For more than 120 years, the Aspen Community Church has withstood the ravages of time, weather and use. After the discovery in 2010 that the church had failing support trusses, which forced services outdoors temporarily, the congregation came up with a plan to help the building last another 100 years.
The church is in the midst of a major restoration and remodel project funded by donations from the Aspen community. The financial goal to complete the project was set a $4.95 million.
Elizabeth Means is the head of the restoration project and said so far, so good.
“The community has really stepped up to the plate so far,” she said. “We’ve raised close to $2 million and gotten a lot of important work done already. This building has served the Aspen community for more than 100 years, and our hope is it continues to be an affordable community hub for the next 100 years.”
The Aspen Community Church is the oldest standing church building in Aspen, with the cornerstone of the structure laid in April 1889. In a remarkable feat of construction, the church was built in 10 months with locally quarried sandstone from the Peach Blow Quarry in the Fryingpan River valley.
The church was built at a cost of $20,000. Originally the Presbyterian Church of Aspen, it had the first incandescent electric lights in town, which drew many curious onlookers at the time. The church has castle-like features with a round bell tower, elaborate stained-glass windows, a winding staircase and carefully detailed interior woodwork.
In the late 1800s, Aspen had its share of bars, nightclubs and brothels. The building represented a “clean” place for families to meet.
The sanctuary is famous for its acoustic design. In 1970, John Denver recorded his Christmas album with the Dickens Carolers in the sanctuary specifically because of the acoustics.
In more recent times, the church has become a multiuse community center, with activities ranging from musical performances, yoga classes, Boy and Girl Scout meetings, kindergarten classes and spiritual uses.
Other than an entrance on the west side designed for handicap access and an elevator on the north side, the church still is in its original form.
The current remodel hasn’t been quick or easy, as careful detail has been given to match the construction from 1889. The project has been broken down into phases, with the first being the stabilization of the roof with steel trusses. Phase One was finished in early 2011.
Steve DeClute, from William H. Baker Construction, is the project manager and led a tour of the Phase Two remodeling Friday.
One could hear the marvel in DeClute’s voice as he described the original engineering feat to complete the church in less than a year.
“We’ve estimated that the church weighs around 1,800 tons,” DeClute said. “Can you imagine what the people went through in the 1890s to build this in 10 months without modern equipment, without cranes? Just getting the stone to this location is amazing. It had to have been a constant stream of horse-drawn wagons full of sandstone to and from the railroad lines.”
Over the years, the building developed a reputation of ice damming, as heat would leak out of the roof.
“My belief is that this building hasn’t been totally dry in years,” DeClute said. “There’s a lot of water damage, especially in the areas where the ice would annually form.”
The roof now has new cedar shingles and will finally have insulation on top of the sanctuary. The design will create a cold-roof system that will hold snow and ice without melting into ice walls.
The original roof supports were structurally compromised and needed replacement. DeClute brought in 55,000 pounds of steel to support the roof. His crews also had to remove a layer of bat guano 3 to 4 inches thick on the attic floor.
The goals for Phase Two are to make the exterior watertight, stabilize the roof and make sure the ceiling is structurally sound.
Phase two work should be complete by Nov. 1.
Once Phase Two is finished, the church congregation will take time to assess the next steps that will make up Phase Three. Future work likely will include mechanical upgrades, a fire-suppression system and upgrades to the electrical system. Ultimately, they want the building to be energy-efficient.
Means said the church still is accepting donations for the completion of the exterior renovation.
“We’re so grateful to the Aspen community for this outpouring of support,” Means said. “It’s been amazing to see the work done to save this historical building.”