A Tale of Two Aspen Clubs
Revisiting the fitness hotspot’s heady heyday amid its uncertain future
There was a time when a tennis and fitness club was Aspen’s social nerve center. Of all the stories that fill the halls of modern-day Aspen lore — and there are plenty of them — it is worth revisiting an era when the Aspen Club captivated the sportsworld and celebrities alike.
Today the Aspen Club and Spa infamously symbolizes the depths that a project with high community expectations can sink. Ask owner and president Michael Fox, however, and you’ll get an optimistic outlook that the company will emerge from the financial mess that’s spelled out in its Chapter 11 bankruptcy case. You’ll hear that the redevelopment project eventually will resume, and that returning club members one day will enjoy immense upgrades after faithfully enduring the club’s multi-year closure.
Fox bought the club in 1996 with an eye toward the future. After his proposal cleared the complex and arduous red tape of Aspen’s development approval process in June 2010, the club closed in February 2016 so construction could begin. And so it did, until late August 2017, when work stopped after the majority of subcontractors left the job because they hadn’t been paid for their labor and materials. The Aspen Club’s debts snowballed and now stand at more than $25 million due t0 contractors and $50 million to other creditors and lenders, according to bankruptcy documents.
As the bankruptcy court in Denver sifts through the Aspen Club’s complex web of finances, the venue sits dormant on the edge of Ute Avenue, now a failed-development wasteland surrounded by locked fencing peppered with keep-out signs.
It is that same location that was once a hotspot for celebrities and a social spot for locals, while also being on the frontier of sports medicine and rehabilitation.
“It was a wonderful time,” said Julie Anthony, who with her husband at the time, developer Dick Butera, owned and operated the club from 1982 to 1996, and also started the Fitness and Sports Medicine Institute. “Those were halcyon days of the club. It was very close-knit.”
Indeed, the Aspen Club today and the Aspen Club then symbolize different times.
The former Aspen Club smacked of Aspen’s more carefree days — if not its youthful and middle-aged indiscretion — combined with a thirst for fitness, health and socializing, and maybe a game of tennis or two.
Today’s Aspen Club, at least since its financial struggles, has epitomized what can go wrong when the financial spigots turn off for an ambitious development.
While it would be premature to write an obituary for the Aspen Club — construction-loan-note holder GPIF Aspen Club, which is owed $34 million, is making a push to take over project — its outlook does not hold the same promise it once did, at least in the court papers.
Yet if there’s an Aspen locale that has weathered some dark moments and shined in the bright ones, it’s the Aspen Club.
Prior to Fox’s $5.5 million acquisition of the Aspen Club from Butera in September 1996, headlines about the club usually gushed about its star power, popularity, cutting-edge sports medicine and industry accolades. A mysterious death at the club also remains unsolved.
Butera said he bought the club for $2.5 million from an owner who was in over his head in both debt and cocaine addiction. The club’s size — 60,000 square feet — was immense for that time, Butera noted, as was its level of decadence.
“They were selling cocaine in the kitchen,” Butera said.
Butera would clean up that illegal aspect of the Aspen Club, but it was an open secret that a swath of Aspen’s fitness-minded also enjoyed the smell of cocaine, something not lost on the squeaky clean Butera.
On Dec. 8, 1985, ski instructor and suspected drug kingpin Steve Grabow was killed by a pipe bomb after playing a round of tennis. The device, placed under the seat of his Jeep Cherokee, exploded as he started to drive away from the Aspen Club. Grabow, who was awaiting federal trial for cocaine distribution charges, died two hours after the explosion.
The case remains unsolved, and Butera said he believes it will remain that way.
When Butera came to Aspen in the early 1980s, he was a successful developer who not only owned a portion of Hilton Head Island, but had a close friendship with the tennis star and activist Billie Jean King. That relationship would help provide the springboard for the Aspen Tennis Festival in the 1980s, while attracting such local homeowners and accomplished tennis players as Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who trained at the club. Evert would also meet former Olympic skier Andy Mill there; the two would marry and later divorce. Butera’s close connections with the tennis world were well known in the sport’s circles in the 1970s. Time magazine, reporting on the Sept. 20, 1973, match in the Houston Astrodome between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King — also known as “Battle of the Sexes” — noted a courtside wager between Riggs and Butera.
