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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Baker-Breningstall: Artistry, Stewardship Frame Daily Life | Print |  E-mail

by Susan Dugan

Donna Baker-Breningstall may not have been born with a green thumb, but you’d never know it from the garden outside the log home she and her husband, Orvin, remodeled on the eastern edge of University Park – a bucolic oasis just blocks from busy Colorado Blvd.


DONNA BAKER-BRENIGNSTALL'S LOVE FOR GARDENING AND HER ARTISTIC BENT are clearly reflected in the beautifully renovated 1940s’ cabin and bountiful gardens filling the University Park property she shares with her husband, Orvin, and daughters, Sunia and Olivia.

“I’ve been involved with gardening for 20-something years,” she says. “I started when I started having children, my first at 43 and my second at 44. I had been in business prior and hadn’t really thought about kids much. But once I had my two daughters, the whole digging in the dirt and growing something thing just kind of kicked in. Now I’m kind of nutty about it.” 

On a sunny June morning, her garden teems with the bounty of a couple years’ hard work. Spinach, chard, mustard greens, asparagus, snow peas, and a variety of potatoes lie planted in neat rows, some of the greens already set to be picked and donated to a nearby local food pantry through Produce for Pantries, a program close to Baker-Breningstall’s heart. Dwarf fruit trees wave their leafy arms in the breeze and blackberry bushes stand securely staked to the fence to contain their unruly ways.

She takes pride in her gardening shed, reassembled in part from one that used to stand in back of the property. The result? A charming space part utilitarian in which to neatly store tools, and part sanctuary, with a comfy bench on which to take shade or even put up your feet and read.

The cabin’s interior is likewise filled with comforting intimations of the past, evidence of the respectful manner in which the couple approached its remodeling and late former owner. “The cabin was built in 1948 by a couple in Allenspark (Colorado) that wanted a city place,” Baker-Breningstall says. “Pat Gilmore and family bought the house in 1960. She had this property on the market for eight years and would enter into an agreement with people, find out they wanted to scrape it, and back out.”

Smitten with the home after lengthy searching, despite its condition and their realtor’s reservations, the couple began negotiating. “That’s when we ran into Pat’s son-in-law and learned that we had a lot in common with Pat. I was brought up Quaker as she was, and her husband had done a lot of negotiations on the Hopi and Navajo reservations. My husband spent a year on the Navajo reservation doing research for his doctorate. We would share these stories and John would take them back to Pat. We made it clear we were not going to scrape this house; that we loved it and were going to remodel it. And so she chose us to buy her baby.”

The couple left the original living room intact, turned the original dining room into an office for Donna, and installed a sliding door hung like, and evoking, a barn door. Decorative touches such as a cocktail table incorporating original cabin windows and collections of English antique pot lids, along with carefully selected pieces throughout the home, reflect Baker-Breningstall’s years spent as an antique dealer.

“The great room/kitchen was five different rooms,” she explains. “The ceiling was low, just above these beams.” The brand-new kitchen, built to accommodate Orvin’s passion for cooking features an antique German cupboard with original plaster. Baker-Breningstall commissioned Colorado metal artist John Wenner to create the sinuous staircase railing leading down to the addition’s basement, which includes a closed-loop geothermal heating/cooling unit. The addition includes a TV room, master bedroom and bath, Orvin’s office, and a mudroom. The back cabin, formerly containing a warren of small rooms installed and rented out by Pat Gilmore after her children were grown, has been converted into a guest room with bath, and adjacent exercise room. Two bedrooms for the couple’s daughters, Sunia, 22, and Olivia, 20, lie downstairs.

Born in Pennsylvania outside Phila-delphia and long interested and schooled in the equine world, Baker-Breningstall moved to Denver in 1973, when offered a riding instructor position at a large stable in Golden. She worked in the horse industry for the next five or six years, and then spent a year-and-a-half in Germany as part of a dressage program. “I was working with two Olympic German riders, saw what it was like at the top, and realized I wanted a more balanced life,” she says.

Back in Denver, she found a job working for an art gallery in Cherry Creek, where her innate artistic flair and outgoing personality shone, and soon landed a director position at another Cherry Creek gallery. “When the market softened, I got a job in advertising, did that for about six years, and ended up as president of sales.”

