The rise and fall of the A-frame in Summit County
You see them everywhere. Often, they exist in groups, small pockets spread throughout Summit’s neighborhoods. “On the hills above Silverthorne,” someone will say, or “right when you get into Keystone” or “there’s a bunch in Blue River.” Sometimes there’s just one, solitary in its uniqueness, its architecture immediately recognizable upon any horizon — the A-frame.
Few structures date themselves so completely as do A-frames. Both revered and reviled, some cling to the nostalgia of the design while others pooh-pooh its inconvenient use of space. While many of Summit’s A-frames have gone by the wayside over the years, others remain, testaments to the trends of a bygone era and the inspired visions of modern day homeowners.
The big decades for A-frames were the ’50s and ’60s, before fading out of fashion in the early ’70s. World War II was over and America was ready for a vacation. But rather than cramming everyone into a hotel room, or struggling with tent flaps, people wanted a place and space to call their own — even if that space was small.
According to architectural historian Chad Garrett Randi, a number of architects were noted for using elements of the A-frame design around 1950.
However, it was San Franciscan designer John Campbell who, in 1951, created the Leisure House — a simplistic, stripped-down design that is the originator of those seen in Summit today.
Campbell’s A-frame vision wasn’t a onetime building event, but an early example of architectural DIY (do it yourself). The design was so easy that nearly anyone could replicate it without being an experienced builder. A-frames were sold in kits that could be ordered and delivered right to the site. And they were cheap. That, compared with the ease of assembly, created a rise in popularity and soon little A-frame cabins were popping up all over the country.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
One place in particular comes to the mind of Summit County residents when they’re asked about A-frames: Ptarmigan Peak.
Nestled between the town of Silverthorne and the swath of Interstate 70, Ptarmigan Peak is home to several neighborhoods on unincorporated Summit County land. Among those is one known as Government Tracts, where many A-frames still stand today.
Previously Bureau of Land Management land, the federal government divided it into parcels around half an acre in size and then created a lottery for Korean War veterans. Those whose names were chosen were given it for free, while others were able to buy a parcel for a nominal fee, with the promise that they would build on it in the next three years.
“The cheapest thing you could put on them was an A-frame,” said Amy Smits, real estate broker and owner of Century 21 Gold LLC.
The other story people tell about Ptarmigan Peak is how the roads came to be as crazy as they are. The planners at the BLM office, the story goes, hadn’t actually been out to the area before they started planning the roads.
“The people who laid out those lots had a flat piece of paper in front of them,” said local historian Mary Ellen Gilliland, “and they didn’t realize that the property was straight up and down.”
Thus, it became the neighborhood known for its steep grades and occasionally impassable roads.
“In the summer, it’s a feat of daring,” said Gilliland, “but in the winter it’s an impossible feat.”
Over the years, properties changed hands and new owners shaped them to their own visions. While some people did renovations or tacked on additions, many others simply tore the A-frame buildings down and decided to start from scratch. And the new ones looked nothing like A-frames.
“It’s definitely a thing of the past,” Smits said. “I haven’t seen someone intentionally build an A-frame in the 12 years I’ve been here.”
“We’ve torn a couple down,” admitted Karen Wray with a laugh. Wray is the design coordinator of Mountain Log Homes & Interiors in Frisco. “Mostly the reason people don’t build them anymore is they’re dark. Our society, we like windows, and they really are only designed to be able to have windows in the front and the back.”
“It’s definitely for people who don’t want to have a lot,” said Smits, of the A-frame design. “You have to be more simple. Your kitchen doesn’t have 20 cabinets, it might have six or seven, so you don’t get the upper cabinets because that’s part of the ‘A.’ You definitely see a more simple lifestyle in the A-frame.”
But that’s what some people are looking for, she added. While some tear down the old buildings to erect mansions on the same spot, others keep the quirkiness that was there already, adding on or remodeling and modernizing it.
“There’s a ton of people, they want to move up here and live the lifestyle,” she said. “They don’t want to buy this huge house that requires cleaning.”
Others buy the land and keep the A-frames for the same reason they were put up in the first place — affordability.
“It’s because people who want a house, and who don’t have half a million to spend, they can get these older A-frames that might not be in good shape, (but) at least it’s a house and a yard. They can fix it up over time,” said Ned Walley, a realtor with Cornerstone Real Estate.
Both he and Smits have sold A-frame units to young newlyweds or families with just one or two children.
MAKING IT THEIR OWN
While some make A-frames their permanent homes, others use them for the original intention — leisure houses.
“Like a lot of people in Denver, we wanted a place up in the mountains,” said Karl Sowa. Sowa and his partner Tom Rieber own property with an A-frame on Ptarmigan Peak.
When they bought it last year, it was old and a bit run down. Instead of thinking demolition, however, Sowa saw an opportunity.
“I’m a bit of a house re-doer, so it appealed to me,” he said. “Ours is a really sweet lot and view.”
The A-frame was built in 1961, didn’t have running water and hadn’t been lived in for about 20 years.
“It was surprisingly decent shape inside,” said Sowa. “And the bones were really good, so we bought it and we decided to turn it into our own little ski cabin.”
At the time, Sowa happened to be in between jobs, and was able to throw himself fully into the project. He estimates it took about four months, with him doing the majority of the work.
He researched high energy efficiency and went about the goal of making the place as low cost as possible, outfitting the roof and walls with foam insulation, using LED lighting, a high-efficiency heater and adding in-floor radiant heating.
While he had a lot of interior work to do, Sowa liked the other aspects of the A-frame.
“It’s not like all the condos smashed together over at Wildernest,” he said, referencing a neighborhood in Silverthorne across the highway from Ptarmigan Peak. “It’s right next to everything, because it’s so close to the (I-70) exit and the ski resorts.”
Now that the remodel is finished, Sowa and Rieber come up all the time. The cabin easily sleeps five people — seven in a pinch — and it has running water and a completely modern interior.
“Now, I just love it,” Sowa said. “It’s got that combination mid-century modern but rustic kind of combination that I really like.”
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