Nugget tower

The steel structure of the new Nugget Building tower rises above what in L.L. Nunn's day was the bank lobby of the First National Bank. (Photo by Bria Light/Telluride Daily Planet)

In 1880, a 27-year-old man from a Midwestern farming family moved West to seek his fortune, first in Leadville and then Durango before walking 70 miles to the growing mining town of Telluride. The young man, Lucien Lucius Nunn, had studied a bit of law back East. Once in Telluride, he found work as a carpenter, continued his law studies, and upon being admitted to the bar in 1882, opened a legal practice specializing in mining claims. An entrepreneur, Nunn began investing in mining, real estate and banking. By the time the early 1890s rolled around, Nunn’s businesses were prospering and he purchased three lots on the Main Street of town for $1,800. At the time, a small log building on one of the lots housed a printing shop. But Nunn had bigger plans: In 1892, construction was completed on the First National Bank of Telluride, a stylish red sandstone building that housed the bank, the offices of the Telluride Power Company, and a jewelry and sewing machine shop.

As the historic edifice — now known as the Nugget Building — settled over time, its prominent tower, which stood taller than the clock tower at the nearby courthouse, began to cause structural concerns. Though the records are vague, Peter Sante, architect for the current restoration project of the building, surmises that the tower was removed in the first half of the 20th century after decades of rain draining from the western edge of the roof caused that side of the building and ground to settle.

“I think they removed the original tower to preserve the building and keep from having the tower fall down,” Sante said, pointing to evidence of settlement in the foundation and archways.

The building, purchased in 1999 by Katrine and Bill Formby, is currently undergoing an ambitious restoration, including receiving a new tower on the southeast corner that replicates its historic forebear. 

“Constructing the new tower is one of the most unique structural systems we have ever worked on,” said Werner Catsman, president of Finbro Construction, citing a close collaboration between Finbro, Pekkala Engineering and Sante Architects as key to designing and implementing the project.

Because of the continuing importance of minimizing the weight load on the corner of the building supporting the tower, the engineers, architects and builders had to devise a way to support the tower without resting its weight directly on the historic walls.

“The tower itself is independent of the historic stone walls,” said Catsman. He described the challenges of installing 3,500-pound steel beams by hand inside of the historic structure, using air bags and timber supports to attach the beams to the foundation, thus providing a support structure for the subsequent tower.

The Town of Telluride’s historic preservation director, Jonna Wensel, emphasized the importance of historic structures in preserving the town’s character and past.

“Our historic buildings provide a physical link to Telluride’s past,” she said. “Mining is the reason the town was built, so to have this amazing physical record left to us helps remember those people who settled and worked here. These old buildings give our town a unique sense of place that is attractive to residents and visitors. Even if people aren’t familiar with the town’s specific history, they are able to get a sense through the architectural character that this place has some stories to tell.”

The building’s owners, she noted, were not required to replace the tower. Rather, they wanted to do it as “a gesture of respect and affection for the Nugget Building and the town,” Wensel said, calling it an “extraordinary gift to the town.”

While the Nugget Building’s new tower will not use real stone, instead using a lightweight material to replicate the original sandstone aesthetic, Sante said that a team of experts, including a historic stone masonry specialist, has spent many hours “painstakingly examining historic photos from all sorts of angles” in order to “individually model the stones to the way it was originally built for a very truthful recreation of what was there.” 

The original red sandstone, he noted, is Telluride’s very own: The stone for both the Nugget Building and the Telluride Historical Museum, formerly the miner’s hospital, was quarried at Cornet Creek and hauled the short distance to downtown.

Now, nearly a century after the original tower came down, the team has begun installing the masonry to the reconstructed parapet wall and will begin masonry work on the tower this fall, according to Catsman.

“As a native Tellurider, having an opportunity to bring Telluride's skyline back to its original glory has been the most rewarding project we've done,” Catsman said.

“We hope that the restored exterior of the Nugget building will remind people of Telluride's rich history,” said Katrine Formby. “This building tells the story of L.L. Nunn and his contribution of building the world's first alternating current electrical plant in the Telluride area. He brought affordable power to the mines and his vision made Telluride one of the first towns in the United States to have electrical lights. We feel that this building adds to the identity of Telluride. It's a beautiful building in a beautiful town.”

Editor’s note: Special thanks to the Telluride Historical Museum for research assistance.