Colorful Aspen character Hans Gramiger dies at 81
November 7, 2005
One of modern Aspen’s legendary figures, Hans Gramiger, died Nov. 4 after a long battle with kidney disease. He was 81.Known locally as a man with a dream that never was realized, Gramiger tried for years to build a restaurant, which he would have called On The Rocks, at the peak of Shadow Mountain overlooking downtown Aspen.Gramiger, who spoke with a strong Germanic accent, was a well-known figure in local government circles for his frequent attendance of city and county meetings, and his sometimes biting critiques of local policymakers.Later in life, Gramiger became intensely interested in the ongoing debate over reviving passenger train use of the valley’s railroad corridor. He devised a plan to build a tunnel underneath the town, stretching from the Castle Creek gorge to the Rio Grande parking garage, where passengers could disembark and transfer to other modes of transportation.He was born Hans Rudolf Gramiger in the town of Zollikon, Switzerland, on May 5, 1924, to parents Benjamin A. Gramiger and Gertrude Elsa (Hirsbrunner) Gramiger. He left his native land near the end of World War II, headed for America. Traveling on foot, he hiked to Spain, where he was briefly incarcerated on an unknown but minor charge, according to his longtime friend Heinz Coordes.Gramiger arrived in New York City on Sept. 18, 1945, having gotten passage on the SS Woodrow Wilson, according to a note found by Kira Alexander, daughter of Joan Alexander, Gramiger’s companion and caregiver for the last nine years of his life.
Gramiger reportedly moved around the country for a time, working as a waiter in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he became known for his musical and comical antics, “playing his nose like a trumpet” and dancing with Hollywood star Fred Astaire one night on stage.Ultimately he moved to Aspen, in 1956, part of a wave of transplants who would form the core of Aspen’s new ski-centered culture. He worked a number of jobs, said Alexander, so many that he once told her that “to write them all down would take more time than I have.”One job she recalled hearing was his work in the early 1960s on the construction crew at the Glen Canyon Dam, which created Lake Powell in Utah.He also bought the land on Shadow Mountain in 1961, and spent the next decade in a court battle to secure title to it.In 1973, according to published accounts in The Aspen Times, he applied for an excavation and construction permit for the restaurant, which was to be a 12,000-square-foot building stepped down the steep slope to provide diners with unobstructed views of Aspen at night. It was to be accessible by a cable car that Gramiger said would carry 50 to 100 people per trip, and also would be used during the construction phase.He got as far as building a simple structure at the restaurant site and stringing cables up the mountainside that hung there for decades, mute testimony to his unsuccessful bid for government approvals and public acceptance of his dream. The cables and structure were finally removed in the late 1990s, shortly before he moved away from Aspen for health reasons.Aside from his struggle to build the restaurant, Gramiger was known as an iconoclast, a political jokester and an irreverent critic of authority.
Coordes recalled one time when Gramiger, determined to check on the status of a couple of mining claims up Maroon Creek, ran a Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office roadblock and “led the deputies on a merry chase” on the Jeep roads in the Maroon Bells Wilderness. Coordes said Gramiger was convicted of taking a motor vehicle into the wilderness and sentenced to perform community service.Another escapade Coordes recalled was during the 1980s, when the Aspen Skiing Co. won permission to expand Ruthie’s Restaurant on Aspen Mountain.”It really got his goat,” Coordes recalled, “that the Skico got a permit to build their restaurant, essentially right next door” to the one he was unable to build.At a meeting of Skico brass and restaurant designers on the mountain, Coordes recalled, “I saw an old woman, a real haggard old lady, standing on the periphery of the group” listening to the talk of the company’s plans.It took a while, Coordes said, before “I realized it was Gramiger,” dressed in a costume with a scarf over his head. “The costume was really good. I almost didn’t recognize him.” No one else took any notice, he said, and Gramiger listened for a while before leaving quietly.Gramiger also drew the attention of the federal Secret Service when he set off explosives from Shadow Mountain while British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was giving a speech at the Aspen Institute, Coordes remembered. But he said Gramiger won the admiration of a wide swath of locals when, one June, he somehow spirited away huge sheets of Mylar spread over the face of Aspen Mountain as an artistic statement during the International Design Conference in Aspen. “That was him,” Coordes said with a note of admiration.
Gramiger, who reportedly had been having heart trouble, suffered a mild heart attack on Nov. 3 and was hospitalized, Alexander said. But he refused to remain in the hospital and returned home, where he died at about noon the next day with Alexander at his side.He is survived by a brother, Peter Gramiger, who still lives in Switzerland, and by Joan Alexander.Alexander said that, at Gramiger’s request, there will be no public memorial ceremony, and that he has been cremated and his ashes will be brought back to Aspen to be scattered at an undisclosed location on Shadow Mountain.But even that, she admitted, was not quite what Gramiger, known to be a highly irreverent curmudgeon, wanted done with his remains.”He said he wanted to be flushed down the toilet,” she said with a rueful laugh. “He said eventually he’d get back to Switzerland through the sewers.”John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org