La Co’ is an institution, but not a historic one, HPC says
La Cocina may be an Aspen institution, but the popular Mexican restaurant has lost its designation as a historic building.
The Hopkins Avenue restaurant, affectionately referred to as “La Co” by the local populace, may be an Aspen classic, but it’s no longer an Aspen historic treasure, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission agreed last week.
La Cocina owner Nick Lebby lobbied to have his restaurant removed from Aspen’s historic inventory, arguing that the building has seen too many exterior renovations to retain any historic significance.
It’s an argument the HPC has heard many times about various buildings, but this time, the commission agreed. Members voted 4-2 to remove it from the list.
The decision was a difficult one, according to HPC member Gilbert Sanchez, who said he was one of several members who were on the fence before the debate.
“It’s sort of right on the threshold of whether there’s enough integrity to continue with it,” he said.
The original structure at La Cocina is a late-Victorian house dating back to 1888, according to city records. It has seen significant alterations in the century since then, however, including the closing in of the front porch and additions to accommodate the kitchen, bathrooms and a walk-in freezer, as well as additional dining area.
Lebby made many of the renovations himself in his 28 years of running the restaurant. Before La Cocina, the building was home to The House of Lum, a tiny eatery that had room for about seven tables, Lebby recalled.
As a result of the multitude of changes, according to a staff report by city planner Fred Jarman, only a few characteristics of the original building have been retained. He recommended the building be removed from the inventory.
In fact, said Lebby with a laugh, some of the remaining distinctive Victorian characteristics noted in Jarman’s report aren’t even historic.
The fish-scale shingles that can be seen on the front of the restaurant are one of Lebby’s many additions to the building. “I probably just got the idea from driving around and looking at the old Victorians,” he said.
In fact, La Cocina’s exterior is as eclectic as its menu, which offers garlic bread as a standard accompaniment to its Mexican fare.
Mixing with the Victorian touches on the facade are Southwestern-style adobe walls on the additions to the structure.
“It’s sort of an eclectic mixture of things we liked at the time,” Lebby explained. “I just didn’t think it was worthy as a historic structure.”
HPC members agreed, though it was a difficult decision, Sanchez conceded.
“Some people felt strongly that it shouldn’t be on the list . others felt very strongly that this is a local institution – that it could be retrieved,” said Julie Ann Woods, the city’s head planner.
But Jarman noted that the building would require considerable reconstruction to return it to its original form, and the HPC guidelines require buildings to be judged on their current architectural integrity, rather than on speculation of what could occur.
“I guess I just came to realize, in fact, that there wasn’t much left. This had sort of crossed the line,” Sanchez said.
“When you look at La Cocina from the street side, you see about one-third of the original building,” Woods added. “When you look at it from the back, you don’t see any part of the historic building.”
Lebby said he has no plans to do anything more to the building, but is glad the HPC looked at his request to delist the property with an open mind.
Lately, the HPC has found itself under fire for adding buildings to the historic inventory. Property owners have accused the commission of failing to properly assess the historic significance of buildings.
“I was very impressed with the objectivity they showed,” Lebby said.
One HPC member did, however, question whether the restaurant was taken off the list out of sympathy to Lebby, a well-known, longtime local, Sanchez said.
But Sanchez said he wonders if the community will object to delisting the restaurant because it’s a popular spot.
“Is it a place people will say should be on because they have feelings about it?” he mused.
The restaurant is located in Aspen’s commercial core historic district and, as such, remains under the purview of the HPC.
“We still have review over whatever happens to that site or that building,” Sanchez noted.
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