Preserving Character
Joanna Wensel '91 preserves history in Telluride, Colorado
Saturday, July 1, 2017
Jonna Wensel '91 stands in front of a sign for Telluride, Colorado.

Colorado Avenue bisects the quaint mountain town of Telluride, Colo. Hand-carved wooden signposts adorn the street corners, and wrought-iron lamp posts illuminate the evening. Brick and wooden facades painted deep reds, pale greens, and faded browns turn hotels, homes, and storefronts into a three-dimensional patchwork of buildings.

As the sun sets behind the Rockies, Jonna Wensel breathes a contented sigh. She got her wish. Every day she wakes up someplace beautiful, somewhere inspiring.

Wensel is a historic preservation planner for the Town of Telluride and moved west from Liberty, Mo., to realize this dream. As a preservation administrator, she protects the nearly 400 historic buildings within Telluride; the town itself is a national historic landmark district. Wensel and her team review any proposed building changes and work diligently to safeguard the town’s character.

“People come to Telluride for a variety of reasons, but they remember and love it because of the way it feels,” Wensel says. “Our historic buildings give us a sense of place and remind us what little mining towns were like when they were first built.”

Learning about Telluride is best accomplished through everyday living, Wensel says. The town’s history reveals itself through sidewalk conversations and strolls among the old Victorian mining cottages and sheds. There is an unfolding in which the town slowly exposes its many layers to a relative newcomer like Wensel.

Twenty-three hundred souls live in Telluride, where preservation is a religion. Wensel enforces a strict town historic preservation ordinance and set of design guidelines that specify different styles of treatment based on property type and neighborhood. There are no chain stores or restaurants in Telluride. Most full-time residents, like Wensel, are transplants, and the town faces steady pressure from developers and vacationers seeking investment property.

“Our role is to balance development with preservation and to maintain the unique and historic character of the town,” Wensel says. “The ordinance and guidelines help protect the atmosphere of Telluride, which is rare in today’s modern world.”

As a town employee, Wensel works closely with the town’s building division, public works, and planning staff, in addition to architects, builders, and members of the town historic preservation commission. Members are unpaid volunteers who, out of “pure love,” dedicate their time to preserve Telluride’s charm. Wensel oversees training for these commissioners, who serve in a quasi-judicial role to review small-scale applications.

After leaving Liberty—unofficially the second-oldest town west of the Mississippi River—where she served as the city’s community development manager, Wensel puts her pleasant, diplomatic personality to good use in Telluride. It can be easy, she says, for a preservationist to make enemies, so “delicate negotiations” are often necessary in her meetings and site visits.

Yet for Wensel, the incremental victories and constant effort of historic preservation are well worth her energy.

“You can never stop,” Wensel says. “Preservationists like to say that the greenest building is the one already built. Tearing down buildings or insensitive remodels are a huge waste of materials and energy that have already been captured in the building. These buildings are limited resources.”

Listening to her speak, Wensel’s passion for the subject is so moving that you feel compelled to take action. Her descriptions of Telluride are so vivid that you feel almost guilty for never having visited before.

Even so, a college-age Wensel didn’t know the field of historic preservation existed. She came to Trinity aspiring to join the Foreign Service and thought she would major in international studies. She soon realized it was actually the people and cultures behind that program that interested her, and Wensel became an anthropology major instead. She devoured courses taught by anthropology professor Richard Reed and calls the late John Donahue, then chair, a “wonderfully supportive and encouraging mentor.”

Armed with her appreciation for different cultures and the eccentricities that make communities interesting, Wensel graduated from Trinity without a clear path. It wasn’t until she became involved in a project in Iowa restoring old houses that she first considered historic preservation. She found a master’s program at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and her career took off from there.

“I have lived a charmed life,” Wensel says. “I have lived in London, was the director of an art school in France, and was named the Outstanding Public Official in Missouri a few years ago. Now I live in Telluride, a beautiful place where I have been so warmly welcomed.”

As she nears the one-year anniversary of her move, Wensel takes pleasure in the architectural details of the New Sheridan Hotel or the old shed covered in license plates from the 1930s and 40s. She finds new joy in the “lovely, unassuming” town cottages. And, at the end of the day, she is at peace, knowing that tomorrow she will wake up someplace beautiful, somewhere inspiring, doing the work she loves.

Carlos Anchondo '14 is an oil and gas reporter for E&E News, based in Washington D.C. A communication and international studies major at Trinity, he received his master's degree in journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

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