Aspen Center for Environmental Studies eyes renovation at Catto Center at Toklat |

Aspen Center for Environmental Studies eyes renovation at Catto Center at Toklat

Chris Lane, CEO of Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, describes the changes being planned at the Cato Center at Toklat. ACES wants to preserve the history of the site while making it more functional.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies is proposing to renovate one of the Aspen area’s most revered structures to boost its mission of connecting people to the natural world.

ACES wants to make changes to the Toklat building constructed by Stuart Mace near the ghost town of Ashcroft in the Upper Castle Creek Valley. The original structure built by Mace in 1948 would be preserved, but additions made over the nearly six decades it was in the Mace family will be removed and replaced to make the building more functional.

Chris Lane, CEO of ACES, said the environmental nonprofit doesn’t want more or bigger events, but it wants to do a better job of hosting wilderness retreats at what it calls the Catto Center at Toklat.

“Everybody’s got the same interest — we’ve got to preserve this place,” Lane said. “If we don’t do something significant now, the building is going to fall apart. We’ve been putting Band-Aids on it for years.”

“If we don’t do something significant now, the building is going to fall apart.” — Chris Lane, ACES

The roughly 7,500-square-foot log, stone and timber structure is located on about 3 acres of land. There’s an outdoor fire pit surrounded by stumps where retreat participants gather. Devaney Creek runs through the property.

Lane said the late Mace contended there was a spirit to the site. Lane endorses the idea. It has a wilderness feel without traveling three hours into the backcountry, he said.

“It has a presence. It will affect you,” he said.

ACES, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, has launched a campaign to raise between $5 million and $6 million for the project.

The proposal was vetted with a special council of old-school environmentalists, who are naturally wary of change. The panel included Tom and Jody Cardamone, who were instrumental in ACES’ growth as former naturalists and executive directors. ACES purchased Toklat in 2005 with a grant from the Catto family. Tom Cardamone was the executive director at the time.

Lane said ACES’s staff is well aware of the historical significance of the building and its symbolism. Mace helped Elizabeth Paepcke develop the idea of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and was its first naturalist and educator.

Architect Michael Fuller was hired to create a design that integrates the addition with the original structure.

The interior marble from the Crystal Valley and huge wood beams and supports that Mace used in construction will be preserved. ACES also intends to pull off the even trickier task of preserving the funky feel of the structure, which Lane compared to the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park.

But some of the additions aren’t making the grade. Caretaker Trevor Washko said significant staff time was spent during a historically high cycle of snow over the first half of March to prevent parts of the structure from collapsing.

“A big portion of that was keeping heavy snow off the roof,” he said, noting parts of the roof are sagging and leaking.

The additions that were cobbled onto the original structure create what Washko called a “funky labyrinth” inside. Lack of adequate space has forced improvisations.

“I’ve got interns sleeping in places that were the garage,” he said.

Lane said ACES is willing to spend as much as $6 million because the Catto Center at Toklat is so vital to its mission. The center is used for ecology-based retreats, classes, hikes and snowshoe tours. ACES’s materials say the center is used to connect “influencers, leaders and people of all ages to the natural world.”

Lane expanded on the concept by explaining that he believes when the Aspen Institute brings a group of 40 business magnates to the center for a two-day retreat, it will pay off with them making more environmentally grounded decisions. The “urban, city-slicker, MBA-types” can’t help but feel a connection to nature in the special place, particularly since their cellphones and other devices won’t work in the narrow, high-altitude valley, he said.

The goal of the proposed renovation is to provide a room for as many as 50 people at a time for dinners and gatherings. The kitchen and bathrooms will be upgraded. The new building will have five employee bedrooms. A greenhouse added in the 1970s will be removed to expose an original entrance. A residency cabin will be added to house visiting environmental science experts and there will be a caretaker cabin.

Lane said the center will continue to be focused on ecology-based events. Some unsolicited corporate retreats are accepted, but no events such as weddings, reunions or parties. There are no overnight stays.

“The whole point of this is we’re not going to do anything for a buck,” Lane said.

Pitkin County’s Community Development staff is examining the application for thoroughness. Once deemed complete, it will go through review by the Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission and the county commissioners. That process is expected to take between one and two years and will include public hearings, Lane said.


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