Colorado vernacular – mining buildings

Let’s generally define vernacular architecture as that construction that uses locally available materials and building traditions to address site specific needs.  It is not necessarily distinct from a larger architectural culture, but typically its concerns are more local and utilitarian and most importantly it is informed by historical, local knowledge.  I am not an architectural historian or scholar, but as a Colorado architect, these simple structures are particularly interesting in their formal and material properties.

north of Blackhawk

Mining buildings were some of the first permanent structures built in Colorado by non-Native Americans.  Typically these were initially wood structures – cabins, sheds, mine heads and supports.  Over time and with the availability of other materials, most significantly rugged and durable steel panels, there developed a more refined typology of building types unique to each of the extraction, assay and processing methods of mineral extraction.  These were very basic utilitarian buildings and their forms derived primarily from the minimal enclosure required for the process in demand.  I can’t tell you about the necessity that drove the forms of these buildings, only that as artifacts on the landscape, these buildings and especially their dark maroon/black metal panels have a striking presence, severe, mysterious and enigmatic.

above Central City

These metal clad mining buildings are almost always simple sheds with layered flat or corrugated steel siding.  The interior structure is typically lumber framed for the smaller buildings, steel beams and trusses for the larger (and probably more recent) buildings.

south of Central City

Many of these buildings are these large sheds, sloping down with the typography, a kind of artificial hillside as the men inside tear out the natural landscape within.

With the passage of time these panels have variably worn and wrinkled and their now variable layers lend a kind of abstract softness to otherwise rugged and severe building forms.

One can only imagine what these buildings must have looked like with newly installed panels, shining in the high, thin alpine air and stark sunshine of Colorado’s high country.

These panels with their ability to span larger framing bays, greatly reduced the labor required to build, maintain and modify buildings.  Obviously their cost must have made their use preferable over conventional wood siding.

To be clear, these buildings derive from the same mechanistic view of the land that can be seen in massive piles of mining slag surrounding them and the arsenic poisoned creeks that flow below.  So while their forms may be intriguing and mysterious, they may represent some of the very worse and most environmentally destructive processes that mankind can summon.

Sitting now in often high, isolated gulches they are nonetheless striking and fascinating.

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