Commission ponders historic merit of downtown building | AspenTimes.com

Commission ponders historic merit of downtown building

Janet Urquhart

The commission that oversees preservation of Aspen’s historic buildings couldn’t help wondering Wednesday if they’d even be talking about saving the structure at the corner of Galena Street and Cooper Avenue had it not been designed by the late Fritz Benedict, a noted local architect.The Mountain Plaza building, better known as the Bidwell building in reference to its late owner, Bert Bidwell, doesn’t represent Benedict’s best work, Historic Preservation Commission members generally concluded. It has what was termed the “quintessential moat” – the sunken courtyard that separates pedestrians from the businesses within it, particularly the commercial space accessed off the courtyard.But with the building’s owners contemplating an overhaul of the L-shaped building that would fill in the courtyard with new, at-grade commercial space and add residences atop the building, the commission is grappling with whether the structure should be designated as historic.It was identified for the designation in 2000, when the city studied post-World War II properties that might be worth saving. Ultimately no action was taken, but now that the structure is 40 years old, the city could designate it as historic without the owners’ consent.It was constructed in 1965 after the building that once graced the prominent corner was torn down because the roof collapsed under heavy snow. The original building, which extended out to the true corner of the property, occupying what is now the courtyard space, housed Tomkins Hardware.”If Fritz hadn’t designed it, would we be discussing this?” mused commission member Jason Lasser. “I don’t think it’s an especially fine example of his design.””The building really does detract from one of the more important intersections, the more important corners, in downtown Aspen,” said Mitch Haas, planning consultant for the building’s owners, Bidwell’s children.The basement commercial space accessed off the courtyard has housed a revolving assortment of businesses, including a brew pub, restaurants, nightclubs and retailers. It is currently occupied by Noori’s Collection, which sells Oriental rugs. At street level, tucked behind the courtyard, is Kemo Sabe.Benedict studied Wrightian architecture, but the Bidwell building isn’t one of his best local examples, Lasser and commission member Michael Hoffman argued.But members Jeffrey Halferty and Alison Agley were less inclined to write off the building, given its connection to Benedict.”It’s not that I really want to keep it, I just really want to think about it,” Agley said.Commission members agreed to visit the building before they decide.If the structure is designated as historic, the significant alterations that are planned for it would not be allowed.”For the level of change we’re considering, it might as well be a tear-down and rebuild,” Haas said.The proposed commercial space extending over the corner courtyard would be two stories high. Atop the existing two-story building would be two residential floors. The fourth floor, set back from the facade, would be 46 feet high, as allowed in the commercial core. Three worker housing units and two free-market penthouses are envisioned.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com

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