111-Year-Old House Again In The Hands of Pioneers

Five miles south of Carbondale is a ramshackle Victorian house with fading orange paint, mildewy wood shakes that curl both lengthwise and widthwise, and a porch with a rotting floor and rails that droop to one side.
The painted lady lost her luster long ago, but there’s still something charming about the place. The setting can’t be beat. The home was built, then added on to numerous times, on one of the last flat, tillable pieces of ground before the Crystal River Valley gets pinched in by the jagged, rocky cliffs. Mount Sopris towers above to the southeast. The cottonwood-lined Thompson Creek spills out of the hills a short distance away.
The house was built in 1893 by A.J. and Jane Steele Thompson, early homesteaders in the Crystal Valley who had outgrown their nearby cabin.
Now the house is again in the hands of pioneers.
The old Victorian and surrounding 244-acre Thompson Creek Ranch was purchased last year by a nonprofit group dedicated to showing America that it can survive and thrive without a lifestyle that depends on gobbling copious amounts of gas and oil. The old ranch house is going to be a centerpiece of Sustainable Setting’s efforts to demonstrate “a postindustrial society,” according to co-founder and director Brook Le Van.

Sustainable Settings director Brook Le Van, center, stands with wife Rose and ranch manager Teague Wilson on the porch of a house built by homesteaders in 1893.
Aspen Times photo/Nick Saucier.

Model for energy efficiency
Sustainable Settings’ environmentally friendly development plan for the ranch was approved by the Pitkin County commissioners in January. Eventually it will have a cluster of offices, homes, barns and sheds all dedicated to showing what’s possible with conservation and sustainable living.
A 110-foot tower hooked to a 10-kilowatt turbine will generate electricity along with solar and hydro power sources. Bathrooms will boast ultramodern versions of composting toilets and gray-water treatment systems. Turkeys, cattle, sheep and chickens are already being raised there organically. All the buildings will be as energy efficient as possible.
The entire ranch will be used as an educational center for sustainable living. It won’t be a private commune out of touch with the public.
Sustainable Settings will take on one of its toughest challenges first by turning the drafty ranch house into a model of high efficiency — one that produces more energy than it uses. It would be easier to start from scratch, Le Van said, but the organization believes a key to its mission is to show that existing structures can be retrofitted.
“We’ll probably spend a little bit more per square foot than we would with new construction, but not that much more,” said Le Van. “This isn’t just throw a ton of money at it.”
Preserving the house
Le Van said a home’s kitchen is the Achilles heel of green development because it is so energy-intensive. The big challenge is to generate the heat needed to boil water and cook food without using a lot of coal, gas or oil.
One idea is using a super-efficient oven that would gradually lose its heat over seven days before it was refueled. A family would have to plan meals based on that decreasing heat.
Sustainable Settings has pledged to preserve the historic integrity of the house, as well as a cabin from 1879 and some historic ranch buildings. Nearly all of the house’s exterior will be restored rather than replaced. An exception is the wood shakes. Teague Wilson, the ranch manager, noted that curved woodwork along upper corners of the beams on the porch is some of the only ornamentation in the house.
The Thompson family added rooms at least five times over several decades. Function was more important than frills, Wilson said.
One challenge will be preserving the look of the leaky bay windows while improving the efficiency in one of the important areas. “That’s an interesting tightrope to walk,” said Le Van.
Sustainable Settings is considering the addition of interior storm windows that could swing out of the way on a hinge, according to Wilson, who is designing the retrofits and might oversee construction.
The interior walls, which have been recoated with sheet rock and even insulated to a low level since the house was built, will have a second wall added, reducing the living space but boosting the insulation level by roughly a third.
First phase of plan
The extensive retrofit will cost about $200 per square foot or “in the neighborhood” of $225,000, said Le Van. The organization raised more than $2 million last year to buy the Thompson Creek Ranch, so it’s got some heavy hitters.
Now Le Van and his wife, Rose, are embarking on the first big fund-raising effort to try to transform the ranch into a living example of what Sustainable Settings is all about. They are kicking off the effort this week. About $30,000 has already been raised.
Construction will start once all the funds are secured. “It’s just not the time for a nonprofit to go into debt,” said Le Van. The house will be home for the Le Vans. Eventually it will go to the ranch manager. It will always be a model used for public education.
More information about the organization’s plans are available on its Web site: sustainablesettings.org. The ranch can also be reached at 963-6107.
[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]