Willoughby: Good intentions meet bad ideas, add up to salvaged savings | AspenTimes.com
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Willoughby: Good intentions meet bad ideas, add up to salvaged savings

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Tent takedown during the late 1960s reveals the covered heater, upper right above the stage.
Willoughby Collection/Courtesy Photo

Today’s building codes do not easily accommodate recycling and mixed, repurposed infrastructure. The challenge to remodel a very old building often leads to a conclusion that it would be cheaper to build anew. An additional challenge, seasonal building, plagues Aspen’s developers.

The Bayer Tent lacked heating, even backstage. Only a few windows, all near the ceiling, ventilated the cinderblock and concrete structure. Yet I don’t remember draining water from the building to prepare for winter. Although the backstage never felt warm, the temperature there did not dip below freezing, even with no added heat.

The stage warmed up early, when the sun hit the canvass tent. Because heat rises, it would take a while for the warmth to pile up in reverse order, all the way down to the stage. Morning rehearsals began with musicians’ hands in pockets. When the festival expanded the programming and concerts lasted late into the evening, only the most dedicated audience members would remain in their seats until the last note played.

The musicians’ demand for heat brought about a crazy solution, forced air gas heaters installed on top of the stage shell. When we arrived at work we would turn on the noisy fans. But as soon as rehearsal began, we had to turn them off. The end of the heat duct, at least 20 feet above the stage, rarely raised the temperature at even the highest levels of the tiered stage.

The best intentions drove that short experiment. But not even musicians can defy the laws of thermodynamics.

At that time only two of us worked on the tent crew. When the tent came down, our job had ended for the summer. We were told to dismantle the heaters and remove them. Steve Larson — my work partner — and I disconnected the gas and power lines from the heaters and unbolted them from the platform. We tied a rope around one, and I pushed it over the edge. Larson clung to the end of the rope. But the sudden weight yanked him hard and he let go.

We felt amazed when we examined the fallen heater. We saw no damage, at least on the outside. We did not look inside. Someone moved the heaters to campus and left them to collect dust at the rear of a storage room.

A few years later I began my career as a teacher at Aspen Country Day School. In the early years a building from the 1890s housed the entire school. Previously the building had held the Newman Mine’s office and entertainment center. As with the tent, the campus for the Music Associates of Aspen, MAA, aimed for only summer use. However, the building was one of four built with heat and insulation. Two were cabins. The MAA comptroller occupied the fourth building, which previously had housed the mine manager.

The school grew, the cabins became classrooms, and the number of students continued to grow. I lobbied to use the MAA classroom building, with three large rooms. Fritz Benedict had designed the building with huge windows with views over Castle Creek. Its high ceilings offered perfect acoustics for small musical rehearsals, but no one had installed insulation inside the walls or ceiling. With no added heat and the narrow valley’s cold winters, snow piled to great depths on the flat roof each winter. The weight and moisture took their toll.

The association and school ran on shoestring budgets. Fortunately, Jack Gressett, a parent with the school, worked as a contractor and introduced some creativity. Rather than buy a new heater, he repurposed the MAA stage heater. No basement or crawl space accessed the building’s underbelly for the heater and the ductwork. So, as with the stage, Gressett planned to install the heater on the roof. Ductwork would be installed on the ceiling. The high ceiling exhausted any efficiencies of the plan, but up was the most practical place for the heater.

Another challenge: what should we do with the snow? Piled on the rooftop, over the heater, it would melt and cause water damage. Gressett built a new roof onto the building that drained toward center, through the ceiling, into piping in the high ceiling, and then outside.

Because I had proposed the building takeover, I got the first pick of classrooms. I chose the middle room, the largest. My students and I would wait a long time for heat to build its way down from the ceiling ductwork. On really cold days — colder than in town — the mornings chilled our bones. Whenever it rained, the water gurgled through the pipes.

But I had moved from the main building’s basement.

The frigid temperature and occasional noise in the new, jury-rigged classroom counted as minor distractions when compared to the riches of view. My students and I learned the colors of cottonwoods in fall. We watched a sculptor, the river, tunnel through snow and polish ice-covered rocks in winter. Castle Creek murmured to us all day, every season, and lit up the lives of a teacher and a room full of curious fourth graders.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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