Over the years, Baker-Breningstall volunteered for a variety of organizations including the Gathering Place. “I was there when it started down on Santa Fe in two little retail spaces in the 1980s. I would go down and help cook lunch and sit on the floor with the kids and read.” A fundraiser for the Colorado Symphony revived her interest in the horsey world. “I volunteered for the Polo Match and ended up riding some of the horses and helping the local celebrities prepare. When one of the Broncos pulled out on the day of the match, they brought me in to ride a horse I had never been on before, even though all I wanted to do was wear my big hat and walk around with a mint julep. It ended up being a lot of fun.”

Toward the end of her years in advertising, she met Orvin. “I had never been married, had done a lot of traveling, and had relationships, but I just knew he would make a great dad, for some reason, even though I hadn’t thought much about having kids. He had never been married either but we got married and got pregnant when we were on our honeymoon in Portugal. I had Sunia and then Olivia and decided to leave the advertising world and be a stay-at-home mom, which I did for several years.”

When Orvin landed a year-long Ful-bright teacher exchange, the family moved to England. “That’s where I got bitten by the antique bug. I ended up taking a couple of classes and buying a few things. I called a friend who had a high-end flower and gift shop in Castle Rock and she agreed to take some small things in her shop on consignment. They sold immediately and I thought, maybe I have a knack for this.”

She began shipping antiques from England and selling at outdoor shows for the next 15 years. “I stopped about three years ago. After we bought this place I knew this was going to be a huge project. The contractor originally said it would take five months, but it took 10.”

Baker-Breningstall’s affinity for the arts took a personal turn recently when she became involved in, and soon joined the board of, the Santa Fe Art District’s VSA Colorado/Access Gallery, a nonprofit organization that provides arts opportunities for people with disabilities. “My daughter Sunia has autism/asperger’s. She has always been very artistic and I heard about this gallery and thought, hmmm, I’m going to check it out. I came back and she was really resistant to going down but I said, ‘I met the director and he’s really nice. We can take some of your art and we’ll just do it for 15 or 20 minutes and then go to dinner.’ She loved it. They embraced her and asked her on the spot if she would like to do one of their summer internships for young adults recently graduated from high school.”

At the gallery, young adults work on individual and group projects. A current endeavor called “Art Works” encourages businesses to commission the gallery for art. “A team of four or five young artists led by professional artists creates these pieces and, when they get paid, part of it goes to these young adults with disabilities. Sunia is actually going to be working on this.”

In September, the gallery will host a fundraiser entitled 99 Pieces, a display in which local artists create a work of art on a 10x10 board. “We mount these 99 pieces and charge the general public $9.99 to get into the show. The pieces are very affordable, ranging from $40 to about $200, and last year we had some big-name artists.”

And her own home backyard continues to be a living work of art in progress, and even an occasional studio and gallery. “We hosted an event last year (we’ll be doing it again this year) where we invited artists to come and sketch and paint in the garden and bring some of their other work. And we invited collectors and people just interested in art to join us and relax and talk with the artists, enjoy some good food and music. Last year, all of the artists sold at least one or two pieces.”

A master gardener certified through CSU Extension, Baker-Breningstall continues to advocate for organizations such as Sprout City Farms, dedicated to “increasing food access and community resiliency” through urban agriculture, and Produce for Pantries, an outgrowth of Grow Local Colorado, dedicated to helping connect healthy food with hungry people.

“Produce for Pantries has been around for about two years and was started because food pantries around the city received so much highly processed food, canned food, frozen food, but very little fresh. We’re trying to encourage more home gardeners, community gardeners, school gardeners to donate some of their produce to their local food pantry. It really is so easy to grow food right in your backyard and most home gardeners don’t even think about what to do with the excess. These days, I’m encouraging everybody I meet to grow what they can and give their additional food to Produce for Pantries.”

(Editor’s note: To find the nearest food pantry that can handle donations of fresh garden produce, call the Hunger Free Hotline at 855-855-4626 or visit produceforpantries.com. To learn more about VSA/Access Gallery, call 303-777-0797 or visit accessgallery.org.)

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