Another piece of our history bites the dust
Thousands of commuters pass it every day, on their way to fulfill their working destiny in the industrial-tourism megaplex known as Aspen, but most probably give little notice to the rambleshack buildings known as “the historic Emma Store.”
Actually two buildings that share a common wall, the crumbling brick edifice stands in mute testimony to the gentler commercial atmosphere of earlier times, back when outposts like this one were the social hubs of broad swaths of agricultural enterprise.
This particular collection of bricks and cobwebs used to be much farther off the beaten track, of course. In the days before the so-called Basalt Bypass was plowed through the fields just south of the Roaring Fork River’s deep gorge, it stood like a sentinel at a curve in the old Emma Road. Perched on a slight rise in the topography, it is surrounded by meadows and fences and, directly to the east, a white brick farmhouse that is in much better shape than the store buildings themselves. A little farther away is another ancient building, a one-room schoolhouse now used as a church.
I have no idea when the Emma Store’s commercial life ended and it began its long, slow decline into structural senility. By the time I first saw it in the late 1970s, barreling up the rise in the road on my vintage Moto Guzzi motorcycle, the buildings rose up like some kind of haunted specter of ancient lineage.
I used to love cruising along the Emma Road, purring along through the pastoral splendor of the adjoining ranches, anticipating the groin-clenching change in elevation that gave the Emma Store curve a little surge of excitement from either direction.
Negotiating the curve at any speed always left me with the impression that, had I been going just a little bit faster, I might have lost purchase on the gravely surface and gone flying off into a fence or a field with less-than-happy results.
Never happened, of course, but the suspense and release was invigorating.
And the old Emma Store itself, on its small uplift of ancient loam and rock, always afforded a familiar sense of kinship with the land and its history, a tenuous link with a past that I had missed but might have liked a lot.
These days, as alert readers know quite well, the buildings are owned by a speculator named Owen Minney, whose hopes for a profitable redevelopment of the property have routinely been spurned by local governments. There is some dispute as to the degree of Minney’s determination to pursue his goals ” he says he’s proffered multiple proposals to the Pitkin County Commissioners; the commissioners accuse him of delusively flawed recollections and say he’s only brought them a couple of actual plans and proposals, none of which have been deemed appropriate or supportable.
Whichever is true, the crumbling has continued, and now Minney says he’s going to tear the Emma Store buildings down, although it’s not clear how demolition will serve his purposes. Perhaps it’s just another example of developmental brinkmanship, a sort of bureaucratic game of chicken in which the first to flinch will end up paying the tab for preserving the old buildings. Or maybe Minney is telling the truth when he whines that he doesn’t have the money or the resources to simply hold on to the property in the hope that eventually voters will elect officials who will let him do what he wants there, whatever that might be.
In any case, the loss of those old buildings would be a sad blow to the valley’s vaunted claims of historical sensitivity and devotion to preservation.
I’ve often thought there must be some kind of public function the old complex could serve. There was talk at one point of using it for an enlarged, updated Basalt Regional Library, but the library district wanted nothing to do with it, with some justification. Rehabilitation of the buildings would be an expensive proposition.
How about rechristening the complex as the Emma Town Hall, and making it a center for such community functions as dances, political caucuses, knitting circles and the like? Again, that would mean the government would have to be in charge, and big bucks would be needed.
As you read this, in the midst of that game of chicken mentioned earlier, it could be that Minney has already loosed the dogs of war on the old building, and the pace of its disintegration has been hastened by a bulldozer’s blade.
If so, then shame on all of us for not coming up with a better end to this sordid tale.
While new restaurants enter the Aspen scene, there are several spaces that will remain empty this winter. Meanwhile, the retail market remains extremely hot.