Sweetwater renovations

Developer John Holland reinstalls the Teton County Historic Preservation Board plaque that hung on the Sweetwater Restaurant before its renovation began. Holland spent 18 months remodeling the historic building, which was built in 1915. Photo by Kathryn Ziesig, Jackson Hole News & Guide via Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON (WNE) — Throughout the restoration of the Sweetwater Restaurant, any time developer John Holland visited the site passersby would pause to admire the century-old log cabin and recall memories of it over the decades.

“They just kept telling stories that came out of those walls,” Holland said, gesturing to the wooden exterior on a recent morning.

After 18 months of careful remodeling the historic building — erected in 1915, a holdover from Jackson’s earliest years — is now nearly ready for its next chapter.

Sweetwater’s second chance represents a rare tale of success in a town that doesn’t give developers much motivation to preserve historic structures. A few financial incentives exist, and the Jackson Town Council is investigating others that could persuade people to keep and even restore Jackson Hole’s character-defining relics. But for now it’s often easier to scrap them.

Under current preservation policies, Holland warns, the community isn’t likely to see many repeats of the Sweetwater rescue.

He declined to disclose the project cost, and it’s difficult to estimate the difference new policies could make to any specific dollar amount. But Holland said restoration is generally more expensive than new construction

“The reality is, it’s tough,” Holland said. “You’re going into it knowing it’s going to cost you more than to build something new.”

In the world of real estate, Holland is a bit of an exception. When he undertook the project he was fully aware it was “not going to be wildly profitable.” But having grown up in a 250-year-old home on Nantucket, with parents and grandparents who saved historic buildings, he’s imbued with a preservation instinct.

“Probably no rational person who was just looking at dollars and cents would’ve done that,” said Paul Anthony, Jackson’s planning director.

So why did he? Running his fingers across the sawed-off end of one of the cabin’s logs, Holland cited a favorite quote: “Because whiskey out of an old tin cup tastes better than it does out of a new one.”

Katherine Wonson, chairwoman of the Teton County Historic Preservation Board, said she was relieved when she learned that Holland had purchased Sweetwater, along with the two other buildings on the lot, King Sushi and Belle Cose.

The Sweetwater was originally the residence of Ed and Emily Coe from 1930 to 1936. Ed, a blacksmith, used the King Sushi building as his shop, according to a historic survey by Michael Cassidy. The Sweetwater was converted into a restaurant in 1976.

Had someone less preservation-minded jumped on the property, Wonson said, the community could have lost these symbols of early Jackson.

“What I’m not happy about,” Wonson said, “is we just got lucky that’s who the buyer was. I wish there was something in place that would have incentivized someone to preserve it.”

Over the past six months the town has worked with a preservation consultant — Winter and Company, of Boulder, Colorado — to design new policies that will, theoretically, do just that.

The council brushed the surface of that discussion earlier this fall. Though councilors didn’t definitively settle on any, they showed interest in the big-ticket items: transfer of development rights and preservation easements.

Transfer of development rights would allow a property owner to capitalize on a historic site by selling development potential to another landowner to use elsewhere. Similarly, the town could purchase development rights, though Anthony noted it would have to designate a funding source for that.

“Those are very powerful tools,” he said. “If you’re a landowner, you like those because you’re getting real money.”

Preservation easements offer another major financial boost to owners who forgo the right to redevelop their property. They can either sell the easements or donate them and receive a tax break. The latter is the strategy being used for the Cafe Genevieve block.

But such easements must be managed by a qualified organization, and none now exists in Jackson. For the Genevieve block the town will manage the easements in partnership with the Historic Preservation Board, but Anthony said that may not be a workable long-term solution.

Another promising incentive is to discount the square footage of historic buildings from the overall square footage allowed on a property.

“Those are the kinds of things that really will fully change the math for some people,” Wonson said.

Winter and Company presented a long list of other potential benefits to encourage preservation projects, from reduced parking requirements to sales tax rebates. Some of those are in place now: The town waives some housing mitigation requirements for historic properties. Holland was able to use that to build an addition without paying more for employee housing.

“It was nice to have, don’t get me wrong,” he said. But he’s skeptical these relatively minor incentives will be enough for most developers. “It won’t move the needle.”

Anthony doesn’t discount the smaller incentives, though. While transfer of development rights and preservation easements might be essential to large projects like Sweetwater, “it all depends on what your financial situation with your property is.”

In Holland’s words, “Not all historic buildings are created equal.”

Some benefit from high-quality original craftsmanship; others don’t. Some have been maintained fastidiously over the years; some haven’t. With such a wide range of circumstances, Nore Winter, owner of Winter and Company, told the council it’s important to have a variety of incentives that can meet the needs of any situation.

“The point is that not one of these is going to be the silver bullet,” he said.

Even without the help of many incentives the iconic Sweetwater building survived, now restored to its former glory. Holland and his crew — including architect Kurt Dubbe, a founding member of the Historic Preservation Board, general contractor Joe Monstesano and project manager Spike Conner — rehabilitated 2,100 square feet, and added another 500 to be used as a bar.

They began by disassembling the entire building, labeling the logs so they could return each to its precise spot. They replaced the floor, the roof, the foundation and much more, while retaining everything they could for the sake of historic integrity.

Despite so much being new, the building still calls to mind the era during which the Coes homesteaded in Jackson Hole. Most important, Holland said, are the original walls — likely built of the old-growth pines standing on the Snow King hillside when the first settlers arrived here.

Soon the new tenants, Ali and Kevin Cohane of Persephone Bakery, will take over the building and finish the interior work, continuing the story of this remnant of Jackson’s past. But again, Holland stressed, only a robust preservation program will entice other developers to make the same choice he did.

“If you want more examples of this,” he said, nodding to the log cabin, “you’re going to have to do more.”

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