Tide rolls out on Cooper Street Pier
November 8, 2005
Around the corner from Cooper Street Pier is Prada. Across the street is Ralph Lauren.People who frequent the latter two typically are not found ordering a shot and a beer in Cooper Street, and vice versa. That, in a nutshell, represents Aspen’s central dichotomy. It is not a new arrangement.New businesses, be they present-day Prada or a late-19th-century store selling a new type of miner’s pick, have replaced the old institutions virtually throughout the town’s history, say longtime Aspenites.And now it is Cooper Street’s turn to go the way of the miner, the cowboy, the freak.The now-incongruous bar is many things to many people, most of whom are blue-collar, hard-drinking and opinionated. By this time next year, after 32 years, Cooper Street will likely be closed, the 106-year-old building torn down. The contracts are expected to be signed and the deal completed next fall. In its place will be a residential unit and high-end retail space, according to the spokesman for the group buying the building.What does that mean to the town? Another sign of the “country clubification” of Aspen? A chance to revitalize a choice section of real estate? It’s both of these things.
During a recent morning at the bar, which opens at 11, the conversation turned to Cooper Street’s impending end, Aspen’s increasingly upscale demographics and the fate of the town’s other drinking holes.Cooper Street’s closure will likely be followed by The Red Onion, which has a year-to-year lease and some expect Bentley’s to close soon afterward, said Erik Shelton. He’s been tending bar at Cooper Street for a decade. The place has been his home during that time, he said, as Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time is Gonna Come” drifted over the stereo. “And now it’s going away,” Shelton said. (His reference to Cooper Street as his home was not metaphorical: Shelton said he once spent 41 straight days in the beer-soaked building without leaving, taking his meals from the bar kitchen and sleeping in one of the employee units on the top floor.) His resignation about Cooper Street’s closure is shared by others on the staff, according to another longtime bartender, Michael Puariea, known as Toast. The staff, which varies between 20 and 25 full- and part-time employees, received the news at a meeting a couple of weeks ago. Some had heard the rumors, but others, taken by surprise, were angry, Toast said.He expected the bar to close, “especially with the way the town’s going.”After 17 years at Cooper Street, Toast said he doesn’t know if he’ll stay in Aspen after the final last call. His decision is partly because the town has changed, partly because he’s ready to do something outside the bar scene, he said.
For Ian Black, 27, the loss of one of the town’s last workingman’s bars is another disheartening sign of the town’s direction. Growing up in the valley, he never thought too much about Cooper Street, other than it was a dive.”It was an odd feeling for me that a place I never really had much affinity for gave me such a weird, deep-down, depressing feeling when I found out it was being closed,” Black said. “I thought, why would I feel this way about the demise of Cooper Street? I guess it’s sort of characteristic of what is going on, on a larger scale.”Black said he and his longtime local friends would like to feel as if they have more of a say in the direction of their town.”The way that people have come in and sort of bullheaded their way through the culture and history of Aspen to create something in their own image – they’ve really alienated people who have hung on and stayed there,” he said. “That’s the part that’s most saddening: [The town has] locals who want to hang on, but they’re treated rather poorly.”Joshua Saslove, a real estate financier and part of the group buying the three-story building, said he understands the feeling of wanting to hold onto the town’s institutions.
“I can understand that – I’m an old-time Aspenite myself,” said Saslove, who has lived in town 30 years. “But time takes control of some changes that have to be made. There are a lot of things about Aspen that we would like to see back. I remember when there was one traffic light, I remember when there was a locals’ [ski] pass. I remember a lot of the old elements that we had.”But based on the property’s value, it wouldn’t be economically sensible to keep operating it as a bar, he said.”Commercial retailers can afford to pay the rents necessary to support that kind of investment, whereas a restaurant or a bar like Cooper Street would have a difficult time doing that,” Saslove said.Does the loss of businesses like Cooper Street adversely affect Aspen? Mayor Helen Klanderud said she doesn’t think so. She, too, noted the constantly changing climate of town.”I moved here in 1971, and Aspen has continued to evolve since I’ve been here,” she said. “I say ‘evolving’ because ‘changing’ implies that [Aspen] is going from one thing to another, and I’m not sure” the town is doing that.”People seem to get attached to those businesses, whether they be restaurants or bars or clubs, depending on what was here when they arrived.”Klanderud said history will tell whether Aspen is evolving for the better.”Nothing that is alive ever stays the same,” she said. “If change stops, you die.”And she didn’t agree with the assessment of Shelton, the bar manager, that Bentley’s is going to close anytime soon. The establishment in the Wheeler Opera House has a lease with the city.”We just had a discussion about that recently, and there did not seem to be any interest at all on City Council to change that,” Klanderud said. “I would say that City Council supports Bentley’s at the Wheeler.”She added that it is important to have a mix of affordable and upscale restaurants and retail shops.
