Crystal Palace Not Always So Palatial
September 17, 2007
Imagine dump trucks inside the Crystal Palace, staying warm so they could start on cold winter days to haul miners up the backside of Aspen Mountain. Before Mead Metcalf started his dinner theater there, the Midnight Mine had its headquarters in the building. It reeked of old timber molds, carbide lantern fumes, rock dust and machine lubricants rather than today’s captivating aromas of broiling prime rib and uncorked merlot.
The pending change in ownership of the Crystal Palace may alter more than names on the title, especially if Mead Metcalf takes the stained glass and crystal chandeliers with him. His colorful remodel in 1960 made the building more Victorian than it was in 1891 when it was built. Victorian structures in Aspen, with the exception of St. Mary’s and the Community Church, had simple windows of small squares of colored glass surrounding plain glass rectangles. Most colorful and elaborate stained glass was imported from New Orleans and Denver during the ’60s – the 1960s. The Palace and other buildings were reinvented more than restored.The Palace from the mid-1930s to 1951 was the company office of the Midnight Mine, Aspen’s major employer. It was the ideal building for three reasons. Like most commercial buildings in the downtown core, it had a second-floor office area where the company could accomplish its paperwork. It had a very large ground floor, big enough to park and service its trucks and store equipment and materials. Finally, it was just one block from general manager Fred D. Willoughby’s home. He lived at the corner of Hyman Avenue and Aspen Street in the white house that looks today like it looked back then.
In its Victorian heyday the Crystal Palace was a commission house much like today’s wholesale distribution warehouses. Goods traded hands on the ground floor where ice cut from Hallam Lake cooled a walk-in meat storage box. E.M Cooper was the proprietor in the early 1900s and in addition to White Owl cigars, as advertised on the exterior wall, he sold produce grown in the agricultural boom areas of Delta and Mesa counties. The Midnight Mine acquired the building after it had been abandoned for a number of years. The older roof was flat and in desperate need of repair. The Midnight changed the pitch to shed snow, giving the building the odd shape it has today.The Midnight office accommodated 55 employees in the 1940s. Miners and mill operators worked both day and night shifts, plus the building was the center of business activities and vehicle repair. As Willoughby served as mayor of Aspen through many of those years, it also doubled as an unofficial city hall office. Aspen’s elevation is too high for most fruit trees. Crabapples are one of the few species to prosper. The Monarch side of the building provides great sun exposure with the brick wall holding enough heat to incubate trees. Begun with an apparent toss of a plum seed, a tree still grows there. The Midnight staff marveled at the seedling’s survival and gauged the passing of years by the growth of the tree.
Other than The Aspen Times and a few lodges, it’s unusual for commercial buildings in Aspen to retain the same use over the long term. Metcalf’s nearly half-century as the occupant of this building has provided countless visitors with a unique Aspen experience. Old buildings, especially the brick commercial-core buildings of Aspen, are hard to maintain and to adapt to modern uses but their historical soul is a major ingredient in the Aspen ambiance.May the next occupant make the most of the legacy.Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.