Barbi’s Aspen dream house gets star treatment
August 5, 2011
ASPEN – Starwood resident Barbi Benton, a ubiquitous television presence in the 1970s and early ’80s, will be back in the spotlight next week on the MTV program “Extreme Cribs.”
The show will feature various aspects of the home Benton shares with husband George Gradow. It airs at 2:30 p.m. local time Monday.
MTV filmed it in the spring over the course of a few days. The model-turned-actress said the show was a lot of work, but she had help from her 23-year-old daughter, Ariana Gradow, who is prominent throughout the program. Ariana likely will be on screen for most of the segment, Benton said, since she’s the one who takes viewers through the house, which is nicknamed “The Copper Palace” because of its roof.
“The house itself is extreme,” Benton told The Aspen Times. “I was the interior designer, partly because I had the same vision that my husband had for the house, and we could not find anybody else who had that vision and was affordable. I got the job after we looked high and low.”
Their 24,000-square-foot home, which sits on 35 acres on Starwood’s west side, was finished in 1995 after six years of planning, design and construction. It’s multitiered, with each area resembling a pod. It features two swimming pools with underwater speakers, a ballroom, a disco, office space, a gym, a dark room, a master bedroom (with a revolving bed) offering views of Mount Sopris and the Roaring Fork Valley, a projection room and much more.
“Just the drywall for the house took two years,” Benton said. She described the interior as “bizarre,” then backtracked a bit.
“I shouldn’t say ‘bizarre,'” she said. “It is definitely something not everybody would choose to live with. But it is fun, from the minute you walk through the door. We wanted it to be fun and also elegant.”
Getting local government approvals for the house was difficult, Benton said, involving many meetings with the Pitkin County commissioners. Expatriate Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan was going through the county approval process for building plans on his Starwood property around the same time in the early 1990s. Starwood is a gated subdivision on a mesa across from Buttermilk, off McLain Flats Road between Aspen and Woody Creek, and also once was the home of the late John Denver.
Discussions at the meetings, Benton said, “sounded like communist Russia, because at the time they were talking about limiting anybody’s house to 3,500 square feet.”
Originally Benton and her husband wanted a 15,000-square-foot home, but they changed their minds since their architect had already drawn up plans for a bigger structure. To reduce the size to 15,000 square feet would have taken several months, and so the couple decided to go ahead with the larger house plans because the county was considering a drastic reduction in the maximum allowable size of homes.
“It’s a good thing we got our plans in [before the county voted to limit house sizes] because that way they couldn’t do anything about them,” Benton said. “They were going to stop everybody from building.”
When MTV first approached her about doing the show, she was hesitant. Benton didn’t want to do a regular show of “MTV Cribs.” When the network decided to launch a different edition of its “Cribs” franchise, emphasizing peculiar features and design quirks, she became interested.
“When they started talking about a new series, they made it sound enticing,” Benton said.
One night of production evolved into a major party, with Ariana inviting friends over for food and dancing in the Copper Palace’s disco: “We were thinking something like 12 people, and it turned into 35,” Benton said, adding that it was a late night with a lot more filming planned for 7 a.m. the next morning.
The house is in a secluded section of Starwood next door to Bandar’s property.
“My husband was really funny about the view. He finds the view from Red Mountain to be nice but not so pleasant, for some reason. So when we found this property he jumped on it. He doesn’t like to see houses; he just wanted to see open space. I actually love the view of Ajax and Highlands. He also didn’t want to go past a lot of houses to get to the house. We only pass about six houses on the way up. It’s great here because everybody has a lot of land.”
Benton said she has often wondered whether she would rather be within walking distance of downtown Aspen, “and the answer is, if I could have 40 acres [close to Aspen], yes,” she said.
Records from the Pitkin County Assessor’s Office in 2010 show the actual value of the land and property to be $26.3 million. The assessed value is much lower. Officially, the house has three bedrooms and seven baths.
Following a trip to India, where Benton and Gradow visited the Taj Mahal and its reflecting pond, Benton was keen on adding a pond to the Aspen property.
“I talked my husband into putting in a pond, under the guise that we could go ice skating on it. He wouldn’t go for it as a straight pond but when I told him we could have ice-skating parties, he gave in and said OK. So we put the pond in and we have yet to have ice-skating parties. I guess you need one of those smoothing machines.”
Another feature Benton enjoys: The two lap pools, which are heated at different temperatures and feature an underwater sound system. “They’re side by side and indoor-outdoor. It has sliding doors on the side that can open up to expose the pool to the outside. Although the roof doesn’t open. The two pools are piped with music, and you only hear the music when you’re underwater. Before I was building the house, it took me a while to find the people that made those speakers. I went swimming many years ago at a hotel pool [with underwater speakers] and said, ‘If I ever build a pool I have to have this.’ For swimming laps it’s the only way to go.”
Benton – who also is a musician and singer who enjoyed success on the country charts in 1975 with the single “Brass Buckles” – also has separate practice rooms for piano and guitar.
The house also includes a massage room, but it’s been a while since she’s gotten to use it.
“That was kind of important because every time I wanted a massage, I would have to ask my husband not to watch TV in the bedroom because I wanted a massage,” she said. “This way, nobody has to go anywhere.
“But in this economy, I don’t get as many massages as I like. It’s been a long time since I’ve had one. I have friends who have one every day.”
All in all, Benton said she loves her house and the Aspen lifestyle.
“We don’t do as much entertaining as we used to,” she said. “We try to do it first class. We generally have sit-down dinners either for 20 or 60 people.
“I will say something about this town: Just about everybody here reciprocates. I can tell you my party calendar has been busy at least three days a week all summer. And sometimes there are two a day. It’s very busy, and it’s because I entertain that I am invited. If I stopped reciprocating, I would be off everybody’s list. It works that way here.”