Willoughby: Some thoughts on the purposes of Aspen’s historic preservation

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
One wall remains during the Crystal Palace renovation.
Willoughby photo

Should historic preservation remind us of our history, or a version of what we think is our history? How can a preserved building encapsulate more than architectural trends? Those questions ran through my mind while I watched the remodeling of the Crystal Palace building.

I felt surprised to see the demolishment of all but one wall of the building — the wall with the White Owl Cigar mural. I know the plans to replace these walls models the original building. I fully understand the challenges of structure, especially when adding a large basement. I respect the daunting task of preservation to represent the building’s 130-year history. Renovators had to choose from various looks and profiles the structure had presented, through diverse uses.

When my father was in high school he would join his father for a coming-of-age ritual inside and outside that building. At that time, the Midnight Mine occupied the building as its office, warehouse and truck maintenance garage. My grandmother, a devoted Temperance woman, forbade alcohol and smoking at home. Grandfather smoked cigars, one after another, nearly every hour he was away from home. He also enjoyed his share of spirits. At the office, he introduced and modeled those social habits to my father.

Father told me about warm days when the sun would shine on the owl mural. He and his dad would lean against that wall, eat lunch or a snack, and enjoy father-son talk. He told me that the crab apple tree that graced that side of the building had grown from their discarded apple cores, the sprout encouraged by a little watering help.

Seeing that mural immediately reminds me of that story from my dad. It’s likely that no one else shares a similar memory of that wall. But the elicitation reminds me of the grand purpose of historic preservation, which goes beyond architectural reconstruction. The underlying value must be to save the stories connected to a building.

In the case of this particular building, preservation raises some questions. Folks my age and younger knew the building as Mead Metcalf’s Crystal Palace. Metcalf had transformed a laundry he had bought into a nightclub. Grand chandeliers and stained glass pieces gave the building a Victorian atmosphere and appearance.

To preserve Mead’s nightclub, you would install stained glass prolifically. But at the time of the building’s origins, mining-era Aspen, commercial buildings featured just a sprinkling of stained glass, and homes had little more. Stained glass in 4-to-6-inch rectangles framed a few windows. Those who wanted to see stained glass pictures went to church.

Public monuments and statues help us remember those who came before us. And architectural preservation creates ambiance for many communities, especially Aspen. The city may host as many modern Victorians as renovated ones. But whether or not an Aspen building looks like it did when it was built, drive-by tourists recognize Victorian intentions in the absence of authentic details.

As did the Elks Building of the previous century, the Crystal Palace survived a long iconic history. Over time, stories generated by thousands of patrons recede to a whisper. The stories themselves need preservation, perhaps more than does the wholesale food commodity business that the Palace housed during Victorian times.

There is a difference between architectural preservation and the preservation of history. If the building with the White Owl mural still stands a century from now, what will passersby learn about the people who tarried there?

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