The Chautauqua Movement
A California couple relocates to one of the most unique neighborhoods in the country
When a San Francisco couple looking for a more wholesome place to raise their two young boys first saw the historic 1918 home in Chautauqua Park, they immediately fell for it—despite the fact that it needed a lot of work and that they weren’t quite ready to buy it. “We just wanted to spend more time in it,” remember the owners. “We didn’t want to leave.”
At that time, however, they were still trying to figure out jobs—he’s in cyber security, and her background is in philanthropy and social impact—and it was a little too early to pull the trigger. That was 2017, and they decided that if the home was still for sale a year from then, they’d put in an offer. Twelve months later, unbelievably, the house was still on the market. The owners, who had had the property in their family for generations, were waiting for the right family.
“We knew from experience that selling a house that’s been in the family is a big deal,” say the current owners. “We sat down with the owners and talked about our family histories and how we’d love to maintain the essence of the historic home while modernizing it.”
Chautauqua isn’t your typical neighborhood: The land was bought by the City of Boulder in 1898 and was designed to be the headquarters of Colorado’s Chautauqua Movement, an educational assembly that introduced people with limited access to secondary education to the important ideas of the time. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2006 and is now one of the most visited parks in the state, with 40 miles of trails that crisscross the iconic Flatirons.
The couple’s home is one of roughly 100 cottages built in the 1900s for Chautauqua teachers, along with a dining hall, auditorium, student dormitory and a lodge for visitors. Most of the cottages are now short-term rentals owned by the Colorado Chautauqua Association, so there aren’t many year-round residents here. Their family is one of only several.
For the couple, looking for respite from big city living, the location was idyllic— so much so that they were willing to work through the many challenges that came with the home. The City of Boulder still owns the land on which the house sits, for example, which is an unusual arrangement in homeownership to be sure. Also, because the home is in a National Historic Landmark, the renovation restrictions were daunting. There is no garage and no hope for building one due to said restrictions. In addition, no construction is allowed during summer, due to Chautauqua rules. But because the house was so special, the couple decided to move forward with the process. “We wouldn’t change it,” say the owners.
As for living in the park, “I don’t think we even realized how great it was going to be,” says the husband. “We’ve had two mountain lions on our Ring camera, and we see bobcats, bears, rabbits and foxes. “The kids,” ages 7 and 9, “love it, and we’re getting to know the cottagers. There’s a multigenerational element that is really nice. It’s hard to be in a bad mood when you’re here.”
When it came to the renovation itself, though it was extensive, the owners pledged to respect the history of the home. They hired Lisa Laursen as lead designer along with contractor Joel Smiley, known for his work on historical landmark homes in the area.
The major items on the agenda were to dig out a basement, which required them to build a new foundation, and add a couple of dormers to the top level, where the low ceilings were challenging. “My husband is 6’ 4”, so he needed to be able to stand up in the shower,” laughs the wife.
Both of those projects had to go through a few iterations of plans to be approved by the Chautauqua Design Review Committee. “Even though the changes weren’t really visible, the committee is pretty conservative with what they’ll let you do,” says Laursen.
They painted every wall, brightening up the space with clean whites and colorful accent walls, but kept all the old doors and transoms, as well as all the old hardware. They had to replace the original fireplace, because it was in bad shape, but they reused the bricks for an exposed-brick wall in the basement. They also retained the original layout—which has small bedrooms and cozy nooks—and used materials reclaimed from the home and other structures in creative ways: reclaimed boxcar flooring became countertops and floating shelves; an old soapstone laundry sink became a working hand-washing station in the basement; and wood beams from 1865 became the focal point of the kitchen.
At the end of the process, the couple had created a bright, clean, modern take on an historic Craftsman. They had only one more thing to do—invite the original owners inside to see what their home had become. “We were definitely nervous to have them come,” says the wife, “but they were so appreciative. They felt like we had honored the house, and that was our intent and the promise we made to them.”
CONTRACTOR Smiley Inc. INTERIOR DESIGNER Lisa Laursen Design