, for water and sanitation district storage.
AVON — Before Avon became an incorporated town in the early 1980s, the place at the base of Beaver Creek was a ranching community. Now residents are trying to preserve one of the last vestiges of the days before the ski industry came to town.
A barn built by Albert and Frances Hahnewald more than 100 years ago is perhaps the last historic building in Avon still standing on its original foundation. Since the 1980s, the barn has been used for storage by the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, on property that also holds the district’s Avon wastewater treatment plant. Over the past 30 years, the district has maintained the barn as a storage facility. That ownership has included shoring up the barn’s foundation and installing a metal roof several years ago.
The barn remains in usable condition, but decades of harsh winters and harsh sunlight take a toll on buildings. That, and modern development, mean most of the relatively few old buildings in the valley haven’t survived. The Hahnewald barn may face the same fate, although community members are working to save the structure.
The district has plans — currently on hold, thanks to an Aug. 27 vote by the district’s board of directors — to replace the building with parking, office and other wastewater treatment facilities.
Before the Aug. 27 meeting, Tamra Nottingham Underwood, a fourth-generation valley native, wrote to the board, asking for a delay in deciding the fate of the barn, asking for time to “seek alternatives to demolishing the Hahnewald barn.”
The district board voted unanimously at a Thursday meeting to table the topic until its next meeting on Sept. 24. In the meantime, they asked the citizen’s group to come up with a report or solution by the next board meeting.
Realities of Preserving the barn
That effort is just beginning, but could be gaining traction.
Eagle River Water & Sanitation District Board President Rick Sackbauer said while he and other board members are sympathetic to the idea of preserving the barn, the board is still dealing with a couple of harsh facts.
“We’re not in the business of historic preservation,” Sackbauer said.
And, while the building remains safe and usable, Sackbauer said the barn’s usefulness to the district is diminishing.
“We’ve delayed the decision to knock it down for at least five years, maybe more,” Sackbauer said.
That said, though, Sackbauer said the district board has members who have been in the Vail Valley for decades, and who appreciate the few remaining historic structures in the valley.
But finding the resources to preserve even those few structures can be hard to find.
Starting in 2006 or so, a group of Avon residents started work to preserve an old water wheel than ran an electric generator for the Nottingham ranch. State grants were found, but the process took several years, and the restoration work was done by a Colorado Mountain College class in Leadville.
Kathy Heicher is the president of the Eagle Valley Historical Society. Heicher said that a lot of historic preservation projects can take a long time to pull together. The Historical Society has a historic barn and one other building at the visitors’ center in Eagle. Both those buildings were moved onto the site, an expensive process, requiring a lot of grant requests and fundraising.
“I think moving the barn (at the rest area) was probably a five-year process,” Heicher said.
Still, people seem to appreciate the value of old structures.
“We probably get a half-dozen calls a year from people who want us to move buildings,” Heicher said. The problem is that people want the Historical Society to pay for the move. Given the group’s bare-bones budget, that simply isn’t possible. But it is important, Heicher said.
“By knowing what things were there and what they looked like, you can understand how a community got to where it is now,” Heicher said.
Underwood went further in her belief about the need for historic preservation. Old buildings “gives a place a soul,” she said. “Not a lot of places on the planet have a soul any more …When a place has a soul, you know it when you go there. When a place like Avon has a soul, people are more likely to stay there or eat there.”
Avon Town Council member Sarah Smith Hymes is also a newcomer to the idea that the Hahnewald barn is worth saving. But, she said, the good thing about small towns is that residents can work fairly quickly to get a community project begun.
The drive to save the barn is in its first stages, and the clock may be ticking to find a solution. Even if the barn is ultimately moved, or even demolished, then the structure may live on in other forms.
“We’ve talked about it,” Sackbauer said. “I don’t think you’ll ever see the fire department burning it down.”
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