Their Generation: Paula Zurcher had front row seat to Aspen’s transformation
February 13, 2014
Editor's note: "Their Generation," an ongoing series profiling longtime locals of the Roaring Fork Valley, runs every other week in The Aspen Times.
Paula Zurcher didn't spend a lot of years in Aspen in the old days, but what a time she experienced after her parents started bringing her to the sleepy old mining town in 1945.
Zurcher, the daughter of Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, first visited Aspen when she was 16 years old. She spent summers and two weeks during Christmas in Aspen each year through 1949, when marriage altered her lifestyle and steered her to California.
But during those five years, Zurcher had a front-row seat to Aspen's rebirth. Her father started the Aspen Co. to buy, remodel and sell quaint Victorian houses to wealthy friends and acquaintances who were willing to invest in the blossoming resort and intellectual center. He recruited investors in the Aspen Skiing Corp. to raise funds to clear more trails and build a chairlift to put Aspen in the international eye.
“I’ve always loved the mysterious and the historic — and Aspen was both.”
Zurcher was well aware that her parents hoped to accomplish something special in Aspen. Nevertheless, she was intrigued with the town just as she found it.
"I loved it straight off," she said. "I loved the beauty, the climate, the mountains.
"I've always loved the mysterious and the historic — and it was both."
She recalled that many of the houses and other buildings were vacant during her first summer visit. Many miners and their families abandoned Aspen when demand sagged for its precious metal after the demonetization of silver in 1893.
"The only ones left were the Midnight Mine people," Zurcher said. Tom Sardy had the only thriving business as the mortician, she quipped.
Vacant, decrepit houses have always been magnets for curious kids, and such was the case for Zurcher.
"I remember walking into houses where the doors were open," she said. "Clothes were still in the closets."
A memory that still stands out after all these years was a World War I uniform left in the closet of one home and dresses from the turn of the 20th century in the closet of another, she said.
Zurcher is fond of telling stories, and she's good at it. Following are three tales recounted about her earlier times in Aspen.
Her family initially stayed at the Hotel Jerome during their visits but soon bought a West End Victorian known as the Lamb House. The namesake owner allegedly fell in love with the madam of a house of ill repute in Leadville. After they married, the good people of Leadville paid them to leave, so they headed over Independence Pass to Aspen and settled in. There was a light switch in the master bedroom that controlled the whole house when the Paepckes moved in. Legend has it that the madam couldn't give up her trade and that her husband warned about a visit from the authorities with a flick of the master light switch.
The Paepckes lived in the Lamb House for a short while before moving to Pioneer Park, one of Aspen's more outstanding historic gems. There was a bullet hole at the end of the hallway. A family friend informed them that the man of the house sometime back in the mining era allegedly returned home early from a business trip and found his wife entertaining another gentleman. The owner allegedly took a shot at them both. Zurcher was uncertain if any shots hit their mark. One definitely missed.
Her other fond memory of Pioneer Park was famed German philosopher Albert Schweitzer waking her and her sister by playing the piano at 6 a.m. while the girls were trying to sleep in the bedrooms directly above. Schweitzer was a guest of the Paepckes' during Aspen's seminal event, the 1949 Goethe Bicentennial celebration.
The Paepckes weren't religious, but Zurcher got interested in the Bible as history after marrying and moving to California. She was so impressed, she became a Bible-study teacher for 35 years. She recalled that while she was a young lady, she hiked the Lost Man Trail with her mother and told her a story from the Bible. Her mother was impressed, she said, and "forgave" her for her religious interests.
During her Christmas breaks in the 1940s, Zurcher came back to Aspen to ski. Her earliest memories of the slopes are hiking up Shadow Mountain to a level spot from where the boat tow launched to provide access to Roch Run. Occupants were aware of how the rope had frayed, so they rode in the boat with one foot outside, prepared to bail out in case the rope broke, she said.
The original chairlifts were dedicated in January 1947.
She remembers horseback riding from T Lazy 7 Ranch up to Buckskin Pass on glorious summer afternoons.
She also remembers the town waking from a slumber during her summers in the 1940s. There was a flurry of remodeling of old Victorian houses and commercial buildings as well as some new construction.
"Whenever a new building went up, Mother was the first to criticize," she said with a laugh.
Zurcher also embraced some of the cultural and intellectual pursuits her father pioneered.
"The whole exposure to the Aspen Idea and universal man appealed to me," she said.
After she settled in California in 1949 and pursued a career in biochemistry, Zurcher would return during summers to attend the Aspen Music Festival and seminars by American philosopher Mortimer Adler. Her growing family kept returning to her adopted town. She raised two sons and two daughters.
"My children always loved coming here," she said.
Zurcher, 85, moved back to Aspen full time in 2000 after her husband died. She built a house on Erickson Ranch, a portion of which her father bought in the 1940s, and moved there in 2004.
The long driveway to her home provides stunning views of Aspen from Red Mountain and provides a perfect opportunity to reflect on her parents' legacy.
"I often wonder how they would look at it today," Zurcher said. "Mother would yearn for the days when it was unspoiled."
Her father probably would see it "going some directions he liked and some he didn't like," she said.
"Father saw it as an opportunity to make it something of lasting significance," she said. "I think Aspen would have eventually developed — just as Vail and the others did."
But Aspen probably wouldn't have developed the way it did had her parents not fallen in love with the town, she acknowledged.