“Sure enough, though she started out playing as cautiously as Riggs, King took her first service easily. While switching sides, Riggs, still cocky, gave Tennis Promoter Dick Butera 2-1 odds (putting up $10,000),” Time reported.
King, who had been a player-coach on Butera’s Philadelphia Freedoms tennis team — the inspiration for the like-named Elton John tune “Philadelphia Freedom”— would win in three sets.
Over the next decade, King would make appearances in the Aspen Tennis Festival at the Aspen Club. During its heyday in the 1980s, the Aspen Tennis Festival, which raised money for charity, was a name-dropper’s heaven.
It attracted both celebrity contestants and observers including Barbi Benton, Jimmy Buffet, Bill Cosby, Ted Kennedy, Sugar Ray Leonard, Jack Nicholson, Christopher Reeve and Donna Mills. They rubbed elbows as some of the biggest names in tennis — Arthur Ashe, Björn Borg, Vitas Geralaitis, John McEnroe and Navratilova played its courts.
There to capture the Aspen Tennis Festival was ABC’s now legendary “Wide World of Sports,” along with whom else but famed sportscaster Howard Cosell.
“The concept of celebrity may never be properly defined or explained, but whatever it is, it drew hundreds to the Aspen Tennis Festival this weekend and raised thousands of dollars for the battle against cerebral palsy,” The Aspen Times reported in July 1984. “Tennis stars John McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis — backed by a field of lesser luminaries and a small army of ABC contract entertainers — put on a crowd-pleasing weekend at the Aspen Club, including two hours of network programming on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.”
Aspen is home to some quality people-watching, not to mention those inclined to draw attention to themselves, and the Aspen Club fully embraced the idea. In his book “Whiteout: Lost in Aspen,” Ted Conover wrote that the club’s modern gym equipment was a magnet for “body Nazis.”
Aside from the club’s appeal with the celebrities and workout fiends, Butera said its foundation was the local community. They brought on such locally respected physicians as Harold Whitcomb and Barry Mink, along with a staff of personal trainers focused on “serious health,” Butera said. “They weren’t muscle-head trainers.”
Anthony, who met Butera when she played for the Philadelphia Freedoms, earned her Ph.D. while playing on the pro circuit in the 1970s. The former Stanford tennis player-turned sports psychologist said she envisioned the Aspen Club as a hub for emotional and physical health, as well as a place to introduce amateur athletes to tennis techniques and strategies used by professionals.
“It was wonderful in the early days,” she said. “It was a very mom-and-pop operation. All of the employees would come to our house for Thanksgiving. We really did have a wonderful crew.”
Butera and Anthony enjoyed the ride, though Butera said they never made a profit on the Aspen Club.
“I never got a check,” said Butera, a member of the Aspen Hall of Fame who would go on to buy and remodel both the Woodbridge Inn and the Hotel Jerome.
Whatever transpires with today’s Aspen Club, it will join either the success stories or failed enterprises that have defined Aspen’s high-stakes and contentious world of development in recent decades.
The 47-foot-tall, $46 million Aspen Art Museum, for instance, could be heralded a success — if only because the ground-up project was completed after a sequence of negotiations and litigation with the city amid a chorus of dissent from residents appalled by its size and design.
There’s also St. Regis Aspen Resort, originally built in 1992 as a 257-room Ritz-Carlton at the base of Aspen Mountain after triumphing in a public vote.
Those were both major developments by Aspen standards, the same which can be said about the W Hotel, which is poised to open this summer at the base of Aspen Mountain.
The dark side of Aspen’s development scene has been on display of late with events surrounding the Lift One Corridor Project, which voters approved in March and now appears all but doomed after one of the project’s key partners — the Brown brothers — balked on the alliance and will build their own timeshare project using previous entitlements.
Other examples of frustrated development projects are aplenty. Take, for instance, the Dancing Bear Lodge and the Base Village at Snowmass: the build-outs of both projects didn’t happen; they were acquired by new ownership that had to square away a litany of financing issues.
Except for the Lift One development, all of these projects eventually were built — albeit whittled down from their original proposals — despite push-back, challenges and doubts that hung over them all.
What’s the fate of the Aspen Club? For now, nobody really knows, but something tells us there’s another story or two in the making — whether it’s with the current ownership or a new group of investors.