Keeping track of tenant transformations in Aspen's downtown buildings is like following Rocky Mountain clouds: here one day and gone the next. The ability to identify all the locations that the Steak Pit has occupied distinguishes longtime residents from the just-moved-heres. Knowledge of the historic uses of Aspen's oldest buildings will impress old-timers as well as new arrivals.
Aspen's most dramatic downtown changes have occurred in the Aspen Block and the Brand Building. The two buildings, built five years apart, were constructed by two of the town's biggest rivals. D.R.C. Brown and his father-in-law partner built the Aspen Block in 1886 of brick and sandstone that was quarried near Aspen Highlands. Their opponent in a disagreement about silver lode ownership who sparked a famous legal battle that once stymied Aspen's growth, David Hyman, built the Br and Building in 1891. Railroads had reached Aspen in the interim, allowing Hyman to construct his building using sandstone that was quarried on the railroad route along the Fryingpan River.
For both buildings, the anchor tenant that occupied the ground floor corner was a bank - oddly, the same bank. The First National Bank, another D.R.C. Brown enterprise, first opened in the Aspen Block, then expanded to Hyman's building. Like banks of today, their interiors were decorated to impress their customers. Their safes were prominently positioned to suggest security. Both buildings provided pedestrian storefronts for Aspen's most lucrative businesses: jewelers, grocery stores, clothing retailers and drugstores.
The second story of the Aspen Block was divided up as small office spaces. Some housed mine offices, others sheltered service professionals. Office space transitioned to residential rooms in the 1950s. The Brand Building's second floor had a few offices, but much of the space was devoted to a meeting hall. The large room's beautiful hardwood floor endured multiple dancing events throughout the 1920s and was even used for orchestra rehearsals by the Music Festival in the 1950s.
The advent of the automobile impacted both buildings. What had been prime retail space was converted to filling stations/garages. The corner locations that had been elegantly constructed for banks, were converted to drive-through gas stations by removing exterior walls. These, the largest buildings in town, were the only ones with ceilings high enough for trucks to drive under. The covered space protected drivers from snowfall.
The Rader Rule (currently Stephen's of Aspen) operated in the Aspen Block for many years, convenient to the post office and drug store. M.H. Brand operated a filling station in the Brand Building's corner (now Christian Dior) as well as a large garage and car dealership that occupied the rest of the Galena Street side. Albert Bishop took over operation of the service station before World War II. He and his wife, Pearl, lived on the second floor. The large Brand Building space accommodated autos for more than 40 years, including many as a body shop.
I lived across the street from Rader Rule and walked by the Brand Building each day on my way to school. It would be years until I drove a car and neither building housed any business that a child would frequent. My memory of the corner-cutouts was more pedestrian: both corners provided shortcuts and storm relief as I angled through the filling stations each day.