On a trans-Wyoming reporting trip several years ago, I pulled off the interstate to check out the little town of Rawlins in the southern part of the state. I made my way past the industrial sprawl towards whatever kind of “downtown” I could find. When I finally arrived at the historic core, I was struck by what I found: A real, solid downtown area, anchored by stone and brick buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s. An old theatre sported dozens of lightbulbs — old school neon — and a grand brick structure had elegant trim and a nice little balcony attached to a second story window. True, many of the best buildings were abandoned, or housed Fast Cash Payday Loan places, but the town had good bones.
Unfortunately, some of those bones had weird growths on them, as I discovered as I turned a corner and stumbled upon what can only be described as a freak of architecture. Something hideous jutted out from the front of one of the more solid of those early 1900s buildings, the Elk’s Lodge — a facelift gone wrong, it seemed.
As ugly as it was, it had significance. In that one building, I was looking at a partial history of Rawlins’ booms: Constructed during the initial buildup of the early 1900s, the lodge’s aging veranda was replaced during a later boom, most likely spurred by the 1970s energy crisis. When it comes to what Western boom towns look like — architecturally, their layout, etc. — a town’s culture, its government, planners and aesthetic sensibilities often turn out to be less important than when the biggest booms took place (or failed to take place).
My little Rawlins revelation came back to me recently as I walked around our Durango neighborhood and noticed how similar all the houses’ basic designs were. I had always assumed those neighborhoods were built up gradually — say from the 40s through the 70s. In fact, most of the houses in that and nearby neighborhoods shot up in a remarkably short period of time -- between 1953 and 1958.
I’m constantly reminded about how drastically this town has changed over the last 20 years. But that pales compared to what happened in the fifties, when — driven by post-War migration and regional uranium and oil and gas booms — the town’s footprint doubled in size, the population increased by more than 40 percent and a 1950s suburban aesthetic was imprinted on most of the western and eastern sides of town. The aesthetic endures; we call those areas Tupperware Flats or Tupperware Heights due to their vanilla-y feel.
The mega growth spurt of the fifties hit almost every corner of the West. The DenverUrbanism.com blog did a fascinating series breaking down when all of Denver’s 130,000 homes were built, with a histogram that, in blogger Ken Schroeppel’s words, “beautifully reflects the economic and political history of Denver and the nation and the many wars, booms, and busts that influenced the number of homes built annually in the city.” Far more homes (about 31,000, compared to just 5,000 in the '80s) were built there during the 1950s than at any other time. As is the case with Durango, the fifties saw entire neighborhoods rise up from farmland or prairie in short periods of time; today, those neighborhoods retain the feel of an aging “Leave it to Beaver” set.
As is the case in most of Farmington, New Mexico. Farmington was just a sleepy little town of a few thousand folks in 1950. Then came the aforementioned energy boom, and the place exploded, adding tens of thousands of residents in just a few years — even today’s oil boom in North Dakota can’t compare. Durango had gradually built up a strong historic core between 1880 and 1920, which mostly was able to weather the fifties boom to become today's nice downtown. Farmington, on the other hand, didn't have that kind of historic infrastructure when the onslaught arrived in the fifties, continuing into the ensuing decades. The result is a lack of any sort of cohesive architectural sensibility from any era, with a few exceptions.
Sometimes, though, it’s the lack of a boom that has the most influence over the streetscapes. Tiny Silverton, Colorado was founded in the 1870s, solidly established as the hub for a booming mining district in the 1880s and, fueled by mineral wealth, continued to grow until 1918. When the 1950s boom swept the West, Silverton had a solid, historic, mostly brick and stone business district and government buildings, ripe for the sort of “renovations” that I witnessed in Rawlins. But the boom didn’t make it over the mountains, and Silverton was downright depressed during the 1950s — it was historic preservation via poverty. By the time the mines were cranking again and the money flowing, a preservationist ethos had crept into the local scene, and they set about saving the old buildings rather than bulldozing or modernizing them.
Many of the West’s boomtowns busted over the last few years. Even Farmington’s had it rough, as low natural gas prices slowed drilling and the flow of cash and people into the city. But the next boom is just around the corner, this one probably driven by oil. As in the past, there will be impacts to the landscape, to the air, water and to the social fabric of nearby communities. And as we rush to house and feed the incoming masses as efficiently as we can, it pays to remember: When the boom busts, the people might leave, but all those strip malls, tract homes and big box stores built during the boom aren't going anywhere.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He is based in Durango, Colo., and tweets @jonnypeace.