Aspen turns to next generation to preserve legacy of historic buildings |

Aspen turns to next generation to preserve legacy of historic buildings

Kirsten Armstrong, Aspen’s new principal planner with historic preservation.
Kristen Armstrong/Courtesy photo

What kind of buildings make up one of the most expensive real-estate markets in America? Historic ones.

Even though May is National Historic Preservation month, it seems it’s every day and month in Aspen with the resources and intention devoted to historic preservation.

From the bonanza of Bauhaus design to the town’s humble Victorian era, mining cabins, and historic downtown, Aspen’s landscape makes it iconic … and ultra-pricey.

Ryan Lee’s favorite projects during his eight years with Forum Phi Architecture + Interior Design include a remodel of Mad Dog Ranch, the former cabin, home and recording studio of Jimmy Buffet and Glenn Fry.
Forum Phi Architecture/Courtesy photo

Plenty of people aim to preserve this history in lieu of new construction or a more affordable price tag.

“I’m interested in place-based research for the stories that we create and the memories we associate with the built environment,” said Kirsten Armstrong, the city of Aspen’s principal planner with historic preservation. “The juxtaposition of Aspen buildings really speaks to the people that live here.”

She recently swapped out alligators and hurricanes for moose and 19th century dwellings, moving from Florida with her husband and two cats to Aspen. She also transitioned from working in disaster relief as an architectural historian to a position that would be a driving force in community engagement, creating space that people would love and cherish.

“Aspen is unique as a relatively small town with an association to such historically-significant artists, architects, and culture, and with a national impact,” she said. “Aspen provides an intersection of contemporary, place-based research and architectural history, and I look forward to considering what is important to the community, how can we repair and preserve and progress.”

A Victorian Revival from Aspen’s West End.
Forum Phi Architecture/Courtesy photo

Armstrong graduated from University of Pittsburgh in architectural studies with focus on historic preservation. She also earned a master’s degree from Cambridge University in architecture and urban studies after researching historic market gardens and identity conflict in Istanbul, Turkey.

She worked for nearly a decade in Florida before taking over for Amy Simon.

“Part of the final push towards this position for me,” Armstrong said, “was how Amy Simon spoke about the town and her experience during the interview process. With 30 years at the city, Amy has really poured herself into the program. I’m excited to learn from her and continue her efforts.”

Simon, who was serving as the city’s planning director and helm for the historic preservation committee, said she is excited to be taking a step back. She had to cover two historic preservation vacancies in the office since October, while also tending to the long list in a planning director’s day.

“I’m happy that I will get to focus more on that planning director role in the days ahead,” she said.

She had a historic tenure herself, helped designate 50 additional historic structures in Aspen on top of the 250 mostly Victorian-era properties that have been protected, starting in the 1970s. 

“We’ve really focused on prioritizing the identification and protection of places that tell the history that began with the ski resort,” she said.

Times and processes have certainly changed throughout Simon’s career. Gone are the days of blueprints and pencil-made changes.

“Everything is much more streamlined, and we have so many more resources available such as Google Earth, photo archives, and more,” she said.

“I love working with local companies who are navigating the process of restoring historical buildings, so that we can continue to enjoy them as part of our present-day life here,” she said.

Navigating these historic buildings are local companies committed to the authenticity, inspiration, and continued potential of yesteryear. 

Ryan Lee was recently promoted partner at Forum Phi Architecture.
Forum Phi Architecture/Courtesy photo

Ryan Lee, who was just promoted to partner at Forum Phi Architecture + Interior Design this year, developed his career designing bespoke residences in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. One part of the job that lights him up is navigating the challenges of building codes in Aspen for his clients. 

After stints with a developer in Oklahoma City and at an architecture firm in Tusla, Leehecame to Aspen in 2015 to work for Forum Phi.

His favorite projects throughout his eight years with the firm include: a remodel of Mad Dog Ranch, the former cabin, home, and recording studio of Jimmy Buffet and Glenn Frey; a private underground bowling alley and swimming pool; and multiple historic residences in Aspen’s West End neighborhood, including the Victorian Revival project.

However, Lee’s own company’s next move has him the most excited about historic preservation and contributing to Aspen’s legacy. In 2024, the 17-year-old firm will move digs to a Queen Anne-style Victorian at 332 West Main St. The new office will accommodate 15 employees.

“We are all excited to continue to be a part of the fabric of this community by preserving a historic building on Main Street for our Aspen studio,” he said. Forum Phi also has offices in downtown Carbondale and downtown Denver. 

The firm juggles just over 60 active projects between its Aspen, Carbondale, and Denver offices. However, when business pursuits and expansion were necessary, the firm looked to their own inspiration for a new home.

“Being headquartered near Aspen’s West End is major,” Lee said. “The neighborhood is a destination for design lovers looking for high-end design. It’s one of the more sought-after neighborhoods in Aspen. In Victorian Revival, we recently redeveloped a run-down Victorian into a notable project. That helped establish Forum Phi as a leader in historic preservation.”