The current City Council has spent quite a bit of time looking at housing related issues. Government oversight of rental properties, rezoning mobile home parks, addressing occupancy limits and removing all single family zoning have all at least been on the table. Some items have been enacted, others are still under review, and, in the case of the Land Use Code overhaul, the City is currently beginning the process of a do-over. Housing is definitely a hot topic in Fort Collins these days.
Housing is a very personal aspect of our lives. We often feel like housing, for good or for ill, reflects upon us in some way. A McMansion might say “I’ve made it.” A shared apartment, or living with parents past the teen years, may make us feel like something’s wrong with us. Even the style or age of house can be considered a reflection of our tastes or values. And the shape of the housing we abide in, as well as how many people occupy that space with us, can affect our relationship to the wider community (think front porches) and our overall sense of well-being (loneliness vs. connectedness).
As I’ve been musing over the housing issues confronting us today, I often reflect back to what housing has looked like in Fort Collins in the past. As a local historian, I often come across stories that include in them, in some shape or form, information about housing. We often skip over those little details because they’re not always relevant to the history being retold. But for the people living those stories, their housing was an integral part of their day-to-day life.
Here are some of the examples of housing in Fort Collins that I’ve come across over the years. I didn’t seek these examples out. These are what have come to me as I seek out different information about people, buildings, or events in Fort Collins past. So while not necessarily being statistically representative of housing types in our past, the sheer variety, coming to me haphazardly as I research other topics, is informative in its own right.
Jerome Crow Dog and family in front of their house near Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
Photo taken on January 16, 1891. (Denver Public Library, Call number NS-77.)
Fort Collins as an American municipality has only been around for 150 years. But there have been people living on this land for at least 12,000 years and perhaps longer. The Arapaho and Cheyenne peoples that were displaced from this region in the late-1800s had themselves only moved into the area in the 1600s as they were displaced from around Minnesota by European immigrants coming in from the east.
Though the photo above was taken in North Dakota, both the family and their housing are indicative of the type of housing one would have found in use in the Fort Collins area prior to Colorado’s Indian Removal legislation in 1878.
Could they do it today? Many Indigenous people, including the Arapaho, allowed for multiple wives. Given Fort Collins present U+2 law, an Indigenous man with one or two wives would fit within the U+2 requirements, but any more than that would put him outside the law. One local Arapaho named Friday was said to have had ten wives. If “U” was Friday and “2” was his first two wives, then he would have been out of compliance by the next 8 wives. (The kids all count as related and therefore are fine under the U+2 law.) It should also be noted that given the soft-sided nature of this family’s dwelling unit, they would have to get a special permit that would allow them to camp in a natural area. (Sec. 23-195 of the FC Municipal Code.) Camping on public land within the City is illegal. (Sec. 17-181 of the FC Municipal Code.) Camping on private property is allowed if you have the permission of the property owner, but you can’t camp longer than 7 days. You can get an extra week if you have an undue hardship and the neighbor’s don’t complain. (Sec. 17-182 of the FC Municipal Code.) … and if I’m reading that code right, there has to be a residential building on the property in order for a tent to be allowed. You can’t own a lot and just camp on it for 7 days.
This drawing of the military camp known as Fort Collins was done by M.D. Houghton in 1899.
It represents what the camp looked like in 1865. (The image is from the Archive at FCMoD, H00842.)
French Canadian and American immigrants began to settle along the Poudre River in the early 1860s. They generally lived in cabins made of hewn logs brought down from the hills and mountains. For those that were “proving up” on land through President Lincoln’s Homestead Act, they were required to build a house that fit the qualifications for a domicile of 10 feet by 12 feet with at least one door and at least one window. (The James Ross Proving Up House, now located at the Farm at Martinez Park, is one such example.)
In 1864, Camp Collins was moved from Laporte to a site about where Willow and Linden streets cross in downtown today. It was renamed Fort Collins and the soldiers were housed in barracks and the officers in officers quarters. There were anywhere from 100 to 200 men residing on the military camp at any one time.