Charles Wolf is the manager of Cooper Street and the son of Heinz Wolf, who has owned the building since 1969. He said it’s apparent Aspen is not catering to a younger crowd.”It’s hard to grow a place if your main demographic that you serve is not growing,” he said, referring to 25- to 29-year-olds. “It’s common knowledge that that’s not growing, and that’s who we basically serve.Wolf started working at Cooper Street in 1999, when he and his father took the business over from the previous owner, Ray Lucchini, and he’s “grown very attached to it. My heart is in here, as well. It’s not an easy parting for me, either. But in business you can’t be emotional all the time. You’ve got to keep a cool head and do the math.”Wolf, 49, also pointed to rising energy costs, which affect virtually all parts of the business. Cooper Street uses a lot of electricity, the cost of which has “exploded,” Wolf said.”I’m looking at 60 percent increases in my energy costs this year. That has an impact. And it’s not just that: The food costs, I’ve already been forewarned by my supplier, are going to go up substantially. You can only hold the line so long. The laws of economics don’t stop at the front door just because it’s a family business. You still have to make a certain return on your investment.”In light of that reality, “no restaurant could compete with the offer that’s been made.” But Wolf said he plans on maintaining Cooper Street’s low prices – $1.75 for a glass of beer – until it closes next fall.
The Cooper Street building was built around 1900. It is not a historically protected structure because of numerous changes to its infrastructure and facade over the years.”At one point, it was ready to fall down, and yet because these cowboy types kept it from falling down, it is what it is today,” Wolf said.It housed, at various points, a saloon, a mercantile shop and a hardware store.The building already held a burger joint called King George’s when Heinz Wolf bought the structure in 1969 for $135,000, a considerable sum back then, Charles Wolf said.
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Heinz Wolf owned the building, as he still does, and California transplants Johnny Newman, Danny Wardwell and Lucchini leased the ground floor and opened Cooper Street Pier in 1973.”It was my father’s idea to put the sliding glass doors in. One of the things he insisted on … as part of getting the lease was that they would put in those sliding glass doors,” Wolf said.The large windows, one of Cooper Street’s signature features, draw plenty of light and offer mountain views.The basement space was occupied by restaurants that also became Aspen mainstays, first The Steak Pit and later Lucci’s. It currently houses Siamese Basil.Before buying the building, Heinz Wolf, 74, operated the Buffet Room in the old Continental Inn on Dean Street (where the Hyatt Grand Aspen is currently being built). He leased the space from Hans Cantrup, who owned the inn and many other properties, and whom Charles Wolf described as “infamous.””A lot of people lost a lot of money to [Cantrup]; my father was one of the lucky ones who didn’t,” he said. “But he always felt that Hans was a little bit of a shaky candidate and that he might have to move his restaurant to another location. That is why he bought this building.”During Cooper Street’s early years, ski bums “did all the work in the kitchen and the waiting on the [customers]. There was less of a summer season back then, so the town would become quite empty,” Wolf said.But even then, it was apparent that summer business was growing.Wardwell also ran a disco nightclub in Aspen and owned a private jet. He dropped out of the partnership when he was sent to prison for dealing drugs, Wolf said. Newman relocated to Park City, Utah, leaving Lucchini as the sole owner of Cooper Street.The Wolfs took over the operation from Lucchini in 1999, when he retired after 26 years of running the bar. “He was in his early 60s and wanted a well-deserved break,” Wolf said.
Asked if he took offense to people calling Cooper Street a dive bar, he said if people “could call it a super dive, at least they’d be accurate. It’s more than a dive.”The Roaring Fork Tavern was a dive. To put Cooper Street in the same category is unjust,” Wolf said. “This is so much more than that. You’ve got the shuffleboard, you’ve got the free jukebox ’til 6, these video games, you’ve got a view of the mountain that is hard to match.”He also mentioned the upstairs, which has four pool tables, two foosball tables, another bar and a lounge area, along with TVs that carry satellite sports packages – “How could anyone call this a dive? Give me a break.”In addition, there is the food. While it is known for burgers, Wolf said daily lunch specials are offered, the ribs are excellent, and “people from England say our fish ‘n’ chips are better than what they get” at home.
“It’s a good, all-around place.”Wolf said he hasn’t decided what he will do after the bar closes”I have to stay focused on what needs to be done, running the place efficiently, the way it deserves to be run,” he said. “You want it to run well until the end. It deserves that.”I think Cooper Street will be missed. But I think other places will come to fill the void. I don’t know who that is right now.”But the storied super dive can’t really be replaced, can it? Wolf paused for a few seconds and stared at the bar.”In its entirety, that might be true.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org