Legends & Legacies: “Call a miner, and dynamite it into smaller pieces”
Writer Tim Willoughby reflects on Aspen's history.
Accumulated community knowledge is often ignored by newcomers, at least until they aren’t newcomers anymore.
When Aspen began a frenzied couple of decades of growth in the 1960s, old-timers watched, mostly with humor, as building sites moved beyond the flat lots in town to steep slopes, like the Shadow Mountain Condominiums that had to be attached to a cable system to keep them from sliding down the slope. Excavation and cribbing were something new, and you would hear locals commenting with sentences that started with, “they aren’t really going to …”
Today, the construction frenzy and the scale of the equipment involved is the normative, as the price of building something is not often a constricting element as it was in Aspen’s earlier history.
Basements are common today, but rare before. Only a few downtown commercial buildings from the Victorian era had basements, and an even smaller number of houses had them, and, if they did, they were very small.
I remember in the 1950s when Albert Bishop, proprietor and butcher for the major grocery store Beck and Bishop, decided to add a basement to his Victorian home on the corner of Hopkins and Garmisch. He was one of the first to add a basement to Aspen’s older homes. Barney, his son, and I were friends, and I would visit and participate in the excavation, a minor pretending to be a miner.
Like many homes, it had a very small basement, so Albert set up a grain auger that he got from the Trappist Monastery to convey the diggings from the existing section to the outside. Rocks would clog up to auger, so he replaced that with a hay conveyor. That went on for a long time with roof jacks set up to hold the house up.
The project escalated when he contracted with Jim Hayes to have a bulldozer and front loader create a large hole and entry outside on one side of the house and then pull out the remaining areas that contained more of the same material, glacial moraine with a mix of sand and granite rocks. A concrete floor was poured, wheelbarrowing loads of concrete from the mixer truck, more formal roof supports installed and a perimeter wall constructed.
That doubled the size of the house something others would have wanted to do, but few did — and for a good reason.
Fast forward to the 1970s. I was near my aunt’s Hopkins Avenue apartment when I ran into Bernie Popish. If you have been in Aspen long enough, you knew Bernie the friendliest clerk at Aspen Supply or, as we called it, Sardy’s. He knew every item in the store, for many years the only hardware store, and customers with no knowledge of what they needed were guided by Bernie through the solutions to their problems. If you wanted to know the best paint for a sun exposed house, Bernie could tell you. If your furnace was failing, he would advise. As a multigenerational family, Bernie had more than just hardware knowledge; he knew the town’s houses, people and history.
He was standing on the street watching a construction project on the Popish family house that had sold recently. He was chuckling when he told me the new owners were going to add a basement. “I told them that could be a problem,” he said. My first-hand childhood view of the underneath of the Bishop house came to mind. What is also evident to even a casual visitor to the east end of town is that the glacial moraine that fills the valley is different. You see more and larger giant granite boulders as you head east.
Not long after that, I saw Bernie checking on the house again, and, as he expected, the progress had stopped because contractors encountered a huge boulder near the center of the house. After digging around it they realized that a loader could not get it out or even pull it out. I think it was Bernie who suggested the only, and successful, solution: Call a miner, and dynamite it into smaller pieces.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.
The chief operating officer of RH recently said the retailer’s presence will invigorate downtown Aspen by day and wake it up at night, but they’ll need some help from the Aspen Historic Preservation Commission.
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