Could they do it today? If we ignore many of our current building regulations revolving around bathrooms, kitchens, etc., yes, it’s possible these dwelling units could be considered legal as long as the property is in an zoned area that allows for extra-occupancy units and the owner applied for, and received, an “Extra Occupancy Rental House” designation. Fraternities and Sororities receive this kind of designation. What I couldn’t find is whether there are regulations regarding the number of bedrooms required, nor could I find if there’s an upper limit on the number of people allowed to live in a building based on square footage. I suspect the soldiers were shoehorned in a bit tighter than might be allowed today.
528 W. Mountain Ave.
The house at 528 W. Mountain Ave. hit the papers when new owners wanted to demolish it and neighbors tried to save it. The house was found to have meth contamination (levels consistent with many houses in Fort Collins that were mitigated and are now in residential use) and was finally demolished in 2022. The house was about 1,258 square feet in size and was built in 1885. I chose it to include here because this gable-el style of house appears to have been rather common early on in Fort Collins history. Most have since been demolished or significantly added on to. This house is being replaced by a 5,900+ square foot house.
This is a good example of an early single-family house. Most houses in the neighborhoods surrounding the original town settlement were about 1,000 – 1,200 square foot in size on deep lots that allowed for gardening as well as back additions to the house as the family gained members and the finances to expand.
Could they do it today? Yes, this house could be built and lived in today as a single family home. However, most new homes are significantly larger than this house was, showing the trend of increasing house sizes. Considering the costs of a new water tap (for greenfields development, at least), construction costs, etc., it’s hard to make a profit by building a new house at such a small size.
The C. R. Welch house at College and Mulberry, 425 S. College Ave.. (From the Archive at the FCMoD, H08433A.)
Though most houses were on the smaller side, there were some grand mansions built during Fort Collins’ early years as well. C. R. Welch had this house built some time around the late 1800s. This single family home housed not only the Welch family, but also a few servants. Unfortunately I don’t know how big Welch’s mansion was. I’d love to know how the size of a mansion then might compare to a McMansion today.
I wondered if the 1879 Avery House located at 328 W. Mountain might be a proxy to help determine the size of the Welch house. The Avery House was saved, in large part, because of the number of other ornate mansions that had been lost during the mid-1900s. When the Avery house also was at risk, local residents rallied to save it.
But when I looked up the County Assessor’s information on the house, records indicate that it is only 950 square feet!!!!! I suppose that just goes to show that “mansion” doesn’t always refer to size, but perhaps materials as well. The Avery house, made of locally quarried stone, certainly carries itself with enough gravity that it may appear larger than it actually is. (I still think that number might be wrong, though. I’ll need to chat with someone at the PLF to see if they agree with the County.)
A better proxy might be the McCarty-Fickel house in Berthoud. It was built in 1915 and comes in at 4,334 square feet.
Could they do it today? Clearly a house of this size could still be built in Old Town today (as evidence by the replacement house going up at 528 W. Mountain Avenue.) It would not be allowed in Old Town (OT-A or OT-B… and maybe OT-C) as a single family house under the passed, then repealed, Land Development Code, which put a cap of 2,400 square feet on new single family homes. However, outside of those zones, this size house is still allowed under both the old and new/repealed code. And even within these zones, under the repealed code, a person could build a larger duplex, then just use the building as a single family home. As far as having servants living in the house with them, under U+2, one servant would be allowed. Anything beyond that would require getting a permit from the City.
Built in 1881 as a photography studio on N. College Avenue, the building at left was later used as a millinery. At one point the photographer, his wife, and their 10 year old daughter lived in the back of the store. Later, the two proprietresses of the millenary occupied the living quarters. (Photo from the collection of Wayne Sundberg.)
Could they do it today? The store had no plumbing and therefore would not be considered habitable today. But even with plumbing and a small cook stove, there would still be substantial hurdles that might keep a present day business owner from living in the back of their shop. A firewall would likely be required between the business and residential sides of the building. There could be a square footage issue given that the living space was about 200 square feet in size. And there would likely be a parking requirement, which might be fulfilled using space off the alley.
247-261 Linden Street
These four buildings on Linden Street are a great example of businesses that included housing on the second floor.
The red brick 2-story building furthest to the left used to house Joe’s Auto Upholstery. Joe’s son, Richard, eventually took over the business. And then Richard eventually sold the building and moved his business to Willow Street. The building has sat empty for several years and plans are underway to convert it to two residential (condo) units on the 2nd (and possible added partial 3rd) story with a significantly smaller commercial space on the first floor. But back in the day, the second story contained 7 living units with a single shared bathroom. (I only got to see the second story space once and could kick myself that I didn’t take pictures at the time.) The second story was a very affordable means of housing. It was also the epitome of living in a walkable downtown space.
