Colorado log house steeped in history gets a new, green incarnation
Updated: Apr 15, 2019
Republished from The Denver Post
“Oh, no. You don’t want that house. It needs everything.”
That’s what the real-estate agent told Donna Baker-Breningstall after she and her husband found the log cabins in Denver’s University Park neighborhood.
But love has its reasons.
And Baker-Breningstall, a former art and antiques dealer turned gardener and food activist, and her husband, Orvin Breningstall, who’d been an educator in the Cherry Creek school district, had looked for love for a year.
It seemed like they had seen every house in Denver.
“We wanted something unique,” she said.
A house with some history on it. Something inspiring. With lots of light and room for a big garden and orchard where Donna could pump out fresh produce for neighborhood food banks.
The two-log-cabin property on South Jackson Street had all those things. It had logs the forest service had harvested from the banks of Rock Creek. A 20,000-square-foot lot. A stone fireplace built by a well-known Colorado mason.
What the couple didn’t know was that the seller had been on a long quest herself.
The owner, the late Pat Gilmore, “didn’t want anybody scraping her baby,” said Baker-Breningstall. “We made sure her Realtor knew we wouldn’t do that.”
What they did do took more than 10 months, double the time they’d projected. Working with architect Paul R. Adams of Earth and Sky Architecture, LLC, and builder Vanguard Construction, the renovation team removed the mother-in-law wing connecting the two cabins, and excavated for its replacement, a new structure that would provide geothermal heating and cooling.
The rear of the front cabin, originally bedrooms, became a new, kitchen-centered great room with a long dining hall and a table built from the old cabin’s doors.
The addition houses a master suite with sitting room for the couple; bedrooms for their two daughters, Olivia and Sunia, and a doggie shower with doggie door. (That’s for the pooch they plan to adopt for Sunia.)
Orvin Breningstall documented the long renovation process in his blog Cabin in the City (citycabin.org). But there’s something absent from that chronicle, and from his wife’s voice when she talks about those months: frustration.
The existing structures really did need everything: plumbing, wiring, insulation, roofing, windows, kitchen, bathrooms and floor refinishing and patching. And then there was the addition.
But there was never a “What have we done?” moment, the couple says.
“I never wanted to give up,” Baker-Breningstall says. “I couldn’t wait to get into it.”
Inside, it’s obvious why. In the front cabin’s main room — the couple calls it the hearth room — bright lime wing chairs and other cushy seating surround that iconic, intimate stone fireplace, flanked by its original built-in coal and wood boxes and low bookcases.
“We didn’t change it at all,” she says. “We just absolutely loved it.”
Baker-Breningstall’s adjoining office is accessed via an antique door with a mail slot. It’s hung on a barn rail so that it glides open or closed.
“I’ve always wanted a barn door,” she laughs.
The cabins’ windows had to be replaced, but Baker-Breningstall designed the coffee table in the hearth room from one of them. Her husband fashioned two into a cold frame for the vegetable garden.
Everywhere, they looked for ways to reuse or repurpose what they removed, down to the original, tiny garden shed. The shed itself turned out to be too rickety to preserve, but the new shed’s exterior siding and interior beadboard were salvaged on site.
Log or not, each wall inside the home has become a canvas for antiques, art, and treasures from travels to Tibet, China, Mongolia, Greenland, Iceland and Orvin’s time on the Navajo reservation in Kayenta, Ariz., getting his doctorate.
The overall result blends rustic warmth with bright modernity — and familial affection.
The dining area is dominated by a huge painting of Tibetan monks, on loan from a friend. The monks stride purposefully away from the viewer, right fists clenched behind their backs. On an adjoining wall are Chinese paintings from the 1840s bought in an outdoor market.
And on the opposite one hangs a landscape of steppe riders, purchased in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. They share the room with food photos taken by daughter Olivia, a student at Western Colorado State University.
In the nearby hall hangs a Ute baby carrier that Orvin bought for his wife during her first pregnancy.
Despite all the changes, the cabin presents nearly the same streetside face as it did in the 1940s. But now, it’s fronted by the extensive food garden in progress: 18 vegetable beds and around a dozen fruit trees, with more to come.
It’s yet another way the cabin’s new life gives a nod to its history.
“Pat Gilmore worked in a food pantry for years,” says Baker-Breningstall. ” I feel like I’m continuing a tradition.”
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