Professor Kat Vlahos (red vest) explains aspects of the Buffalo Peaks ranch to CU Denver students

Wind and sun are two constants at the historic Buffalo Peaks Ranch.

Within a year or two, the ranch will be home to a third companion — books. A love of natural history literature has driven Jeff Lee and Ann Martin to fulfill their long-held dream of creating the Rocky Mountain Land Library.

A key chapter in the fledgling library’s history has been written by CU Denver architecture students and faculty, who’ve been companions and researchers through the years.

“I think one of the reasons we’ve never given up on the library is because we’ve worked with people like Kat Vlahos (associate professor and director of the Center of Preservation Research (CoPR), in the College of Architecture and Planning),” Lee said. “I just can’t imagine ever giving up all that positive energy of working with Kat and all the people at CU Denver.”

The Rocky Mountain Land Library (RMLL), which began more than a decade ago with the couple’s massive collection of natural history books, is on the threshold of a major step. Lee said the nonprofit hopes to soon sign a long-term lease at the ranch in the heart of South Park. Thanks to work done by Vlahos and her students, the RMLL has a blueprint both of how it will turn the cluster of buildings into libraries and how it can develop programs that blend nature with books.

The site will become a one-of-a-kind residential land-study center offering interpretive programs and opportunities for visitors to connect with the landscape.

“We see the library at Buffalo Peaks Ranch being used by all sorts of people — scholars, writers and artists,” said Lee, who works at Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver. “Some of our favorite people to serve are folks who love books, who go up there and dive into books and then go out and explore the countryside of South Park.”

Project partners include CU Denver, Park County and land-owner Aurora. Vlahos’s Senior Studio classes have studied the history of the ranch, working to restore the main house and outbuildings. Her Home on the Range class created program plans for the library. Meanwhile, Documentation students used state-of-the-art Leica LiDar 3D scanning technology to document the various ranch structures.

“In all three of my classes, I cover multiple aspects of a project. It all feeds into one body of work so we can look at different solutions,” Vlahos said. ” … We have all this great data ready to launch. When they’re ready to go forward with the library, we’ve got all these pieces in place.”

That data is already playing a key role in the nonprofit’s fundraising campaign, Lee said. “It’s great when (potential contributors) can see how much thoughtful work has already gone into the project.”

The project’s scope — the couple has a 30,000-volume collection — includes a children’s library and an urban-homestead collection to be located in Denver. Vlahos has been helping Lee and Martin scout for potential inner-city sites.

“You want to bring some meaning to your teaching by helping students learn through direct experience,” Vlahos said. “(Buffalo Peaks) is a tangible place that lets students engage beyond the classroom and think about the world beyond CU Denver.”

When it opens, the RMLL will be a signature attraction within an even larger national resource. In 2009 Congress approved a bill designating the South Park National Heritage Area. It’s one of less than 50 areas in the country representing the history of the nation.

It’s been a long journey, and now the moment Lee and Martin have been waiting for — moving books to the hills — is in sight. The lease signing will touch off a wave of phased-in growth for the RMLL, including a historical assessment of the Buffalo Peaks site by CoPR.

Having all these books, We always knew we wanted to do something in a sharing way. It’s just evolved over the years and become clear that this would be a good idea for Colorado and the Southern Rockies to have a facility and a resource like this…. “We’ll be able to start to implement a lot of the design things that Kat’s group has been working on.”

Added Vlahos, “You just have to let it evolve. It’s about developing these relationships with communities, people and students, so that it’s sustainable and long term.”

(Photo: Kat Vlahos (red vest), an associate professor in the College of Architecture and Planning, explains aspects of Buffalo Peaks Ranch to CU Denver architecture students at the future home of the Rocky Mountain Land Library.)

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