The story just to the right of Joe’s Auto Upholstery also had housing on the second story. In fact, that was where Joe lived with his mother and siblings. He eventually got a job working at the auto shop, which was the business just beneath where they lived. And after Joe came back from the war, he was able to buy the building next door for his own auto upholstery business. So these living units on the second story weren’t just for singles needing a small place to live near work. They housed young immigrant families as well. Joe’s mother had been recruited by men from the Sugar Factory just down the road on Linden to move to Fort Collins and work in the fields. Her husband had been killed by Pancho Villa and she was grateful for a job and a safe place to raise her young children.
I don’t know much about the prior uses of the building right at the corner of Linden and Jefferson, but I do know that the second building from the corner used to house Candy’s Kitchen, a brothel, on the second story. So I suppose you could say that the building had commercial businesses on both the first and second stories, but that the second story also doubled as a residence for several working women.
Could they do it today? I don’t know if you could have residential units today that required sharing a bathroom among the tenants of the 7 units. But housing above businesses does still happen downtown, just not as frequently as it once did. And the units today are often *significantly* larger than they used to be. (Replacing 7 units above Joe’s Auto Upolstery with two condos is an example of that.) And, I suppose it should go without saying that the brothel is probably not legal. But if the women, let’s say, ran an Etsy operation from their living units, I don’t know of any code violations there. I should add that downtown units are also prime locations for short term rentals.
932 Pitkin Street
After World War II, families started to own a car or two and development began to spread rapidly south and west. Houses grew wider. And single family homes in new neighborhoods were very likely to have only a single family living in them.
Could they do this today? Yuppers. This 2,128 square foot single family house would have no problem being approved under the code, old or new/repealed.
906 W. Mountain Avenue, a “shotgun house.”
This shotgun house was built in 1914 and contains only 640 square feet of living space. It epitomizes the “tiny house” that many people seem to adore today. But it’s houses like this that are at risk of demolition in Old Town where many big money buyers are snapping up properties for the land and scraping whatever structures once stood there.
I don’t have any particular occupancy info on this house (other than the fact that this property has been the home of not just people, but also Old Town’s beloved (by some, at least) vulture population. (Did you know that “A group of vultures is called a committee, venue, or volt”?) But I wanted to include it because when we talk about housing, we need to be talking about occupancy, use, and size. We’re slowly losing some of these smaller places and they’re being replaced with pretty sizeable buildings. But a diverse housing stock allows more options not only for those who would prefer to live more simply, but also for those who simply need a place to live and if that means being somewhere smaller than they’d like, that’ll do for now. Smaller buildings can provide breathing space for a person, or people, to settle in and build up resources that can be put toward moving to a larger place in the future.
129 McKinley in 1968. (From the Archive at FCMoD, 129McK68.)
This working class house located on McKinley frequently included students in the 1950s and 60s that lived in the basement while an unrelated family lived upstairs. That students were living in the basement unit was often indicated in the City Directory by adding 1/2 to the address.
During this same time period, there was such a need for housing, especially among returning war veterans, that it was not uncommon for people to rent out rooms in their house, or to turn their house into boarding houses, to take in tenants. There was no regulation at the time for this practice.
Could they do this today? If a family lived upstairs, then a single student could live downstairs under U+2 if the basement was not a separate unit. Putting an oven downstairs, however, would turn it into a duplex, which wouldn’t be allowed in this location (NCL zoning) under the current code. And though sometimes two students lived in the basement in this house in the 50s and 60s, that wouldn’t fly today under U+2.
Parklane Tower South, as seen from across Mulberry Street.
In the 1960s and 70s, Fort Collins joined the rest of America in pursing “Urban Renewal.” This often meant scraping entire blocks and replacing them with… well, often lots of parking lots. (Think about the First National Bank Building and its massive, sprawling parking lot system that covers two blocks. Or the Key Bank building and it’s 1/2 block of parking paired with even more another block over. Or the post office building surrounding by parking. All of these blocks used to hold houses, both single family homes as well as boarding houses.
