Aspen’s Red Onion yields its secrets |

Aspen’s Red Onion yields its secrets

John Colson
Aspen, CO Colorado

Old bricks, which will be used in the reconstruction, line the exposed wall of The Red Onion building (Jim Paussa/The Aspen Times)

ASPEN ” The ol’ Red Onion sure is not what it used to be ” it’s a wide-open vista from the front wall to the back, and the familiar perfume of spilled beer, broiled steaks and Mexican dishes is long gone.

Whatever it becomes, the word at the work site is that the project won’t be finished until at least next spring, and the question of who will be the new operator remains one of Aspen’s biggest mysteries.

“We really don’t know,” said Dave Reams, superintendent of the project for general contractor Hansen Construction, when asked how soon the building could be occupied and open for business. “Ideally, we’d like to have somebody in here by the summer season [of 2008].

“In buildings like this, you discover things as you go along,” he continued.

The old bar, made in Chicago more than a century ago, has been disassembled and packed away in the back, stacked against a wall with the pictures of boxers that graced the western side of the front entryway, and piles of historic bricks that will one day be used to rebuild walls.

The historic diamond-dust mirror is still in place on the wall, with the back-bar that frames it. But it is invisible, encased in a protective shell of plywood sheets that reaches from the floor to nearly the ceiling.

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Where the booths once lined the wall opposite the bar, there is now empty space, floored by planks to prevent workers from falling to the basement below. The booths will not be back, thanks to a decision by the city’s historic preservation commission, which preferred to open up the front of the bar area.

The old-style brickwork walls have been exposed on both sides of the “shotgun” style building, with a few remaining patches of old plaster still being painstakingly chipped off with hammers and chisels by the 20 or so workers who seems to swarm everywhere. The bricks are to remain exposed as part of the decor of the building.

Toward the back, earlier remodeling projects left doorway-sized gaps in the eastern brick wall to provide access to part of the old kitchen that was in the back of the building next door. The gaps weakened the walls, prompting owners from an earlier era to reinforce the structure with horizontally placed I-beams, resting on bricks about 10 feet off the floor. Reams said the new kitchen will be in the same basic spot, although equipping the facility will wait until an operator is signed on and can say exactly how he or she wants it to be.

The floor looks bald without the historic tiles in front (which will be reinstalled) and the gamey old carpet in back (which will not be reinstalled). In its place is a floor of plywood and other mysterious materials, that slopes upward as one moved toward the back of the building.

According to Paul Britvar, of Rudi Britvar Stone (named for and by his late father) the floor under the bar was so soaked through by more than a century of spilled beers and other things that it will need to be replaced.

Reams said it is likely that the floor at the front end of the building will be built up to match the back end. The tiles will end in the same spot where they did before, about halfway back, for a kind of “transition” between the two surfaces.

Two gaps in the walls in the front of the room, at one time went through to what is now the Omnibus Gallery next door, but once was an elegant restaurant that operated in conjunction with the Red Onion. Reams said the gaps, which are now filled in with cinderblocks, probably will be bricked over for the time being.

“The Omnibus is there for at least another two years,” he explained. Neither George Sells, owner of the gallery, or Andy Hecht, part owner of the Red Onion and the gallery building, could be reached for comment on Thursday.

Up above, the exposed floor joists for the second story have been joined by “micro-lams,” laminated beams nicknamed “sisters” because they are fastened to existing beams for reinforcement. The same is being done for the floor beneath the bar.

At the junction of the ceiling and the top section of the walls, century old bricks are being supplemented by newer masonry where the beams fit in, so that they all fit together more securely, Britvar said.

At the back of the building, evidence of earlier renovation projects is everywhere. Britvar and Reams both said the rear wall of the building is going to be reconstructed, using historic brick where modern brick can now be seen. Reams noted that Britvar has found the brick, and is now in the process of getting it approved by city historic preservation officials.

Britvar, who has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley since 1957, said he did the masonry work on restoration projects at a number of local landmarks, including the old Paragon building on the Hyman Avenue Mall; the old Andre’s building where Prada now does business; the Kobey building at eastern end of the Hyman Avenue Mall, the Hotel Jerome, and the Aspen City Hall.

Down below, Britvar’s crew has added concrete abutments to the old sandstone and dirt foundation on either side of the Onion’s cavernous basement, which is now remarkably free of the jumble of beer cooler, liquor on shelves, equipment and of the desk at which former proprietor Dave “Wabs” Walbert conducted his business.

Looking up from the place where Wabs’ desk once sat (or perhaps from what used to be the inside of the beer cooler, it’s hard to tell) the most intriguing sights are the worn and, in some cases, half deteriorated beams that support the floor underneath the old bar area.

Carpenter Billy Miller, who was part of the crew working in the basement this week, said there might be 200 hours of work or more in replacing, bracing or otherwise shoring up the old wood framing of the building, whether with new wood or steel.

“Right now, we just want to get the building back to its historic shape, so it’ll last another hundred years,” said Miller. “I’d like my grandkids to be able to eat in here.”

Reams declined to guess what the owners are spending to renovate the building, beyond a slight raising of the eyebrows and a smile, and the owners, Ron Garfield and Hecht, have not responded to requests for interviews.

John Colson’s e-mail address is

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