Government looks inside historic boundaries

Carolyn SackariasonAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN City officials are mobilizing to gain control over what can happen inside historic buildings.There are about a dozen buildings that have caught the eye of city officials who believe the integrity of the interiors are worth preserving. The City Council on Monday gave Amy Guthrie, Aspen’s historic preservation officer, the go ahead to formally identify those buildings, establish criteria that the property owner would have to meet and create an ordinance based on those guidelines.The buildings discussed include two that are privately-owned – The Red Onion and the Hotel Jerome – and two that are publicly-owned, the Pitkin County Courthouse and the Wheeler Opera House. The remaining buildings would have to have enough public significance and access to merit a government review, council members agreed.Even though The Red Onion and the Hotel Jerome have some restrictions attached to their development agreements, there really is no protection to keep the property owners from doing what they want inside the building in the future, Guthrie said. That’s the same scenario with the courthouse, where Guthrie said she has to tread lightly and ask that certain changes within the historic building be done carefully.”Currently we have nothing in place to prevent the removal of historic interior walls, trim, floors, decorative ceilings, staircases, built in cabinetry, fireplaces, and other special features that can have a significant impact on the experience of being in a historic structure,” Guthrie wrote to the City Council in a June 29 memo. “These actions result in a certain loss of authenticity.”So far, Guthrie has been pleased with the work done inside the courthouse and The Red Onion, which is currently being renovated. Construction crews are methodically removing each piece of historic tile and salvaging what they can.But the Historic Preservation Commission found itself in uncharted territory last week when it reviewed for the first time architect Bill Poss’ design plans for The Red Onion. The submission was largely voluntary by the building owners, Andy Hecht and Ron Garfield, but the HPC gave its recommendation even though it has no guidelines for the interior of historic structures.The HPC has the authority to dictate what alterations can be made to the outside of about 300 buildings deemed historic but no purview on what can be done inside.Just what parameters will be set within historically defined buildings may be done on a case-by-case basis and in the context of each structure.While the City Council was generally supportive of establishing an inventory and an ordinance, Councilman Dwayne Romero is cautious on just how far government should go in dictating what a property owner can do.”I’m not as comfortable venturing there,” he said. “I think before we get too headstrong, I want to debate it internally and discuss it publicly.”He also added that standards for public access to the proposed buildings must be high.”There has to be strong standards so that people say, ‘I get it,'” Romero said.A previous City Council requested that criteria be formed for historic designation of publicly-accessible interiors as part of the commercial core moratorium that was adopted in December 2006, and recently extended for six more months.Guthrie said she and her staff will look at what other communities have done to restrict changes to the interiors of historic buildings and bring suggestions back to the City Council in the near future.