By Anna Friedrich, Assoc. AIA
When you are invited to drive up to Grand Lake on a late summer Friday, it’s hard to say no. In mid-August, I was fortunate enough to tag along on the AIA Colorado board retreat and water conservancy tour organized by Scott Munn, director of AIA Colorado West. Scott grew up spending his summers at a family cabin on the historic Grand Lake, and now calls the nearby community of Granby home, where he splits his time between his award-winning residential architectural practice and the many outdoor activities and attractions available for residents and visitors to Grand County.
Retreat attendees were President Wells Squier, President-Elect Sarah Broughton, Associate Director Kari Lawson, Denver Director Julianne Scherer, North Director Scott Rodwin and AIA Colorado CEO Mike Waldinger. The purpose of the tour was to learn more about the critical importance of water management and conservancy in Colorado. Although 80% of the Colorado population resides on the eastern side of the continental divide, 80% of our state’s water is collected on the western side. The result of this imbalance is decades of impressive engineering projects that have worked to divert water to Front Range cities.
We began the day with a private tour of the Headwaters Center in Winter Park. Opened to the public in 2019, the Headwaters Center is a 21,000 sq ft multipurpose building with event space and an innovative museum that aims to educate visitors on the history, wildlife, and conservation efforts of the Colorado river network. Clad in stunning reclaimed barn wood on a stone plinth, the building’s rustic exterior anchors the building to the natural beauty of its site on the banks of the Fraser River. It is designed to be completely off the grid, running off solar energy (stored in over 300 car batteries!) and natural gas backup generators. The Headwaters Center can host public or private events in its outdoor amphitheater, private terrace overlooking the Rocky Mountains, or the 4,400 sq ft “Barn,” a spacious banquet hall that showcases the same reclaimed barn wood as the exterior of the building.
After a quick peek at the event spaces, we gathered in the lowest level of the Headwaters Center to begin our private tour of the “River Journey.” The interactive exhibit, designed by ECOS Communications in Boulder, introduces visitors to the history and ecology of Colorado waterways, with an emphasis on the local Fraser River, a tributary of the Colorado river. The exhibit emphasizes the importance of conservation and careful management of water in Colorado through captivating exhibits and video-based games that will engage any learner, young or old. My personal favorite was a trout survival video game, where visitors are tasked with helping a trout survive the dangerous trip upstream by navigating around various obstacles and dangers. (It was harder than it looked.) Throughout the tour, I was impressed with how the exhibit balanced moments of levity with moments of thoughtful reflection. The tour ended with a visit to the “Think Tank,” a meditative space in a full-scale water tank, centered around a pool of water that is continuously refilled by a slow drip of water from above. Scraps of droplet shaped paper cover the walls, filled with handwritten reflections and musings from visitors to the museum.
After the museum, our group drove to Grand Lake, the historic headwaters of the Colorado River and the largest and deepest natural lake in Colorado. As a result of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, Grand Lake is now a part of the West Slope Collection System, which provides the Front Range with most of its water. Under natural conditions, water from Grand Lake would flow west to the nearby Shadow Mountain Reservoir and then south to Lake Granby Reservoir. When water is needed on the Front Range, the Farr Pumping Plant, an impressive brutalist structure on the shores of Lake Granby that extends nearly 140 feet underground, reverses the flow so that water is pumped east out of Grand Lake through the Alva B. Adams tunnel, which runs underneath Rocky Mountain National Park.
The town of Grand Lake is primarily a summer community which retains a sense of nostalgic charm. The public access waterfront and marina were bustling with tourists and annual summer residents on the day we visited. During lunch, Scott educated us on the fascinating history of the Grand Lake Yacht Club, which claims to be the highest elevation yacht club in the world. It is also the custodian of a prestigious Lipton Cup, awarded annually during regatta week, that was donated by the flamboyant sportsman Sir Thomas Lipton in 1912 after the club’s founders took him out for drinks in Denver and greatly exaggerated the scale of their little yacht club. (They had a membership of four when they incorporated in 1902 and raced in rowboats with homemade sails.) By 1912 membership had increased enough to warrant the need for a clubhouse. The modest bark-clad structure was completed in 1913 and still stands today.
After lunch, it was finally time to get out on the water. With Scott as our captain and guide, our water conservancy tour culminated in a pontoon ride on Grand Lake. As we circled the beautiful alpine lake, Scott pointed out significant structures among the many beautiful homes that line the shores. The homes range from carefully preserved fisherman’s cabins from the early 20th century to mansions built by some of the most prominent families in the US. New structures on the lake are subject to strict zoning regulations to protect the integrity of the waterfront.
Many thanks to Scott for organizing this event. AIA Colorado board members were able to spend an afternoon learning about a critical Colorado resource and experience a part of the state that many had never had a chance to visit. If you are ever lucky enough to make it up to Grand County on a beautiful Friday afternoon (or any day of the week), make sure to take a moment to appreciate how this historic headwaters provide life and industry to so many across the site.