Aspen’s Lodges: Preserving the past, building for the future |

Aspen’s Lodges: Preserving the past, building for the future

Janet Urquhart

The wooden skis and bamboo poles are long gone.

Only a silent remnant of Lift One, the slow, single-seater that once gave Aspen bragging rights to the world’s longest chairlift, remains at the base of its famous mountain.

Aspen’s early years as a ski resort are the stuff of memories, relegated to black-and-white images of snow-clogged streets and woolen-panted skiers perfecting the stem christie.

But amid the forgotten relics of an era since eclipsed by high-tech gear, high-speed quads, $65 lift tickets and luxury hotels, one reminder of Aspen’s history remains, fighting for its place in the resort’s future.

Once the mainstay of Aspen’s tourist accommodations, the venerable ski lodge has long offered a simple room for the night. A handful are still run by the families that founded them. Loyal guests return year after year, welcomed by proprietors who greet them by name. Friendships are forged in front of parlor fireplaces and over breakfasts served at communal tables

Some lodges date back nearly half a century – to Aspen’s earliest days as a ski mecca – when newcomers to the fledgling ski resort found powder and a plot of land to call their own. They built the Holland House, Skiers Chalet, Boomerang Lodge, Mountain Chalet and other establishments – often literally a room at a time – to host the new influx of visitors who made tracks to the slopes of Aspen Mountain.

But times have changed, forcing lodge owners to do likewise. The visitors of old have been replaced by a new generation of guests who want air conditioning, hot tubs and Internet access, not bathrooms down the hall.

The lodge that has seen better days won’t see them again unless it keeps pace with the times. And so, Aspen’s ski lodges are in the midst of a face-lift. What began as a trickle of renovations and expansions has become a full-fledged roar of construction work in the lodging district.

The St. Moritz Lodge and L’Auberge d’Aspen have already added rooms. The well-kept Boomerang, Innsbrook Inn and Hotel Aspen have all received city approval to expand, while the decidedly tired Christmas Inn and Christiania are undergoing massive renovation and rebuilding.

Expansion of the Mountain Chalet is also under way, while the new owners of the Little Red Ski Haus are cutting back on the number of lodge rooms there, but expanding it to include a dining room and individual bathrooms with each room.

Meanwhile, the owners of the old Aspen Manor have put forth an ambitious plan to raze the vacant lodge and build the all-new Dancing Bear Lodge.

And, at the base of Lift 1A, where some of Aspen’s first lodges sprang up next to the chairlift’s predecessor, the old Lift One, the owners of the Holland House and Skiers Chalet are contemplating renovations, as well.

When a group of local government, business and nonprofit representatives – the Economic Sustainability Committee – was assembled this year to assess the resort’s economic stumbling blocks and recommend solutions, improving Aspen’s deteriorating lodge base emerged a priority.

Not only has the resort lost lodges altogether, but some that remain have offered run-down rooms for relatively high rates. The visitor who forks over $150 a night for a room with well-worn furnishings and drafty windows is not impressed.

“I think one of the problems we’ve had in Aspen is you’ve had a number of lodges that were old and tired, but still charging a fairly high rate,” said Greg Hills, who has recently invested in a couple of lodges that are in need of rehabilitation.

In fact, “cheap” lodges sometimes find themselves competing with Aspen’s nicer hotels, which discount their rates to fill up rooms when times are tough. The owners of several economy-class lodges recognized the need to provide more value for the dollar long before the Economic Sustainability Committee released its report, hence the upgrades that are under way.

Nonetheless, the committee’s No. 1 recommendation calls for supporting redevelopment of existing lodge facilities and the development of new lodging facilities.

The group is preaching to the choir, as far as the City Council is concerned.

“We haven’t said `no’ yet,” said Mayor Helen Klanderud, acknowledging a string of city approvals for lodge redevelopments of all sorts.

Many of Aspen’s lodges are located in the Lodge Preservation zone district, which establishes a host of zoning regulations aimed at encouraging lodge owners to upgrade their properties.

The zoning was the subject of much tinkering by the city before it finally achieved what Aspen was after – reinvestment in its lodging base rather than the destruction of old lodges to make way for luxury townhomes.

The LP zone now allows lodge properties to expand in ways that might violate building setbacks or other standard zoning regulations. A property owner can even tear down an old lodge and build an entirely new one without being held to the requirements that would typically apply to a hotel redevelopment, like the provision of additional parking and affordable housing.

“The whole idea behind Lodge Preservation was to revitalize existing lodges – find mechanisms for lodge owners who want to stay in the business to make renovations and reinvest in their properties,” said Julie Ann Woods, the city’s head planner.