Demolition looms for Jackson Depression-era homes

Jackson's Historic Preservation Board has issued a stay on the demolition permit for these two buildings, the mid-century quarters of St. John’s Hospital nurses. Developers want to demolish the homes to make way for a condominium complex. (Photo by Bradly J. Boner, Jackson Hole News&Guide)

By Cody Cottier

Jackson Hole News&Guide

Via Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — Throughout World War II and into the mid-1950s, when Jackson’s nurses finished tending to their patients each day they walked out of St. John’s Hospital and across Glenwood Street to their quarters.

It’s been decades since the hospital stood on Glenwood and nurses called the two buildings home. But as developers prepare to demolish the quarters to make way for a condominium complex, the Teton County Historical Preservation Board argues the structures are worth saving.

The humble homes are relics of Jackson’s transition from an eke-it-out frontier settlement to a thriving modern community, said Katherine Wonson, chairwoman of the board.

“To the eye it looks like just another residence,” she said. “But it has a whole other story behind it.”

The buildings sit just south of “the hole in the ground,” a long-unfinished construction site at the corner of Glenwood and Gill. After years waiting for the town to rezone the area, the owner, Bear Development, now plans to replace the concrete eyesore with 29 market-rate, townhome-style condos.

That project will spill over into the southern lot, and Wonson said Bear isn’t interested in preserving the buildings on-site. S.R. Mills, chief executive of the Wisconsin company, could not be reached for comment.

Another two buildings on the lot, to the north of the nurses’ quarters, are not considered historic.

As the condos nudge out the nurses’ quarters the old buildings must either fall or move. Hoping for the latter, the Historical Preservation Board sought a stay of the demolition permit, giving it 120 days to find a buyer and new home for the buildings.

The board has authority only to delay demolition by 90 days, a tight timeline considering the drawn-out process to relocate a structure. But Mackenzie King, vice president of the board, said Bear voluntarily agreed to a monthlong extension.

“That’s a really commendable aspect on the owner’s part,” King said. “They weren’t in a big rush to demolish.”

Wonson said a contractor has assessed whether it will be possible to relocate the buildings, but she doesn’t know the verdict. She guesses it’s “not a slam dunk that they’ll get moved,” but she remains optimistic.

As an “architecture nerd” Wonson sees beauty in the Depression-era domiciles, particularly the one that fronts Glenwood Street. When she investigated its historical significance in 2009, she was struck by the wide doorway, shingled sides and dormers jutting from the roof.

Though the log cabin is secure in its place as the archetype of Western construction, Wonson said early residents of Jackson Hole would have traded them in without a thought for something more “stylistically relevant.”

To add to the irony, nowadays the residents affectionately refer to the lot as “the ghetto.” But in the eyes of the original inhabitants, those nurses’ quarters would have been the creme de la creme.

“A building like that has always jumped out at me compared to the small, dark cabins we have,” Wonson said. “This was a well-designed, craftsman-style bungalow.”

To trace the history of the two buildings she examined photos from the Historical Society and Museum and dug through the “huge old books in the basement of the county office.”

She found that, before 1939, the St. John’s nurses lived on the second floor of the hospital. But as the town and hospital grew the nurses’ beds were replaced with patient beds.

The nurses first moved into the 1920s building closest to Glenwood and then into the second building to the west, built in the late 1930s or early 1940s. They likely lived there until the mid-1950s, when St. John’s Hospital moved to Broadway.

The push to protect the symbols of Jackson’s evolution comes as the town sets out to create incentives and regulations to promote historic preservation. Last month the council approved a $140,000 contract for a Boulder, Colorado, consultant, Winter and Company, to gather public opinion on what constitutes Western character and draft rules based on that input.

As it stands, the Historic Preservation Board is helpless beyond its ability to delay demo permits. New guidelines could expand its powers or create other means of safeguarding Jackson’s history and buildings like the nurses’ quarters, Wonson said.

But the fate of these buildings will be decided, one way or another, long before any of that is in place.

“It really underscores the need for these historic preservation tools,” she said, “so we have some levers to pull.”