Frontier Drive-Inn in the San Luis Valley revives with housing and tourism projects

CENTER – The robot suspended from a rickety wooden tower throws potato-shaped balls of mud. Within hours, rings of globules pile up head-up, creating an adobe hut.

“It’s kind of another experience for us,” says architect Luke Falcone.

The Falcone family is testing a new vision in the center at the venerable Frontier Drive-In, renamed Frontier Drive-Inn. Where people once sipped sodas and basked in the glow of movies through their windshields, a new generation of visitors will sit on the lush grass, staying in Quonset cabins and yurts that are both historic and fashionable. They’ll visit a kind of ancestral spa, lounging in the eight open-air adobe stargazing cones centered around a bathtub.

“Yeah, we’re kind of pushing a new frontier here,” says Ronald Rael, the Antonito-born artist and professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, who builds the adobe platforms with the printer. 3D pendant. “It’s a kind of new construction frontier. In addition, this place was the border between the United States and Mexico. So it’s a kind of triple meaning, with the borders of technology, the borders of the political and geographical environment and the drive-in.

Luke Falcone, whose father, Mark, bought and renamed the long-dormant Frontier Drive-Inn five years ago, explains June 20 the family’s vision for the entertainment and lodging venue in the Valley of San Luis Colorado. (John McEvoy, Special for The Colorado Sun)

Mark Falcone bought the idle drive-in in 2017. He’s the co-founder of Denver’s Continuum Partners and a longtime visitor to the San Luis Valley. Falcone was president of the Colorado chapter of the Nature Conservancy Board in the late 1990s when the group acquired the Zapata Ranch, protecting more than 100,000 acres where bison roam adjacent to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Falcone’s Continuum Partners have redeveloped the former market station on the outskirts of LoDo in Denver. He and his wife, Ellen Bruss, donated the land for the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art, then led the $16 million fundraising effort to build the sleek black cube of the museum’s galleries.

He enlisted his son, Luke, an architect, and his daughter, Sonya, who develops affordable housing in Los Angeles, to help revive the Frontier Drive-Inn. The Falcones have spent the past few years encouraging local communities to participate in planning for the Frontier. Students at Center High School chose a film to screen on opening weekend. A committee of locals helps guide the plan.

“We fly by the seat of our pants a bit,” says Luke Falcone. “We solve problems as they arise and we listen to people’s thoughts and ideas and come up with solutions as they become available.

There are more experiments than adobe structures going on at the Frontier Drive-Inn. The Falcones, whose career revolves around developing architecture that enables artistic and affordable living, hope that what is built on the project – which will remain a drive-in theater and outdoor gathering space – will be a model for the construction of cheap but chic housing.

“This is an opportunity for us to test some ideas,” said Luke, showing prefabricated Quonset steel huts with radiant floor heat and insulated walls that were assembled in days. “We would love to have the opportunity to do that in other parts of the valley or anywhere, really, where people need housing.”

Southern Colorado’s lower prices and open spaces attract all kinds of entrepreneurs. Economic development proponents in the 8,000 square mile San Luis Valley are focused on how the valley’s new, longtime residents can turn raw ingredients into new products for a changing population. . Like extracting oils and protein powders from hemp, which is one of the valley’s most popular crops. Or use hemp as reinforcement in concrete. Or pack pre-cooked potatoes ready for the table. Or convert potato fields to grow quinoa. Or create collectives of marijuana growers. Or turn a drive-in into a community gathering place, a retreat for visitors, and a testing ground for new building strategies.

“We have farmers, but we also have a lot of innovators coming to the valley,” said Andrea Oaks-Jaramillo, economic recovery coordinator at the San Luis Valley Development Resources Group. “We want to explore how these two groups can work together and potentially create additional jobs.”

Architect Luke Falcone stands among the yurts that are part of his family’s redevelopment of the Frontier Drive-Inn in Center. There are 14 rooms at the Frontier Drive-Inn, with four new Quonset cabins and 10 16-foot yurts made by Montrose-based Colorado Yurt Co. (John McEvoy, Special to the Colorado Sun)

There will always be films on the border. The Falcones restored the screen and replaced the old projector. They added stacks of high-end speakers for gigs. Future plans include a stage in front of the screen and a 100-seat pavilion. Instead of a parking lot for moviegoers, there is a grassy field, much like the lush potato fields surrounding the 9-acre plot. The family have also purchased an old theater in the nearby center and hope to use both venues to hold events.

“The options are kind of endless,” said Luke Falcone. “We just wanted to build a base and see what happens.”

In 2017, the Falcone family purchased the Frontier Drive-In, renamed the Frontier Drive-Inn, and is testing a new vision in the San Luis Valley. Where people once sipped sodas and basked in the glow of movies through their windshields, a new generation of visitors will sit on the lush grass, staying in Quonset cabins and yurts that are both historic and fashionable. (John McEvoy, Special for The Colorado Sun)

The former drive-in snack bar has been completely renovated with a full kitchen and 25 seats. There are 14 rooms at the Frontier Drive-Inn, with four new Quonset huts and 10 16-foot yurts made by Montrose-based Colorado. Yurt Co. Visitors can also hook up to RV campsites and maybe even restored trailers at some point. Everything is round, mirroring the pivot-watered crop circles that mark the floor of the San Luis Valley.

The Falcones, who have been visiting the Valley since the 1990s when Mark started working to conserve the Zapata Ranch, began meeting Valley residents six years ago, hearing their stories about the drive-in and how the development there could benefit the community.

Part of the revitalization of the Frontier Drive-Inn in southern Colorado includes 16-foot yurts made by Montrose-based Colorado Yurt Co. and available for rental. (John McEvoy, Special for The Colorado Sun)

“They’ve been amazing in community engagement,” Oaks-Jaramillo said. “They didn’t come here to start building. They have always hired from within the community. You know rural Colorado can be averse to change, especially if someone comes in with a heavy hand. But when you take your time and show communities a sustainable path in a transparent way, you’ll find people are more flexible and willing to embrace new ideas and projects. »

Original thinkers find fertile ground in the San Luis Valley, where local economies have remained largely stagnant for more than a century despite explosive growth in nearby mountain valleys. As prices in these high-altitude, resort-embedded valleys reach record highs, more and more people are coming to the valley. This mirrors a trend in western and southern Colorado, where residents pushed out of high-priced enclaves are moving into long-neglected communities.

Raël sees the renewed interest in his native country as a chance to highlight how new technologies can merge with traditional values. His cone-shaped adobe cabins create areas meant for relaxation, but he hopes they can spark ideas around easy-to-build affordable housing.

“We’re laying the groundwork for the future of construction using a 10,000-year-old building material,” says Rael, who has spent years perfecting Adobe’s age-old formula that works with its robot printers. “It’s a great opportunity to expand our borders here at the Frontier Drive-Inn.”

This story first appeared in The Outsider, Jason Blevins’ premium outdoor newsletter. >> Subscribe

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