A half-century-old Basque handball court that was nearly knocked down to make way for a parking lot is Colorado’s newest historic treasure.
The History Colorado Board of Directors on Wednesday approved a Basque fronton in Grand Junction for inclusion on the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties. The fronton, named Plaza Urrutia by its founder, is the only Basque landmark to be recognized for historical significance in a state where Basques have a long and colorful history.
The fronton — the only one in Colorado and one of only a handful in the western United States — is a point of pride for Basques whose ancestors came here from the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. Frontons in the Basque homelands are as much at the heart of communities as churches.
“I am so tickled,” said Mona Dyer, a member of the Grand Junction Basque community in Grand Junction and one of those who helped craft the nomination for the historical designation.
Grand Junction Basques fought fiercely to save the fronton when the city of Grand Junction planned to tear it down in the late 1990s. Dyer’s father, Jean Pierre Doyhenard, had helped to build Plaza Urrutia, and her mother, Maggie Doyhenard, spearheaded the drive to save the fronton.
Ironically, the city that planned to destroy the fronton played a key part in the past year to earn the fronton’s new historic designation.
City planner Kristen Ashbeck worked with National and State Register Historian Eric Newcombe and the Basque community to move a designation application through the process. She said Grand Junction is lucky because if the fronton had been on private land, it likely would have been demolished.
“It’s unique,” Ashbeck said. “It is in a much better place than it was 30 years ago now that it is integrated into a city park.”
Fronton was built for Basques who missed home
The fronton was built in the 1970s by Jean Urruty, a sheepherder turned businessman and a patriarch of the western Colorado Basque community. Jean and his wife, Benerita, had a farm on what is now part of Canyon View Park. Their farmhouse and Jean’s blacksmith shop sat near the fronton that Jean built to be a gathering place for his fellow Basques who missed the handball games they had played in the Pyrenees.
Plaza Urrutia became the site for weddings, birthdays, holidays, lamb roasts and friendly pelota games as well as fierce competitions. Pelota is the Basque version of handball, played with a cork ball that is so hard it can bruise hands and dent walls.
After Jean died in 1983, pelota play at the plaza tapered off. The three-sided concrete court fell into disrepair.
The gatherings and Basque lamb roasts were few and far between by the time Benerita donated the property that included the fronton to the city for a new showcase city park.
The park was laid out to include soccer fields, baseball diamonds, tennis courts and playgrounds. Where the fronton stood, plans called for 138 parking spaces.
The Basque community rose up in protest. The city, missing the cultural significance of the edifice, offered to build new handball courts in another part of the park. In 1999, following a heated meeting, the city backed down and decided to save the fronton that the city had been using at that time to store manure.
Road improvement projects have nipped off pieces of the park close to the fronton since then, but Plaza Urrutia still stands out in a modern park where it remains a popular site for outdoor handball players, as well as a point of curiosity for drivers passing by on their way to the Mesa Mall commercial area from Interstate 70.
Petracek was one of those who noticed it. She and her husband were driving from California to Denver in 2021 when they stopped to get gas and spotted the distinctive traditional curved top of the fronton front wall. She decided then she would organize a Basque event there to highlight what she viewed as a jewel for Colorado Basques.
Her gathering last fall brought out around 100 Basques, including many from the Front Range and a handful of professional pelota players from California. Over roasted lamb and red jug wine, they decided more gatherings should be held there.
Publicity about the event brought Plaza Urrutia to the attention of Newcombe and sparked the effort to have it designated a historical property. Newcombe contacted the city to see if there was any interest. The city was enthusiastic, he said. After some historical sleuthing and documentation, the nomination moved easily through the designation process.
The Grand Junction Parks & Recreation Advisory Board, the Grand Junction Historic Preservation Board and the Grand Junction City Council all gave it a thumbs up last winter, and this summer the Colorado Historical Review Board accepted the nomination submission. The final step was the History Colorado Board approval.
Newcombe said the fronton is now eligible to apply for a share of the $10 million in state historic preservation funds Colorado has amassed through gambling taxes. Ashbeck said it is possible the city will seek funds to repair some cracks in the fronton and to create signage explaining the significance of Plaza Urrutia.
The designation also means there will be a party — or two — in the Basque tradition.
A local celebration of the designation of Grand Junction’s newest historic property is likely in May during Colorado History Month.
Petracek is planning for a larger celebration in September 2024. She said she is already lining up events, including having a Basque priest come to bless the fronton. A Basque dance group from Boise, Idaho, has expressed interest in coming to perform. And a contingent of pelota players from France wants to try their hands at the court. The professional players from California who came to last year’s celebration plan to return.
Petracek said, as with all Basque celebrations, there will be a lamb barbecue.
“I think this is going to create a sense of pride for all Basques in Colorado,” Petracek said. “And I hope it will trigger more interest in our Basque culture.”