Cooper and Galena
July 15, 2010
Current permit/design discussion for the Bidwell Building focuses on downtown parking, construction inconvenience and the usual “It’s just too big” dialogue. That prominent northwest corner of Cooper and Galena housed Tomkins Hardware for nearly 70 years.
Lewis and Henry Tomkins (with partners) established their hardware business in 1891. Of all the large downtown buildings, Tomkins employed the most utilitarian architecture. Unlike ornate Victorian Galena Street buildings, Tomkins’ unadorned brick walls were interrupted by only two unadorned entrances and windows for light. The two-story height competed for skyline notice because each of the floors boasted exceedingly tall ceilings. We often think of downtown Aspen as flat, but there is a noticeable uphill grade on Galena going north from the middle of the block, lifting Tomkins’ flat roofline to the height of neighboring three-story downtown structures.
Over the years, buildings such as Tomkins’ neighbor, the Aspen Block, have provided space for offices, banks, and retail stores. Tomkins itself was originally built as a hardware store and retained that retail purpose throughout its existence. The interior was never sliced up by walls into smaller spaces. The ground floor was interrupted only by structural supports. Well-lit by large windows on the north end, the interior was notable for its expansiveness.
That open construction provided sufficient floor space to enable the proprietor to stock multiple products in quantities. Basements in Aspen’s boulder-strewn subsoil were difficult to excavate, but Tomkins had a full basement as open as its main floor. The second floor was equally expansive. All three levels were connected by a lift located at the center of the building. The flat, wall-less lift was a platform large enough to transport four, giant, roll-top desks at one time. The hydraulic elevator in the Hotel Jerome was the only other such mechanical conveyance in Aspen.
In 1905, a city guide touted Tomkins’ stock as, “A complete line of hardware goods, including iron and steel stoves and tinware, oils and glass, firearms and ammunition, powder, fuse, caps and candles, tin and sheet iron work, fishing tackle and other sporting goods and all kinds of mining supplies.”
I frequented Tomkins Hardware as a child. I lived across the street and remember entering through the aging Galena Street door. I recall the excitement of watching the lift slowly make its way between floors, the walls and walls of shelf bins filled with of bolts and unfamiliar metal parts, and the uneven, well-traveled wood floor. My motivation for numerous visits was viewing the displays of model airplanes. A new owner bought out the aging Tomkins in the late 1950s. The new management sold stock that had been there for decades as antiques to appreciative tourists. The new owner and Zeke Clymer initiated a hobby shop among the many glass counters of Tomkins stock. Thanks to Clymer, Aspen youth assembled, flew and grew to love model airplanes, a short-lived fad.
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Years of annual snow accumulation took its toll on the exceedingly long roof spans of the Tomkins building. During a change of ownership, the heat was turned off. The roof collapsed when snow that usually melted was allowed to accumulate, condemning the building for demolition. Bert Bidwell, one of Aspen’s 10th Mountain Division post-war transplants, bought the property as a location for a sporting goods store. Old recycled brick was a popular mountain architectural material at the time. Bidwell saved the Tomkins bricks, storing them a half-block away on an empty Cooper Avenue lot. Bidwell’s immense supply was too tempting for many locals to resist, but enough survived for the construction of the current building.
Because the aging Tomkins building had become a bit of an eyesore relative to its refurbished neighbors, Bidwell’s construction was greeted with enthusiasm. But Bert broke faith with the community after the wall surrounding the open end of the pit (the current location of the Hunter Bar) became a popular seat for downtown sunning. Bidwell installed pointed ironwork, driving local “loiterers” away from “his wall” and, as an unintended consequence, from his store.
If the Bidwell building is demolished, maybe Tomkins’ century-old bricks will survive to support yet another Aspen architectural iteration.