Melvilles maintain mountain manor
September 23, 2013
Editor's note: This is the first installment of "Their Generation," an ongoing series profiling longtime locals of the Roaring Fork Valley. The series will run every other Thursday.
It was 1951, and Ralph Melville was standing at one of the many crossroads in his life.
Melville was 26 and a recent graduate from Dartmouth with a degree in physics, a carpenter's apprentice in Boston for his father and a blossoming ski bum who worked at a ski lodge in New Hampshire.
He wasn't sure what route he was taking with physics and found the skiing community more to his liking, especially compared with building houses, like he was doing for his father.
With the ski bug biting hard, Melville decided he wanted to hit the slopes before committing to a work career.
"Skiing sounded a lot better than working alone in a lab," he said. "A friend suggested going to Aspen. It was so different than city life. Everyone seemed so friendly."
Melville returned to Massachusetts to work for his father, but the lure of Aspen kept calling. When he returned to Aspen in 1953, he noticed the town had grown and decided that it was time to look into buying some land.
He considered buying a group of seven lots where the St. Regis Aspen Resort now stands.
"They wanted $4,000," Melville said. "I asked if we could do a little better on the price, and they came back to me at $4,500. That was too much, so I made an offer on two city lots that were in the same area for $2,000. I thought it was highway robbery, but I bought them."
He returned to Boston and tied up some loose ends before returning to Aspen in August 1954.
He brought a friend with him from Boston to help him start building a ski lodge. The lots he bought had a house and a cabin on them. They tore down the house and shared the cabin as their living space. For the next four months, the two young men built the first part of the Mountain Chalet Aspen. Together, they did the cement work, plumbing, electrical and much more.
"We had a different work ethic back then," he said. "When it was light, we worked. When it was dark, we stopped. We were working 80-hour weeks."
The hard work paid off, and the lodge opened with three rooms in December 1954. There's still a wooden cutout of a couple dancing hanging on the southeast corner of the Chalet, which is the original section that Melville built almost 60 years ago.
Melville knew building a ski lodge in a little town like Aspen was a gamble, but he was sure the area was going to grow.
"When the lodge opened, all I had left was the shirt on my back," Melville said. "I really didn't want to lose it."
Marian (Headley) Melville grew up west of Philadelphia and also lived in Pittsburgh for a few years. She learned to ski on the East Coast. In 1955, a girlfriend of hers had friends in Aspen and suggested that Marian come with her to be a ski bum in Colorado.
A self-professed playgirl, Marian started making friends and decided to stay in Aspen.
In the summer of 1956, Marian was dating Ralph's roommate, Ross Griffen. A group of young people went picnicking at Chapman Dam, and Ralph ended up giving Griffen and Marian a ride back to Aspen. Griffen fell asleep on the ride back, giving Ralph and Marian a chance to get acquainted.
Their relationship has been described as a whirlwind affair, but Ralph said it was more a series of gusts.
That summer, Ralph would walk Marian home almost every evening from her job in town. One evening during their walk, Ralph shocked Marian with a question she wasn't expecting.
"I told Marian that I had a lot more important things to do in my life than court," he said. "So I asked her to marry me."
Marian was shocked and said nothing. She went home and thought about Ralph.
"That night, I realized this is the man God sent to me," Marian said. "So why not say 'yes'?"
The next morning, Marian left a piece of paper in Ralph's mailbox with one word on it: "yes."
"We met in June, were engaged in July and married in August," Ralph said. "I guess that's a whirlwind relationship."
Marian also knew Ralph was a man of integrity with a heart of gold. In one year, she found the man and the town she still loves.
"Aspen seemed like such a rinky-dink town when I first got here," Marian said. "Back then, it took the whole town to have a party. But really, Aspen has been perfect for us. I can't imagine living and raising a family anywhere else."
The Melvilles had six children, and all of them still live in Colorado. As they raised their family, they also kept adding to the Chalet. Now it has 59 rooms and sits on more than half a city block at the base of Aspen Mountain.
While many new hotels have arrived, the Mountain Chalet has kept its charm and coziness. It remains an original piece of early Aspen. Many have tried to convince the Melvilles to sell the Chalet, including Donald Trump, but that isn't going to happen.
Scott Writer has known the Melville family since the early 1970s, when he went to school with Julie, the Melvilles' oldest child.
"The Melvilles have always been local heroes of mine," Writer said. "They've displayed amazing drive and tenacity running the Chalet, which is a real asset to Aspen. I still love going by the Chalet in the winter and seeing Ralph out there shoveling snow. He's always stayed true to himself and the town of Aspen."
Ralph is now 88 and Marian 83, but both still have a youthful exuberance about them. You can find them at the Chalet almost every morning, greeting guests and friends while keeping an eye on the business.
Both have watched the town grow — not so much population-wise but as an international ski resort with out-of-control property values.
"Success is evident here," Marian said. "But it's not as cozy a community as it was 50 years ago. When we first came here, people could afford to buy a home. Now, it's heartbreaking. Homes just are no longer affordable. It's a blessing we came here when we did."