Fritz Benedict: Visionary, war hero, bad architect
December 20, 2007
Recently the Aspen City Council took up an initiative to protect 30-year-old buildings under the guise of historic preservation. Some 98 structures that hadn’t yet been scraped and rebuilt into mansions were placed on a “do not touch” list, leading to a hue and cry among the real estate and building communities.
Now, please realize that I’m writing this column with a detached perspective. Though I have a real estate license, I’m not active in the Roaring Fork Valley. I live a little farther afield, but I grew up in Carbondale and have worked many years in Aspen and Snowmass. My record will also reflect that I’m generally not in favor of new development, and I consider myself a conservationist and environmentalist. I’m also about to stir up a hue and cry, because I’m going to look at a sacred cow with the idea of eating steaks.
One of the main reasons given for historic preservation of these … um … how to say it … examples of postwar architecture (there! I found the words! Aren’t you proud of me?) is that many of them were designed by Fritz Benedict or Herbert Bayer.
Most local readers will instantly know who these two men were. For those of you vacationing from out of town, Fritz Benedict was a tall, handsome fellow who fought in the Appenines in Italy during World War II with the 10th Mountain Division, a unit that endured 113 straight days of combat in harsh winter conditions and never lost an engagement. Having visited Aspen while training at Camp Hale in Leadville, Benedict had the vision to come to Aspen after the war and help start a ski area ” which he did.
Benedict was also an architect who had studied under Frank Lloyd Wright. He was a very popular and revered figure in Aspen. Though I met him only once, he was indeed congenial, and I liked the man.
Herbert Bayer was a German architect and Benedict’s brother-in-law. Bayer was one of the leaders of the Bauhaus, a modernist design movement that relied heavily on cubism. Born in 1900, Bayer emigrated to the U.S. in 1938. Bayer and Benedict were both major players in the founding of the Aspen Institute and other venerated institutions around Aspen.
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And, in my opinion, they were both lousy architects. There, I said it. Please don’t stone me.
Who am I to judge architecture? I’m just a guy who has spent a lot of days with a nail belt on my waist and a hammer in hand. I’m also a professional photographer, and I’ve sold a lot of photographs, so the market has said that I have an eye for composition, color and design. And I’m paid to write my opinion, so here you have it.
I spent a year at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria, and came to hate Bauhaus architecture. If you have endured a gray German winter in a collection of cold, gray concrete boxes, you’d know the true meaning of depression as a result of surroundings. Bayer and Benedict collaborated on the Aspen Institute grounds, and if you visit it today, you’ll think you wandered onto the campus of a minimum-security prison for Wall Street tycoons. I’m sorry that they’re stuck with those white cubes for perpetuity.
I used to guide bird-hunting for a client who stays at the Gant. In order to be in Hotchkiss at daybreak, I’d pick him up in the early hours of the morning. Have you ever tried to find F203 in the dark? The Gant is a maddening rabbit warren of nonsensical cubes and passageways, and many are the times I’ve cursed Fritz Benedict for designing it.
And then there’s Snowmass. Who in the world came up with the idea of placing a base village for a ski area on a tilted mountainside so steep that the main road has to be heated? You know, the ski area where there’s no logical place to pick up or drop off skiers, and nasty cops stalk around dropping off parking tickets? Fritz Benedict. There’s a reason why the base area is undergoing a massive redevelopment.
And the Aspen Square building? Please. I’ve always wondered who designed that monstrosity. You guessed it.
The city of Aspen paid some high-priced consultant your hard-earned tax dollars to block the redevelopment of the Mountain Plaza Building, where Kemo Sabe and Sotheby’s are located. I’m sorry, but this building is just a mess. Not only is it ugly, the location of the stairways, entryways and offices is illogical and confusing. However, city of Aspen Historic Preservation Officer Amy Guthrie maintains, “What must be avoided is a discussion of whether or not we ‘like’ the building, but instead whether or not it is an important example of Fritz Benedict’s work in Aspen and would therefore be worth saving.”
Oh, I see. We should just save everything Fritz Benedict ever did, even if it’s bad. And we can’t talk about it either, because this is the People’s Republic of Aspen, not the United States of America.
As for the Frank Lloyd Wright thing, well, one of my college wrestling coaches was an Olympic gold medalist, and I’ve never been a world-class wrestler. One of my English professors was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, but the best I’ve done is a Colorado Book Award.
If you Google either Bayer or Benedict, you’ll find that many of their most important works have already been demolished. In America, that means the market has spoken. Someone valued the ground under their creations more than the design, construction and materials. Both men built their own projects on top of previous construction that we might now value, such as 1880s’ Victorian homes and brick buildings. Personally, it’s my opinion that squares, cubes and modernist design don’t fit with Aspen, but then again, it was an era of culture and zeitgeist that is part of Aspen’s history.
Don’t get me wrong ” I think Aspen-area architecture has gone overboard with oversized mansions, and no doubt we will look back at the 1990-2010 era with some squeamishness.
If there truly is value to Fritz Benedict’s architecture, let the free market speak. Someone will buy it and preserve it.