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Aspen selects historic expert

Janet Urquhart

A Phoenix-based expert in post-World War II architecture has been chosen to help Aspen decide which of its modern buildings are worthy of historic preservation.

Debbie Abele, formerly the historic preservation officer in Phoenix and Colorado Springs and now a consultant working with communities around the country, will make her first of several visits to Aspen next week.

Julie Ann Woods, the city’s head planner, has recommended the city put Abele under contract to help Aspen regroup after the Historic Preservation Commission’s effort to designate some of the city’s more modern buildings fell apart last fall.

Abele will be taking a look at the 53 buildings the HPC considered for historic status before angry property owners objected to having their buildings listed and placed under the commission’s purview. Property owners voiced fears of compromised property rights and reduced property values and were outraged at the notion the city could list their buildings without their consent.

The City Council ultimately suspended the proceedings and agreed Aspen needs some outside help to define what is an example of “outstanding” modern architecture.

“I think we’ve made a very good decision,” Woods said last week. “I think she’ll be very good.”

Abele’s work here will likely involve some sort of public round-table to establish criteria to identify “outstanding” examples of modern architecture, Woods said.

During the HPC’s initial hearings, many property owners argued the buildings proposed for historic listing did not qualify under the HPC’s own guidelines. According to the city code, the historic inventory should include all structures “which are at least 50 years old and which continue to have historic value, and such other structures identified by the Historic Preservation Commission as being outstanding examples of more modern architecture.”

Phoenix experienced a similar quandary, said Abele, when it established “landmark” status in its historic preservation program. She helped establish the criteria that allows the city to distinguish between a “landmark” building vs. one that is merely significant.

For Phoenix, that meant looking at a lot of buildings that are relatively new, she said.

“Phoenix, which boomed after World War II, has 300,000 to 400,000 buildings that were built in the post-war boom,” she said.

Other communities may not have the sheer number of post-war buildings that Phoenix boasts, but many are struggling to determine which of its modern structures are historically significant, she said. “It’s not unique to Aspen.”

Abele will be scrutinizing the ski chalet-style buildings, kit-built Pan-Abode cabins and modern lines of influential architect Fritz Benedict that mark the beginning of Aspen’s ski era.

“I’ll walk and look at every one of them and video them,” she said. “I know how to look at what are character-defining features.”

Abele said she is cognizant of the difficulty people have in recognizing the historic significance of “young” buildings and making sure they are preserved.

“No one really likes to think anything built in their lifetime could be historic,” she said. “The reality is, the way change is occurring in our communities, we won’t have the luxury of time, because they’ll be gone.”


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