Historical society tour offers glimpse into downtown past | AspenTimes.com

Historical society tour offers glimpse into downtown past

Naomi Havlen

Mark Fox/The Aspen TimesParticipants in a tour with the Aspen Historical Society walk down Cooper Avenue on Saturday after learning a bit of the history of The Red Onion.

Aspen residents can be notorious for calling a storefront in town by a business name it hasn’t had for years, like referring to the now-empty building on the corner of Cooper Avenue and Galena Street as the old Flying Dog brew pub, Howling Wolf, Hannibal Brown’s, Mecca, Next or Gracy’s.To aid in the confusion, the Aspen Historical Society is dishing out a new tour called “Taste of the Past,” where guests are walked through the commercial core, making pit stops at restaurants for non-alcoholic drinks and appetizers. Historical society volunteer coordinator Ruth Owens said she came up with the concept based on food and culture tours in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.With some research in the historical society’s archives and her own knowledge from 30-plus years living in Aspen, Owens came up with a tour that’s a stroll from restaurant to restaurant while guides paraphrase Aspen’s history and give visitors a glimpse behind the revolving door of Aspen’s volatile marketplace.Restaurants that participate in the tour donate food and time, so the $40-per-person charge for the tour goes straight to the historical society. Although this Saturday was only the second run-through of the tour, Owens is hoping if the concept picks up it could continue as an aprés ski attraction during the winter.

“It’s a pretty good way to get a broad brush of this dazzling community,” said Barbara Marcus, an Ohio resident who was visiting Aspen for the first time.”The frequent stops are nice; getting to taste different food in the community is a draw,” added her husband, Arnie.Saturday’s two-hour tour started out at The Cantina for tortilla chips and guacamole, and a brief description of the building as Aspen’s YMCA during the town’s mining era and a boarding house for ranching families during the quiet years.As with many buildings on the tour, soon after World War II the spaces began turning into restaurants, and the musical chairs routine begins. Owens said the Cantina space hosted Epicure, known as the best breakfast location in town before turning into Pour la France.

Owens and fellow tour guide Beth Cashdan also trace Aspen’s business history during the tour, which includes a description of the late entrepreneur Harley Baldwin’s influence on the local retail scene. They point out “Rodeo Drive corner” with its upscale shops like Gucci and Christian Dior, and they explain Baldwin’s hand in bringing posh boutiques to the streets of Aspen.The tour is packed full of tidbits about the quirks of the commercial core – where the only pay phone in Aspen used to be, where Whale of a Wash Laundromat used to stand and host the Let Mother Do It laundry service for those who didn’t want to deal with their own dirty threads.Tom Elder, manager of The Red Onion, and Nina Gabianelli at the Crystal Palace gave descriptive tours of the insides of both long-standing businesses, pointing out quirky features and telling some of the back stories that make the establishments what they are today.For visitors, the Taste of the Past tour offers a smattering of history but mostly a profile of some of the places in town available for dining. A sampling of local cuisine includes the more upscale bruschetta and stuffed pizza at Gusto and salmon tartar with avocado and wasabi sauce at Genre Bistro, and more hometown faire like tiny “shooters” burgers at The Red Onion and lemonade at Boogie’s.

For locals, the tour is a chance to reminisce over long-gone businesses like the Fry by Night donut shop, and theorize aloud why some businesses thrive for years while others bite the dust within 6 months.”It’s a good idea – a way for folks who are in town for a couple of days to get a feel for the place, take a couple of hours for a taste and a tour about town,” said Aspen resident Tony Battaglia.If the tour proves anything, it’s that Aspen hosts a strange (and sometimes incestuous) network of businesses that flourish for a time and then disappear, replaced with empty storefronts or tenants with their fingers crossed. It’s nothing that longtime locals don’t already know, but it may serve as a cautionary tale to hopeful local business people.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com