Aspen’s historic Toklat being renovated into world-class wilderness retreat center

Aspen Center for Environmental Studies will preserve core and character of original building

Chris Lane is well aware of the angst felt by many longtime locals over the wholesale changes sweeping the area, so it is with great care and respect that the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies CEO is overseeing the remodel of the historic Toklat Wilderness Lodge.

Contractors broke ground Tuesday on an extensive renovation of the facility in upper Castle Creek Valley. The core of the historic structure, completed by Stuart and Isabel Mace in 1949, will be preserved. Painstaking care has been taken to salvage everything from old timbers at the center of the structure to door hinges created by the late master blacksmith Francis Whitaker.

A greenhouse and other additions made over the decades by the Maces will be torn down. One of the first additions the Maces made will be preserved.

ACES has been applying Band-Aids to the roughly 7,500-square-foot, wood-and-stone structure to prevent it from falling apart.

Lane is willing to bet that people who feel a connection to Toklat will be pleased with the result when construction is completed in 18 to 20 months.

“It will look different from what you know today,” he said. “It’s going to look more like it looked 50 years ago.”

One detail will be restoring the distinctive, original entrance.

Michael Fuller Architects designed the new structure. Louthis Custom Builders is the contractor.

While the footprint of the structure will remain the same, the square footage will increase due to the addition of a second story on part of the building for housing for the naturalists that work there. The new construction will be intentionally differentiated from the original structure.

“It will make in the end a world-class wilderness retreat center,” Lane said.

Toklat’s origins

Stuart and Isabel Mace started the Toklat Wilderness Lodge as a natural foods restaurant, gathering place and art gallery, according to Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. They raced to open it in time for the Aspen Goethe Bicentennial in Aspen in 1949, according to their daughter, Lynne Mace.

The name “Toklat” is an Inuit word that means “headwaters of a glacial valley.”

ACES has used Toklat as a wilderness retreat center since 2004. Longtime ACES supporters Jessica Hobby Catto and Henry Catto provided a lead financial contribution to buy and preserve the lodge and surrounding 3-acre site. The facility has been known for the past 16 years as the Catto Center at Toklat.

It is a place where students, teachers, Aspen Institute conference attendees and business executives can make a connection with nature in the spectacular setting surrounded by the high peaks in upper Castle Creek Valley. It’s not a stretch, Lane said, to see leaders of Fortune 500 companies gain a greater appreciation of nature when ACES naturalists have them take off their shoes and walk around the surrounding White River National Forest. It helps that visitors to the upper valley are forced to unplug due to the lack of Wi-Fi. It is a place to slow down, think and contemplate.

“The crazier the world gets, the more valuable the Catto Center at Toklat is,” Lane said.

ACES’s website describes the wilderness center as a unique window into wilderness.

“Nestled high in the pristine Castle Creek Valley, the site is often compared to Thoreau’s Walden Pond, Leopold’s Shack, or the Murie Ranch,” the site says.

The renovation was endorsed by the Maces’ adult children, who have maintained a “deep connection” with the place after their parents passed away, according to Lynne Pfrimmer Mace, Stuart and Isabel’s daughter.

“My thanks to all. Especially my parents whose vision and temerity, hard work and chutzpa created such a remarkable life and legacy for their children and the world beyond,” Lynne Mace wrote in a letter submitted to The Aspen Times.

The Catto Center at Toklat is used in conjunction with ACES’ nearby Riverdance site along Castle Creek for inspirational and educational environmental programming.

Toklat will retain its old character along with its original appearance, Lane said. He acknowledged that some local residents have expressed concerns to him that the renovated center will no longer be a facility for them. He assures them they will still be welcomed and feel at home.

“This is definitely not an elitist thing,” he said. “Will it be nicer? Yes.”

He is relieved that the staff won’t spend so much time shoveling snow off the roof to prevent leaks.

The center will feature a meeting room that can accommodate 50 rather than 20 people, a library, reading room and an all-electric kitchen among its amenities. The center will have spaces for artists and scientists in residence. There will also be two small, detached cabins — one for the residency program and one for the caretaker.

The center will have a 40-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system and a 6-kilowatt micro-hydro plant on Devaney Creek.

“As part of this project, ACES developed a sustainability team to plan a net-zero building,” ACES said in a news release. That team includes Holy Cross Energy and the Community Office for Resource Efficiency. “ACES’ team plans a photovoltaic solar system, a new micro-hydro plant, an air-to-air ground source heat pump, a ‘power wall’ battery system, a large amount of thermal mass spaces, high R-value insulation, and other energy systems that will make this a low carbon, world-class wilderness retreat center.”

ACES originally planned for a $5.9 million project but construction prices have soared in recent months. The bid came in at $6.7 million after value engineering to reduce the expense.

ACES officials believe it is well worth the investment.

“We’ll have a place that works for the next 50 years,” Lane said.


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