redstone historic coke ovens
Once a national symbol of nineteenth-century industrial progress, the coke ovens of Redstone, Colorado, faced an uncertain future. A small group of concerned residents initiated efforts to address the preservation of its defining historic resource, culminating in the development of a master plan aimed a holistic revitalization of the greater landscape. The Redstone Coke Ovens preservation effort demonstrates successful community collaboration to protect a historical legacy while embracing the surrounding town’s unique cultural and environmental contexts.
Nestled in the Elk Mountain Range of west-central Colorado, Redstone is situated along the banks of the Crystal River immediately south of its confluence with Coal Creek. Adjacent to Redstone is the Coal Basin region, home to a high-quality coalfield. Despite the treacherous terrain and formidable climatic conditions, this natural deposition of coal became a catalyst for the rich cultural history and industrial heritage of Redstone.
Founded at the turn of the century, John Cleveland Osgood, one of the five so-called Robber Barons of the 19th century, built Redstone centered on his theory of “enlightened paternalism” resulting in what he considered a model industrial community. Until the realization of Redstone, mining towns typically consisted of shacks with less than favorable conditions for miners. Osgood’s utopic vision included the Redstone Castle, an inn for bachelor cokers, cottages for families, a school, theater, and community gardens.
By 1899, a hundred coke ovens had been constructed on the west bank of the Crystal River at Redstone and commenced operations the following year. Redstone soon became the region’s largest supplier of coke and ultimately built 249beehive-shaped ovens to keep up with the demands of the industrial revolution. The coke ovens’ unique architecture allowed for nearly continuous operation, coking coal around the clock. At its peak, they produced almost six million tons a year. A mere decade later, Redstone’s coking operations came to a halt. Transportation costs far outweighed the profitability of the coke ovens, and Redstone’s boom quickly became a bust. The mines closed, and the coke ovens were completely abandoned.
The ovens were largely left to decay, and during World War II, the steel supports were removed during scrap metal drives, making them even more vulnerable to the elements. Through the years, residents and passersby often pillaged the ovens for their brick and stone. The ovens’ condition deteriorated further and were in serious threat when residents began working to save them. Residents realized the importance of the preservation of the coke ovens with Redstone successfully becoming a member of the National Register of Historic Places in 1990 and protected by the Deed of Preservation and Conservation Easement since 2004.
Through a Preservation America-Historic Preservation Funds Grant, awarded to Pitkin County, the landscape architect was contracted to facilitate community collaboration resulting in a Historic Park Master Plan. The landscape architect approached the project with the objectives to involve the community in an ongoing cultural and historical education, promoting heritage tourism in Redstone, and providing an exemplary case study to inspire other communities to protect and promote their historic legacies. An important part of the planning process was the alignment of a steering committee consisting of advisors from the Redstone Historic Preservation Committee, as well as concerned citizens and representatives from Pitkin County.
The committee’s presence throughout the community engagement and design process proved to be monumental in assuring that the visions of both the stakeholders and locals were realized. During the planning process, the residents’ initial resistance to change was replaced with a renewed sense of excitement and passion, further fueling progress toward successful preservation. By understanding the eclectic nature of Redstone and the importance of preserved open space, the landscape architect crafted a site plan which spoke directly to the socio-economic and environmental context of Redstone, both past and present.
In addressing the Redstone Coke Ovens Historic Park site, simple yet compelling design-focused efforts on implementing cost-effective solutions while improving the environmental condition of the postindustrial landscape. One major theme prevailed as the design dialogue progressed—expressing the “essence of time”. On-axis with the town of Redstone, several coke ovens are fully restored. Moving away from the focal point of restoration efforts, the ovens appear to degrade to their present condition, allowing the action of time to manifest in the historic spine. The dialogue between structure and environment evolves as one melds into the other, a tangible realization of nature’s regenerative power: all elements have their own story to tell. This approach offers a poignant and unique solution to the tight financial constraints of the project while preserving the visual impact of the industrial footprint.
The coke ovens’ proximity to the river system demanded a sensitive approach to brownfield reclamation. In addition to the Coke Oven site, the landscape architects also worked on the underutilized land across the road which bordered the confluence of Coal Creek and the Crystal River and the historic coke ovens on which the town was founded. The Landscape Architect sought to address the environmental demands of the coke ovens site while creating protection and enhancements of these unique community resources achieved in a strong, community-based design. To address years of environmental contamination due to mining spoils, the Landscape Architect selected plant materials with proven success in bioremediation. A native plant palette ensures that the designed site corresponds to the scenic quality of the surrounding valley. Bioswales were incorporated into the plan to serve as primary catch basins for site particulates during storm events and snowmelt.
The park serves as a town green for year-round community activities. Bluegreen led a consultant team of architects, engineers, and graphic designers through the conceptual and detailed design. The park includes a depot pavilion, a commemorative tree grove, versatile green spaces, and a path system connecting the programmed spaces with the adjacent riparian and riverine environments.
Interpretative elements were created to foster the restoration effort and to improve the legibility of the site’s legacy. The extent of the ovens is protected with the introduction of a wall in the language of the industrial wharf. A crusher fines pathway and raw steel signage elements recall the historic rail line. Vignettes fill the negative space of silhouettes within the signage, framing glimpses of the greater landscape. Interpretive signage offers insight into the coke ovens’ past to visitors, completing the narrative of its historical legacy.
Employing subtle interventions, the Landscape Architect developed an open space master plan for the Town of Redstone capable of encapsulating the romance of an industrial relic on the scale of the coke ovens while providing cultural space for the enjoyment of a community. Embracing the challenges of tight budget constraints, phasing requirements, and very limited design fees, the Landscape Architect focused efforts on creating a cohesive series of spaces deeply rooted in heritage and geographical context that can be expanded upon as circumstances allow.
project type: community, landscape architecture
location: aspen, colorado
client: Pitkin County