This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
CENTER — The robot dangling from a rickety tower of lumber squirts out potato-shaped globs of mud. In a matter of hours, rings of globs are piled head high, creating an adobe hut.
“This is sort of another experiment for us,” architect Luke Falcone says.
Falcone’s family is testing a new vision in Center at the venerable Frontier Drive-In, rebranded as the 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 lush grass, staying in modish, yet historical Quonset huts and yurts. They will visit a sort of ancestral spa, lounging in the eight adobe, open-air star-gazing cones centered around a soaking tub.
“Yeah, we are sort of pushing a new frontier here,” says Ronald Rael, the Antonito-born artist and University of California, Berkeley architecture professor who is building the adobe platforms with the dangling 3D printer. “This is kind of a new frontier of construction. Also, this place was the frontier between the United States and Mexico. So it’s kind of a triple-entendre, with frontiers of technology, the frontiers of policy and geographical environment and the drive-in.”
Mark Falcone bought the dormant drive-in in 2017. He’s the founder of Denver’s Continuum Partners and a longtime visitor to the San Luis Valley. Falcone was the chair of Colorado’s chapter of the Nature Conservancy Board in the late 1990s, when the group acquired Zapata Ranch, protecting more than 100,000 acres where bison roam adjacent to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Falcone’s Continuum Partners redeveloped the old Market Station at the edge of LoDo in Denver. He and his wife, Ellen Bruss, donated the land for the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and then led the effort to raise $16 million to build the sleek, black cube for the museum’s galleries.
He enlisted his son, Luke, an architect, and daughter, Sonya, who develops affordable housing in Los Angeles, to help revive the Frontier Drive-Inn. The Falcones spent the past several years encouraging local communities to participate in the planning for the Frontier. Center High School students have picked a movie to screen on the opening weekend. A committee of locals is helping shepherd the plan.
“We’re flying by the seat of our pants a little bit,” Luke Falcone says. “We’re solving problems as they come up and we’re listening to thoughts and ideas people have and finding solutions as they become available.”
There are more experiments than adobe structures underway at the Frontier Drive-Inn. The Falcones, whose careers revolve around developing architecture that allows both artful and affordable living, hope what is built at the project — which will remain a movie drive-in and outdoor gathering space — will be a model for building inexpensive yet chic housing.
“This is an opportunity for us to test run some ideas,” Luke said, showing off prefabricated steel Quonset huts with in-floor radiant heat and insulated walls that were assembled in a matter of days. “We would love the opportunity to do this in other parts of the valley or anywhere, really, where people need housing.”
The lower prices and open spaces of southern Colorado are drawing all sorts of entrepreneurs. Economic development boosters across the 8,000-square-mile San Luis Valley are focusing on how new and longtime residents of the valley can transform raw ingredients into new products for a changing population. Like extracting oils and protein powder from hemp, which is among the valley’s most popular crops. Or using hemp as a strengthener in concrete. Or packaging ready-for-the-table, pre-cooked potatoes. Or converting potato fields over to grow quinoa. Or creating collectives of marijuana growers. Or revamping a drive-in into a community gathering place, visitor retreat and test-piece for new construction strategies.
“We have farmers, but we also have a lot of innovators coming into the valley,” said Andrea Oaks-Jaramillo, the 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.”
There still will be movies at the Frontier. The Falcones have restored the screen and replaced the old projector. They added high-end speaker stacks for concerts. Future plans call for a stage in front of the screen and a 100-seat pavilion. Instead of a parking lot for movie-watchers, there is a field of grass, not unlike the lush potato fields surrounding the 9-acre parcel. The family also bought an old theater in nearby Center and they hope to use both venues to host events.
“The options are kind of endless,” Luke Falcone said. “We just wanted to build a base and see what happens.”
The old snack bar at the drive-in has been completely rehabbed with a full kitchen and seating for 25. 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 also can plug into RV camping spots and maybe even restored trailers at some point. Everything is round, mirroring the pivot-sprinklered crop circles that mark the San Luis Valley floor.
The Falcones, who have visited the valley since the 1990s when Mark first started work to conserve Zapata Ranch, began meeting with locals in the valley six years ago, listening to their stories about the drive-in and how development there could benefit the community.
“They have been incredible in engaging the community,” Oaks-Jaramillo said. “They didn’t come down here and just start building. They have consistently hired within the community. You know rural Colorado can be averse to change, especially if someone comes in heavy-handed. But when you take your time and show communities a sustainable path in a transparent way, you will find people are more flexible and ready to embrace new ideas and projects.”
Out-of-the-box thinkers are finding fertile ground in the San Luis Valley, where local economies have remained largely stagnant for more than a century despite explosive growth in neighboring mountain valleys. As prices in those high-altitude, resort-anchored valleys soar to record highs, more people are landing in the valley. That reflects a trend across western and southern Colorado, where locals squeezed out of high-priced enclaves are moving into long-overlooked communities.
Rael sees the resurgence of interest in his homeland as a chance to highlight how new technology can meld with traditional values. His cone-shaped adobe huts create areas meant for hanging out, but he hopes they can spark ideas around easy-to-build affordable housing.
“We are laying the groundwork for the future of construction using a building material that is 10,000 years old,” says Rael, who spent years perfecting the ancestral formula for adobe that works with his robot printers. “It’s a beautiful opportunity to expand our frontiers here at the Frontier Drive-Inn.”
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. >> Subscribe