The Parklane Towers (and their half block of parking) did add substantially more housing than they removed. But the incredible jump from single family homes to 11- and 12-story buildings is all many people can think of when “increased density” is mentioned today — and for good reason. Ideally, increased density should be incremental, not abrupt.
Could they do this today? Could a developer buy up a block of single family houses and replace them with a substantially larger multi-family building… it depends. As the code stands right now, I believe this could only happen in areas where a block of single family homes is within the “urban core” of the city or within the buffer zone around that. But that does mean there are some places where this could still happen — probably not to these heights, but still a significant change.
6027 Wild View Drive
At some point around 1968, the City of Fort Collins instigated a zoning plan that separated one part of the city from another based on function. All housing had to be within regions zoned for residential dwellings. All commercial and industrial had to be located in areas specific to commercial and industrial. And none of those were meant to overlap (though based on the map — which I’ll probably include in an upcoming post — it’s pretty clear that housing for lower income folks could be near industrial, even if they still technically had their own zones). Zoning has changed not only where we build, but over time it’s changed how our houses look (the architecture — often with housing for cars positioned front and center), how they relate to each other (large back patios instead of cozy front porches), and how we’re expected to get from our homes to anywhere and back again (pretty much all by car, these days).
The zoning change also managed to separate rich from poor and upper middle class from lower middle class. C. R. Welch, mentioned above, lived in a large mansion on S. College surrounded by several other large houses. But just across the street and down Mulberry about half a block were several more modest houses. And given that there was a train line running just one block from his house, and there were several modest houses all along Mason fronting the train line, he truly was within visual site of people and residences of a wide spectrum of classes. But with our current zoning system, houses of like type and size tend to cluster together to the exclusion of variety.
Take, for instance, the house shown above. I asked a real estate agent friend of mine if she could look up the largest house in Fort Collins for me. After a few tries (we kept getting returns that were just outside the city), the house that popped up was the one shown above, weighing in at 10,138 square feet of livable space. The houses on either side are significantly smaller, but still ginormous, coming in at 6,069 square feet and 5,751 square feet. There are apartment buildings in Fort Collins that are smaller than these houses. (The apartment building at 324 S. Howes is a grand total of 3,744 square feet and I think it has 6 units. (The County Assessor lists 6 bedrooms and 6 bathrooms, so I’m guessing that means 6 units.))
It’s really good that we’re talking about housing as a community. These are conversations that we need to have. How do we balance a person’s right to buy whatever property they want and build as large a house as they can possible shoehorn into it verses another person’s right to have a safe place that they can call home while they build resources, get their footing in life, or age in place? At what point does one person’s desire lead to infringement upon another person’s ability to be safe, healthy, and housed? How do we weigh and measure these things? And probably most importantly, how can we provide creative solutions that do the most possible toward creating a healthy living environment for as many of Fort Collins residents as possible? I’m looking forward to engaging in this conversation over the next several months.
I’ve heard from several sources that the Arapaho and Cheyenne were pushed west by European immigration, but I confirmed that knowledge through a quick Google search, which led me to this site, Legends of America: https://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-arapaho/
Information about the Indian Removal legislation in Colorado can be found on the Fort Collins Archive website: https://history.fcgov.com/ethnic/native-americans
Information on the number of soldiers at Fort Collins was found through this Coloradoan article: https://www.coloradoan.com/story/news/2017/01/28/where-fort-collins-original-fort-and-what-went-there/97088368/
View the City of Fort Collins Municipal Code here: https://library.municode.com/co/fort_collins/codes/municipal_code
Old City Directories as well as photos from the Archive at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery all came from the Archive website: https://history.fcgov.com/
And information about square footage came from the County Assessor’s website: https://www.larimer.gov/assessor/search#/property/
Happy Friday Meg!
I’d love to connect and talk housing, zoning, codes and what not. As I drive through old town and see so much of what makes it special, I kinda chuckle that most of what we see today couldn’t be replicated within the current regulatory framework.
If you’re up for meeting and talking, lemme know!
Sure! I’ll email you. If there’s a nice weather day, we could even meet and walk around Old Town.
Yeah, I was thinking the same thing earlier today. Most of the way we used to build is illegal today. And yet it worked fine for folks then, and still often works just fine for folks today that are still using the older buildings.