For years, I’ve led downtown Durango walking tours by starting at the train depot, walking north on Main Avenue to El Rancho Tavern, then east to East Third Avenue and south to College Drive.
I always noticed a wreck of a house at 855 East Third Ave. and wondered what it was doing among all the stately, well-maintained mansions. Now, Diane Wildfang has remodeled it. The Queen of East Second Avenue has finished her latest restoration, a true gift to the Boulevard.
Imagine coming to Durango more than a century ago and seeing a struggling little mining and agricultural town set in sagebrush with a river running through it. What a gamble it was to buy a lot, build a house and hope the town survived because many communities in the West “went out like a blown match,” to use Wallace Stegner’s phrase.
In the 1880s, East Third Avenue was a promoter’s dream as was Durango itself – the brainchild of Gen. William Palmer, who sought to build a railroad from Durango, Colorado, to Durango, Mexico, but he only made it to Española, New Mexico.
The railroad lost steam and never went south, but Durango began to thrive. Will Rogers got it right in the 1930s when he wrote, “Durango is out of the way and glad of it.” Somewhere in that decade the small vernacular cottage at 855 East Third Ave., built in the first years of the town, caught fire. The interior was scorched all the way to the rafters. Occupants installed a new ceiling.
As East Third Avenue experienced a renaissance in the 1990s, the avenue became a prestigious address, enhanced by a broad boulevard and sweeping tree canopies. Yet the modest one-story house at 855 East Third settled into itself with sagging floors, blistering paint and a faulty foundation. An eyesore to others, Diane Wildfang saw only promise. She lived nearby in a 1906 stone Dutch Colonial revival house.
She watched. She waited. Someday, she hoped to buy it. Meanwhile, she turned her considerable restoration skills to revitalizing the Rochester Hotel (1892), turning it from a flophouse with 30 rooms and one bathroom per floor into an upscale boutique hotel. She worked on the Leland House (1926), the Cyprus Café (1890), Eno Wine Bar (1940s), the Vaile House at 721 East Third Ave. and what is now Oohs & Aahs at 920 Main Ave.
“I moved here to do historic preservation from Manhattan Beach, California. I saw lots of potential in Durango in 1992. It was affordable, and everyone here is so awesome to work with,” Diane said. “I wanted to move to a small ski town in the Rockies and do preservation. And I sought a college town. Telluride wasn’t big enough for me. It’s too hemmed in. Durango has a college and a great arts community. I think it was one of the best choices in my life. Preservation gives me a sense of purpose, and it’s my art.”
Husband Fred Wildfang said, “I write books. She does buildings. That’s what she does.”
Finally, in May 2014 after 10 years of waiting, the Wildfangs bought the modest two-bedroom house. No one told Diane about the house fire. No one knew.
Mary Jane Clark used to live in the 1884 house. Residing there from 1947 to 1956, Mary Jane remembers a red maple tree and a rose garden in the back.
“It was a nice place to live,” she said.
“The fun thing about the house was being downtown and seeing all my friends,” said her son, Jackson.
Diane restored the Victorian vernacular house to the strict codes of Durango’s Preservation Ordinance and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation to benefit from Colorado state income tax credits for historic preservation. The exterior had to remain the same with its small porch, Greek revival columns and original spindle post. None of the front could be changed, and the exterior paint colors had to be approved.
Windows needed to be restored and replaced. All original woodwork, board-and-batten in shiplap style, had to be used, scraped, sanded and re-painted. Diane said it didn’t have “a lick of insulation. Not even old newspapers in the walls” except for one from 1910.
“I don’t have those newspapers. They crumbled,” she said.
Don Ferrarese of Elevation Custom Builders took the 1,408-square-foot cottage down to the original floor of straight vertical grained Douglas fir and a stone and rubble foundation.
“He worked every day with his sons,” Fred said. “He showed up with a tool in his hands, and he cleaned up well.”
Architect Connie Gordon and structural engineer Dave Wilson worked on the restoration/rehabilitation of the house as well as the new two-story garage, vacation rental unit and office facing the alley.
As decades of dirt and grime were peeled away, construction workers found old books, pamphlets, catalogs, a cardboard suitcase, two electric insulators and even a small antique corset hidden in the attic.
A large dumpster was required for the three layers of roof and two layers of shingles. Doors had been covered up. Other doors had been added. Instead of one house fire, there may have been two.
“It was a bigger project because of the fires,” Diane said.
The original construction and use of materials impressed everyone. Floor joists were notched into floor beams by hand.
“Overall, they knew what they were doing. They ripped 2-by-4 studs with handsaws,” Fred said.
Learning to live in a small historic space takes consideration.
“I love it. It’s a challenge. It’s adapting to the way they did things back then,” said Diane, who replicated the original fir floor in the new open kitchen complete with raised ceiling and skylights.
“It’s downsizing. I like it. If guests come, we don’t have a second bedroom. We have a hotel,” she said.
Neighbors also value the remodel.
“There is a great deal of pride among homeowners on the Boulevard and a strong desire to preserve the neighborhood. The Wildfangs have been important catalysts in the historic preservation of our community,” said Barbara Morris, who lives across the street.
When I lead walking tours, I can now talk about Diane Wildfang’s latest Durango restoration and her gift to the Boulevard.
And if I’m passing by at 5 p.m., odds are that Fred will be sitting on the front patio, frosted martini in hand. He’ll have stories to add, too.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Email him at email@example.com.