In 2005, when longtime Breckenridge locals Tony and Annie Harris bought the creaky white, green, and red house on South French Street that for decades has been known as the Christmas Tree House, they had a vision. At the time, the home was not much more than a ski-bum bunkhouse. Bitter drafts ushered chills through the walls and floorboards; the interior felt stuck in the 19th century. But the Harrises—he a custom home builder, she a real estate agent—were savvy enough about the town and its historic structures to recognize rare potential when they saw it.
“We knew we wanted to end up here,” Tony, 62, says in the living room next to Annie, 63.
In the spring of 2013, after renting out the house for eight years, the Harrises launched what would become a yearlong renovation to turn the place into their home. The process transformed the Christmas Tree House from a dated has-been to the standard for what a historic structure can become in 21st-century Breckenridge: 3,200 square feet with four bedrooms and four bathrooms, an attached two-car garage, state-of-the-art energy efficiency, and subtle homages to its rich history throughout.
The home is the fifth that Tony Harris has built or remodeled for his family. As Annie quips, “I’m not allowed to live in anything that he didn’t build.” Tony, who has been building homes in Summit County for 30 years—a number of which have remodeled or replaced very old structures that require adherence to the complex building codes within Breck’s downtown historic district—says things have evolved drastically over that time. “When we first got here, everybody wanted to knock everything down,” Tony says. Since then, a handful of forward-looking residents, including longtime town historian Rebecca Waugh, have fought for the structures’ preservation.
Tony and Annie have lived in multiple such dwellings during their time in town, which dates to Annie’s arrival from Long Island in 1971 and engendered quite a love story. After coming for a summer break from college and deciding to stay, she took a job on a chainsaw crew in Alaska two years later, clearing a power line right-of-way from Anchorage to Wasilla. Tony, a Kiwi who grew up in Ashburton on New Zealand’s South Island, happened to be on the same crew. They parted ways when their work was finished, but they stayed in touch via hand-written letters as he rode his bike across North Africa. Eventually, they married and settled in Breckenridge.
Self-described hippies, the Harrises found bliss in the late 1970s living in a cabin on Boreas Pass Road sans running water or plumbing. They chuckle as they recall Annie pulling herself up a snow-packed hill via a fixed rope that led to their porch—while she was pregnant. Sitting in their contemporary historic remodel in downtown Breck 40 years later, Annie and Tony unearth a box of four-by-six photos from those days. Here is Annie skinning a ptarmigan; there’s Tony with his eagle’s-nest beard, hanging out at the cabin.
Before delving into their current professions, Annie sold lift tickets at the ski area, then became an elementary school secretary; Tony drove snowcats at Keystone and operated heavy machinery for Stan Miller Excavating. From 1978 to 1985, they lived two doors down from the Christmas Tree House, which was built in 1882 for saloonkeeper R.P. Spencer and his wife, Ida. (According to historical records, county judge D.W. Fall resided there from 1896 to 1909, and Sheriff J.G. Detwiler occupied it from 1909 until his death, though it’s unclear when he died.)
In the mid-1980s, the previous owners hired Tony to add a foundation to what would one day become his retirement home. “It was sitting on the ground, leaning and leaking,” he recalls. When he and Annie began their renovation, they took that project one step further, excavating for a basement level that would add 1,100 square feet with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a laundry room, and a wet bar; that extra square footage was allowed due to the fact that the house sits on a double lot measuring 50 feet by 125 feet.
The town’s historic preservation code required them to keep the walls in place on the main level, as well as retain the home’s original, wavy single-pane windows, and it’s 1882 front door, complete with 19th century hardware. But Tony was allowed to replace the property’s signature green tin roof with asphalt shingles, and the front porch with stage-floor hardwood salvaged from the 1892 Masonic lodge on Main Street, Abby Hall.
One of the best of the mandated upgrades to the house, particularly in hindsight, the Harrises say, is the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index score of 60 that they were required by the town to earn, as compensation for relocating an old shed to make room for their garage. To achieve that goal, they installed foam insulation, Energy Star–rated appliances, radiant floors, three gas stoves, and LED lights, as well as a specialized venting system to preserve heat. The measures increased the project’s cost by about 25 percent, but that will be offset by long-term returns in energy savings. “The house runs on nothing,” Tony says.
Nonessential but noteworthy interior accents include quartz countertops in the kitchen; oak floors in the great room; and, 16 feet above, a vaulted ceiling fashioned from white oak in varying hues (repurposed from a Florida barn, installed by finish carpenter Dave Stanley). Although not exactly the Sistine Chapel, the boards aloft imbue an artistic touch to the space. “I’m not really big on wood ceilings, but I love this one,” Annie says.
Some 133 years since it was erected on French Street, the Christmas Tree House has unquestionably graduated from shack to shimmer. Perhaps this was inevitable: the street itself is no longer dirt, after all. And downtown is chic, especially its historic district.
“We love town,” Annie says. “It’s lovely to be able to walk everywhere, get the paper.”
They are trying to simplify their lives, the Harrises say. Not having a lawn or garden to tend certainly helps. “I’m a country boy,” Tony says. “I like having my space around me. But”—he looks around the great room at the fusion of motifs and centuries—“this was a unique opportunity.”
An opportunity not just own a piece of Breck’s history, but to write a new chapter. They may have come far from the fixed rope and minimalist ethos of their youth, but they’re still living their dream.
Greer’s Appliance Center
J.L. Sutterley Architect
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