Glitzville: 1960s to 1989

Joel Stonington

In the early 1960s, Aspen was still a sleepy, up-and-coming ski town, just waking up after Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke brought culture to the valley. Businesses were mostly family-owned and community was tantamount.

For example, a classic headline in The Aspen Times from Feb. 14, 1964, read, “Post office goes big time; installs two collection boxes.”Toward the end of the ’60s, Aspen was changing irrevocably and by 1969 – dubbed “Year of Growth” by the Aspen Times – real estate values began a steady rise that has continued unabated into the present.

In 1970, the Times reported that 80 acres around the base of Buttermilk sold for $2 million in what was “the largest dollar land transaction in recent history” and by far the highest price paid per acre in the area.Though $2 million would be a steal on almost any Aspen real estate today, the Pitkin County commissioners recognized the development pressure that was changing Aspen, and in the ’70s began restrictive land-use planning designed to protect Aspen from the rampant development that has seized many other parts of the nation.The Times weighed in with an editorial, “Aspen: Asphalt Jungle.” It explained that out of 800 condominium units built in the last three record-breaking years of development, only 45 were low-cost.

“Aspen, like so many cities in this country,” read the editorial, “is in danger of outgrowing itself if immediate action is not taken to control and slow its growth.”Andy Stone wrote an article in 1980 titled, “How do you say mogul in French?” It referred to the foreigners inundating Aspen during ski season, but it could also have referred to the financial moguls moving to Aspen. The town was rapidly becoming an internationally renowned, glitzy playground of the rich and famous.

Though it cast a big shadow, however, Aspen was still a small town. During the 1970s Aspen was also characterized as a haven for free spirits from Hunter S. Thompson, the “gonzo journalist” who ran for sheriff on the Freak Power ticket, and John Denver, who popularized Aspen and Colorado with songs such as “Starwood at Aspen” and “Rocky Mountain High.”Freak Power couldn’t keep development out, however – Aspen was just a bit too idyllic for its own good. Real estate prices continued to climb – many would say because of the county’s restrictive land-use policies – and by 1980 Highway 82 was referred to in the Aspen Times as “Killer 82,” because of the accident rate. Traffic was fast becoming one of Aspen’s most contentious issues because so many people were commuting to Aspen from downvalley communities like Basalt, El Jebel and Carbondale.

In the 1980s and ’90s, as the cost of living and doing business continued to escalate, many family-owned businesses left downtown Aspen and were replaced by high-end restaurants, shops and salons, often owned by large, out-of-town corporations. Thus, Pitkin County has been in a delicate and controversial balancing act since the 70s, allowing economic growth and development on one side and trying to control and restrict it on the other. Many in the town’s Old Guard struggled to maintain what they perceived as Aspen’s essential character, while the town’s beauty and desirability attracted a tide of money that has fundamentally altered Aspen’s landscape, image and sense of itself.A 1970 quote of Ned Vare in The Aspen Times sounded like something that could be said today.

“The moment has come when we must decide to sell it or save it … are we to accommodate any and everybody who has the money to pay Aspen’s price or are we going to preserve what is left of Aspen’s attractiveness and those things which make us smile with joy and pride when we tell people, ‘I live here and I love it.'”