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A demonstration match of the Basque national sport, pelota, in Grand Junction, Colorado, on Sept. 24, 2022, pitted the Basque team of Tony Huerta, center, and Oier Pastor Alonso, right, in blue, and the Mexico team of Francisco Mancilla, left, and Marcos Medina in red. They played in Plaza Urrutia, which survived a massive urban redevelopment along the river even though official games had not been played there for decades. (Photo provided by Joaquin Garcia, Colorado Euskal Etxea)

A Basque handball court that escaped close calls with destruction in its nearly half-century existence is on track to be listed as a unique historic feature in Colorado.

After a few more official steps, Plaza Urrutia is set to be added to the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties.

The handball court plaza has been a landmark in Grand Junction since it was built in the barnyard of Basque rancher Jean Urruty in 1978. It became a gathering place for the many Basque transplants who came to the Grand Valley from their homeland in the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France to herd sheep. Many, including Urruty, became successful ranchers and businessmen.

For decades, they would gather at Plaza Urrutia to play their fierce version of handball, called pelota, and to celebrate life milestones.

The plaza, which the Basques call a fronton, now sits incongruously in one corner of a busy city park along a main thoroughfare into Grand Junction from Interstate 70. When Canyon View Park was built in the late 1990s, the City of Grand Junction used the fronton to store manure and construction materials.

The city planned to demolish the three-walled edifice to make space for 138 parking spaces. To appease those who didn’t want to see it go, the city offered to build two modern handball courts and put up a plaque to memorialize the Basque people of the Grand Valley.

But the Basque population, with a small army of friends, turned out in droves at city meetings and objected. The fronton stayed put. The park was designed around the structure made from 39 tons of concrete.

Lately, Plaza Urrutia has served as a popular spot for mostly non-Basque outdoor handball players and for tennis and pickleball players practicing their swings.

The fronton caught the attention of Eric Newcombe with the State Historic Preservation Office last fall after The Colorado Sun reported on a gathering of Basques at Plaza Urrutia. More than 100 came from around Colorado, along with a few from California, to celebrate the historic structure. The plaza came alive with pelota competitions and the core ingredients of traditional Basque parties — roasted lamb and jug wine.

“This is a tremendously important place — a place we want to preserve,” Newcombe said.

In order for Plaza Urrutia to be listed on the Colorado Register of Historic Properties, History Colorado first determined that the site is eligible for inclusion among the 2,500 other designated state historic properties in the state. Part of that determination is based on the fact that it is the only professional-sized fronton in the state and one of only a few in the country.

The next step was local approvals. The Grand Junction Parks & Recreation Advisory Board gave it a thumbs up recently. This week, the Grand Junction Historic Preservation Board voted to move ahead with the designation. Next week, the Grand Junction City Council is expected to add its stamp of approval, which will give the fronton an immediate local historical designation.

The final step will come when the History Colorado board meets in September and formally reviews a submission from Grand Junction.

Kristen Ashbeck with the City of Grand Junction said a city that once wanted to do away with the fronton, is totally on board now with preserving it. There is preliminary talk of applying for grants to make improvements to Plaza Urrutia such as added signage. Ashbeck said it may also be highlighted in the city’s parks and recreation programs. That could include handball lessons and tournaments and on-site history lessons.

Those shepherding the designation say there will also no doubt be a grand Basque celebration that will draw Basques from around the state when the process is complete.  

“Absolutely, I will be at that party,” Newcombe said.

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @nlofholm