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Historic Far View Visitor Center placed on endangered list

Mesa Verde National Park is looking for a use for the historic Far View Visitor's Center. (Courtesy Colorado Preservation Inc.)
Iconic structure at Mesa Verde National Park has been vacant since 2014; ideas swirl for its reuse

The vacant Far View Visitor Center at Mesa Verde National Park was listed as endangered this week, but a recovery plan is in the works for the iconic circular building inspired by surrounding Native American architecture.

At its Saving Places conference Thursday, the Colorado Preservation Inc. added the abandoned former visitor’s center in the heart of the park to its most endangered places list.

“The purpose of the designation is to put these place on a pedestal in order to bring awareness of historic structures in danger of being lost,” said Katie Peterson director of CPI Endangered Places. “The building is not going anywhere, we hope to help facilitate a new use for it.”

The designation does not come with funding, but the recognition of protecting a historic structure could inspire funding from Congress or elsewhere for repairs, she said.

It was vacated in 2013 with the construction of a new visitors center at the park entrance.

The distinct building with its wraparound walkway and “far views” of canyons and mesas stretching to New Mexico appears to almost levitate over the landscape.

Denver architects Joseph and Louise Marlow designed the 10,500-square-foot building, which was built in 1967 and opened in 1970.

It was one of the first visitor centers of the National Park Service, part of the Mission 66 initiative to enhance visitor services.

To enhance its natural appeal, the building does not have a parking lot. Visitors would park at a nearby lot and walk through tunnel under the main road to an entrance ramp up to the facility.

A public process will gather input for a use for the building, including from Native American tribes that trace their ancestry to the Pueblo people who resided at the site for millennia.

The public process for the future of the building will be posted on the park’s project planning website this year. Comments are welcome.

Ideas over the years have included a museum, Native American cultural center, performance hall, school, office complex, restaurant, lodging, archaeology research center, conference hall, theater or employee lodging.

But none have gained much traction, in part because of the condition of the building and expensive rehabilitation costs.

“The condition of the building is generally good and it is not in danger of falling down,” said Amy Kole, NPS intermountain cultural resources manager. “It does need some repairs and upgrades to make it habitable again, but we don’t have the funding yet for a full rehab.”

She said a priority is to replace the roof, essential to preserve the structure.

Construction of the Far View Visitor Center in 1966. (Courtesy Mesa Verde National Park)
The Far View Visitor Center when completed in 1967. (Courtesy Mesa Verde National Park)
Interior construction of the Far View Visitor Center in 1967. (Courtesy Mesa Verde National Park)

The “endangered” listing may sound dire, but efforts are ongoing to preserve and repurpose the structure, according to Elizabeth Dickey, cultural resource program manager for Mesa Verde.

She said it was used as office space for a little while after the new visitor center was built. But the heating costs got to be too much.

“The glass wall along the entire south side was built in the 1960s and is a cool architectural feature, but does not have much insulation value,” she said.

It was never meant to be a year-round building, and would close in the winter. A mouse infestation needs mitigation, Dickey said.

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Turning it into a tribal cultural center was considered. The idea was to have exhibits highlighting the 24 tribes with ancestral connections to the cultural sites at the park. But no funding could be found for the project. Another plan was to make it into a concessionaire to sell food or merchandise, but the issue of retrofitting the building became too costly.

More recently, the park has talked with the University of Colorado Boulder to put a museum studies program in the building. The plan would involve educational programming, hands-on science exhibit space, research labs and courses.

“We all thought it was a wonderful idea, and it may still move forward,” Dickey said. “We’re going to continue talking with them and see if it comes to fruition.”

The idea for lodging is not really feasible, she said, because the remodeling costs would be too high and the interior alteration needed could hurt its historic status.

Other actions take for the building include getting it listed on the Colorado Register of Historic Places in 2018. Efforts are also underway to have it listed as a National Historic Landmark.

In 2020, an engineering firm considered the work needed to rehabilitate the building and bring it up to energy-efficiency standards and accessibility.

An estimated cost was not available. In 2018, a rehabilitation study estimated costs at $3.3 million. The report stated the building was structurally in good shape.

The park is committed to finding a use for the building that is compatible with the park mission, Dickey said.

“The park recognizes that this is a nationally significant building, and we really value it. It is in no danger of falling down, and we regularly check on it,” she said. “We’re taking the time to find a really good partnership, or it’s possible the park could find a use for it as well. People are drawn to that building. It’s intriguing and has a really nice vibe. The view is amazing.”

Since 1998, Colorado Preservation, Inc. has been working with communities throughout the state to save many endangered historic sites through its Endangered Places Program.

“In 25 years, the program has highlighted 135 historic sites throughout the state; 55 sites have been saved, and only eight have been lost, with 50 actively in progress and 22 still under alert status.”

The Far View Visitor Center was one of five sites added to the list this year.

The others are:

  • The Feminilas Building in the San Luis Valley, the only known structure separately owned and operated by the operated by the women’s auxiliary of the men’s labor organization La Sociedad Protección Mutua de Trabajadores Unidos.
  • The Garcia School in Costilla County in the San Luis Valley. Constructed in 1913, the Garcia School was one of 11 adobe schools built in Costilla County in the San Luis Valley before the consolidation of Centennial School District R-1 in 1963.
  • The Koch Homestead, Pitkin County, near Aspen Colorado, also known as the Adelaide Ranch. The Koch Homestead consists of five relatively intact but deteriorating buildings in the Hunter Creek Valley near Aspen. Today, only a few know of the origins of these historic structures, even though they played a significant role in the early settlement and development of Aspen.
  • The South Platte Hotel, Jefferson County, constructed in 1913 after the previous 1887 hotel caught fire during a tragic homicide. The South Platte Hotel symbolizes Colorado’s narrow gauge railroad history, early tourism, and summer cabin communities.
The Feminilas Building in Costilla County. (Courtesy of Colorado Preservation, Inc.)
The Garcia School in Costilla County. (Courtesy of Colorado Preservation, Inc.)
The Koch Homestead, near Aspen in Pitkin County. (Courtesy of Colorado Preservation Inc.)
The South Platte Hotel in Jefferson County. (Courtesy of Colorado Preservation, Inc.)