James Conrad Burleigh, a former resident of Telluride, died in his home in San Diego, California on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022. He was 77 years old.
Jim grew up in Berkeley, California, where he attended high school and studied Architecture at the university. His father Richard Burleigh worked as an engineer at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory and his mother Ruth was a homemaker.
Jim began his involvement with design and building by working construction during the summers in the carpenter’s union. After college he worked for the architectural firm Mccue-Thomsic in San Francisco. Among other things he was involved in designing the Oakland BART station. He won several design competitions. He struck the office when it was hired by the University to develop People’s Park, an iconic meeting place used by the anti-war movement. A 3-acre site, it was the scene of bloody demonstrations and has remained undeveloped.
He then worked as a freelance contractor with a storefront group called People’s Architecture. He lived for several years in a commune where he taught some of the female communards building skills and met his wife, Kathy.
A Berkeley friend got him a planning job in Telluride designing a small hotel for David Sklare, a transplant from Detroit. The town was already designated a National Historic District thanks to forward looking people like Tom Hale. The job was supposed to last six weeks. Instead it took six months. Complications with the site and the difficulty of getting plans through the various town requirements stretched on until their former Berkeley housing situation dissolved and they were stranded. With a modest loan from his father-in-law, he built a penthouse apartment over the Belmont Liquor store on main street. Scott Brown, who owned the building, leased them the air rights for a $1 a year for 15 years. An open two-story space, it was his first live-work situation. Ideally situated across the alley from The Senate Bar and Restaurant, he was a frequent patron.
Jim did planning work for Louise Gerdts, who in 1974 dubbed him the Kissinger of Telluride. She was a local realtor, who paid him for some his work with a parcel of land at the bottom of Spruce Street where her daughter Stephanie pastured a horse. On that parcel, he designed and built a three-story building with three apartments and a ground floor commercial space. It was the first 3-story building in that part of town. Jim design some of the surrounding buildings as the town filled in.
The ski area had just opened and the mine was operating. Jim joined a group of young architects that included Kimble Hobbs, George Greenbank and Eric Doud to pool ideas about the future of the town. He opened a review of his hotel design to the local residents. He worked to keep the town at a human scale and livable and to pedestrianize the town and to keep cars out of the business core. He worked on the intercept parking lot, the free commuter bus, and designed and built the Columbia Hotel and the San Sophia and the Olympic Sports building on Colorado Avenue. He was proudest of his involvement with Lawson Hill and his part in the creation of that community.
He loved his friends and appreciated his enemies. He directed his considerable intellect to any problem that interested him and would listen to and consider ideas no matter where they originated or who was their champion.
By the early 1990’s the town was changing. He walked or biked everywhere and didn’t own a car so that as planning jobs moved to surrounding communities, he needed wheels. He bought and loved an iconic muscle car, a Chrysler Le Baron convertible which he drove with the top down no matter the weather.
The year after 9/11 he moved to San Diego to live at the beach. The reminder that life is tenuous compelled him to be by the water. He was a more than competent sailor and grew up in the Bay Area competitively sailing his Dad’s Santana 22. He continued to work on his last major design and planning project in Tucson from his San Diego home office.
Jim was always sanguine about the future of Telluride and the ultimate effect money would have on a place as small and beautiful as Telluride. He did what he could to keep Telluride livable for the non-rich. He helped put into place a real estate transfer tax to fund employee housing projects. He paid into that fund in 2020 when the combination of the altitude and distance made it impossible for him to come back. He was proud of how inexpensively he was able to build 299 South Spruce and kept it in the rental pool. The scene of many epic parties, in its 40-plus years it was his office, a sewing studio, a church, a preschool, several boutique businesses, an extra family bedroom and a home for many working young people.
Jim is survived by his wife and companion of 51 years, Kathleen Wahlstrand, his daughters Adrianne Burleigh and Jane Burleigh, son Michael Burleigh, Michael’s wife, Adrienne and their two daughters Aspen and Sierra; his brother Doug Burleigh , and sister Joan Burleigh. He was preceded in death by both of his parents.
There will be a celebration and goodbye to Jim in Telluride held at a date yet to be determined.