Aspen’s Armory has a storied history and an uncertain future
Use of the Armory building is returning to the community, but what that community use will be has yet to be decided
The Aspen Times Weekly
When the majority of municipal employees move into Aspen’s new City Hall next month, the Armory building that has served as the government hub for the past 64 years will be in flux until it’s renovated and brought back to its original use as a community center.
Built during he mining boom, the structure most people know as City Hall was once a gathering place for dances and sporting events (and originally as a stockpile for state weaponry, hence the “armory” moniker) and is a registered historic place.
Moving the bureaucrats out and moving the citizenry back in is what the majority of Aspen voters wanted when they went to the ballot box in 2015 and decided an advisory question asking if the Armory should be converted to community use.
What the question did not ask was if a new and much larger City Hall should be built.
Aspen City Council decided in 2017 that it would go with the so-called “one-roof solution,” which included a new 37,500-square-foot building on Rio Grande Place.
However, another option was presented by developer Mark Hunt at around the same time. Hunt offered to sell 27,000 square feet of turnkey office space at 517 E. Hopkins Ave. and 204 S. Galena St., across from the Armory for $32.5 million.
Both options were presented to Aspen voters in 2018, and the majority of them chose the Rio Grande and Galena Plaza location for a new City Hall.
That cleared the way for the city to tear down the former Aspen Chamber Resort Association visitor center and break ground on the new building, which is almost complete.
Financed by certificates of participation, the new City Hall and renovated Rio Grande building are estimated to cost $34.5 million, with a $48.6 million payback.
City officials last year decided to postpone the roughly $12 million renovation of the Armory as COVID-19 financial concerns came to bear.
City Manager Sara Ott said this week that she plans to present to council in October a reduced renovation budget of $7.5 million.
There will be no rush in deciding what community use will be dedicated to a renovated building, since the priority for staff is to make the transition into the new City Hall and build the third phase of Burlingame Ranch affordable housing, Ott said.
“We are working on designing the process,” she said.
In the interim, the Pitkin County Courthouse is undergoing a new phase of renovation and it’s possible that some court functions will move into the Armory building.
Some staff members in departments like information and technology will likely stay in the building as already planned renovation work occurs in the city’s old powerhouse building off of North Mill Street.
Four city departments will move into the powerhouse when the work is done, and ACRA will move from that temporary location to the Armory.
Ott said she has had several people making pitches to her of what should go into the old Armory building and their ideas are everything from housing to incubator, market and child care space.
Mayor Torre, who was in the minority on City Council and wanted to keep the government seat in the Armory, said the public has been clear that it wants to return the historic building to the community.
It will be up to council to decide what uses will go in the Armory and Torre estimates that that public process is estimated to take eight months, with delivery to the community in either late 2022 or 2023.
“We all share the same goals for a community activated space and an ACRA visitor’s center,” he said. “The public is looking forward to having community-based space.”
Having it revert back to its original use of ballroom dances and grand galas is likely not going to happen since it was unique to the eras of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“I think it’s a gathering place,” Torre said, adding he’s drawing off of his own experiences of seeing other similar spaces in resort towns where there is a visitor’s center and related community space. “I’m excited for the opportunity to activate that space for people other than paying parking tickets and utility bills.”
A storied Armory history
The Armory was built in 1891 and 1892 when Company C, First Battalion of the Colorado National Guard purchased two city lots on the northeast corner of Hopkins Avenue and Galena Street for $5,000, according to research conducted by the Aspen Historical Society.
The total cost to build the industrial-style structure was $15,000 and it only took three months to compete it.
Excavation began in October of 1891, with plans calling for a two-story building that would house Company C’s equipment and uniforms, as well as an area for practicing drills on the ground floor.
The grand opening was celebrated with a grand ball on Jan. 21, 1892.
The second floor was occupied by several lodges and clubs, including the International Order of Odd Fellows. One room was designed particularly for banquets and many dances were held there the first year, according to the historical society.
The largest crowd drawn to the Armory was on Oct. 22, 1892 during the presidential elections when 1,700 people came to hear campaign speakers of the Populist Party, which was against the demonetization of silver.
High school basketball games, Fourth of July celebrations, gala events, ballroom dances, concerts, church fairs and annual flower shows continued in the building throughout the early 1900s.
Continuing through Aspen’s “quiet years” the Armory served as a fraternal hall, a roller rink, an auditorium, gymnasium and general community space.
The building was remodeled in 1906, with $6,000 raised by the Aspen Fraternal Association. The goal was to repair the hall, put in a water heating plant and reconfigure some of the space.
In the 1940s, the Armory building had high ceilings, open spaces, balcony stairs and a basketball scoreboard.
The county took ownership of the Armory in the early 1940s after fraternal organizations failed to pay taxes on the building.
By 1949, the police department had moved into Armory Hall and the transition to City Hall began in the early 1950s when city council was holding its meetings there.
In 1955 the Aspen Daily Times reported that “at one time” city council had considered razing the building as “an eyesore, unfit to use and too costly to remodel,” according Aspen Historical Society materials.
Public outcry prompted abandonment of that plan. A remodel done at the time included offices for the Aspen Electric Company.
In 1956, the city acquired the title to the building and it was renovated to accommodate government offices.
The former City Hall, located on the corner of Mill Street and Durant Avenue, was turned into apartments in the late 1940s.
The new City Hall also provided a warm space to house a fire truck in the winter and the city ambulance, and was the Aspen Historical Society’s first home.
By 1959, the building was called City Hall instead of Armory Hall and city council decided that it would be used only for city business and public functions.
Armory Hall was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
Its centennial celebration occurred in 1992, with the theme of “Reflections: 100 years of Community” bringing attention to the history of the building and its need for renovation and maintenance.
The not-so distant past, present and future
As it stands today, the Armory building is too small to accommodate a larger government and as a result, municipal employees are working in cramped office space, or are spread throughout town in rented buildings that cost the local government roughly $500,000 a year.
There also are portions of the building that are not ADA accessible.
Torre said he’s disappointed that the new City Hall is insufficient to house all city employees. It is, by the city’s count, 6,000 square feet short of housing all departments in the building. So the city is using the powerhouse for the additional office space.
What city officials don’t want to happen with the Armory’s future use is the years-long protracted and controversial process in council selecting an operator for the powerhouse several years ago.
After going through a request for proposals to select an operator to return the building to a community use, council walked away from the finalist’s plan to use it for a local TV station, incubator space and brewing company due to legal threats by neighbors.
“The powerhouse was a disappointment,” Torre said. “My goal is to move forward as quickly as possible with the Armory.”
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