Willoughby: Aspen’s architectural vision: discovered, copied and created
Legends & Legacies
An exhibit that documents Herbert Bayer’s contributions to Aspen recently opened at the Aspen Historical Society. It got me thinking about the differences among discovering a vision, copying a vision and creating a vision.
Aspen owes its appearance in part to historical momentum and in part to architects’ vision. Historical milestones mark development of Aspen’s hetero-architectural brand.
The Highland Bavarian partners, principally Ted Ryan and Billy Fiske, conceived a vision during the 1930s for their Aspen ski resort. Because they had traveled and skied in Europe, their vision copied Swiss style. Little Annie Basin ranked as their choice location to build lifts. And before they even scribbled their names on a contract, they began construction of a lodge, one befitting a Swiss village.
First André Roch, the partners’ snow and ski consultant, thoroughly examined all Aspen slopes. He recommended Ashcroft as the best base for their operation, with lifts to reach the same ridge as Electric Peak. The partners agreed and brought in Ellery Husted, an architect from New York, to advise them on development of their Swiss village. When Husted saw the remaining mining era buildings of Ashcroft, he told them to bag the Swiss village theme. Instead, he favored a “Williamsburg of the Old West.”
Over the years, skiers had enjoyed the sport in Aspen. Fast forward a decade to when Aspen Skiing Co. built lifts in town. A few mines maintained operations and the skeletons of others withstood the elements. Most homes and buildings had been built during Victorian times, and wide, empty spaces stretched between houses and buildings. The style matched the town’s heritage and charmed visitors.
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When voters first elected my grandfather as Aspen’s mayor, Americans had just begun to enjoy automobile travel as a pastime. Towns of Western Colorado improved their roads to attract these travelers. Doc Twining, a former mayor and state legislator, had secured funding to convert the Independence Pass wagon road to an auto-friendly road. Then Grandfather persuaded council to spruce up Aspen to increase summer tourism. But derelict buildings and houses stood in their way. So, the city took over properties that had years of unpaid taxes. One by one, the city cleared those lots.
Construction on the empty lots picked up during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The new arrivals who shared the Highland Bavarian Partners’ vision built houses and commercial buildings in Swiss village style, such as Guido’s Swiss Inn and Restaurant on Cooper Avenue.
And then Fritz Benedict introduced another style. He adhered to the philosophy of his trainer, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who believed in building with local materials. In Aspen, Benedict accented modern log homes with picture windows, river rock and flagstone.
Walter Paepcke’s development outfit, the Aspen Company, bought and leased many houses and downtown buildings. They lured Herbert Bayer to Aspen for even more architectural advice and design. Aspen’s ornate Victorian buildings contrasted radically with the simplified forms of Bayer’s Bauhaus training, and he pushed locals to use nontraditional colors. Longtime Aspen residents recoiled from Bayer’s first project, a Victorian brick house painted shocking pink.
Bayer exercised free rein on the empty lots in the west end, where he would manifest his vision for Aspen. The ultra modern Bauhaus design featured plain lines and flat roofs. He left his mark on the Aspen Institute, starting with a hexagonal building, his favorite shape. He designed the Aspen Meadows. His crown accomplishment, a rebuild of the Music Festival tent, featured a hexagonal amphitheater. He also designed the hexagonal Sundeck, with huge windows that revealed a 360-degree view from the top of Aspen Mountain.
Locals envisioned another architectural style. They aspired to win the war with high-altitude sunshine and variable weather, which destroyed exterior paint. Also, they wanted warmer, cozier homes. The answer to their dreams — aluminum siding, updated Victorian function — yet muddled the architecture.
Larry Yaw, an Aspen architect, played a key role in creating modern mountain architecture. Sturdy and open structures of textured stone, wood and glass eventually dominated ski towns.
Cities such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Santa Barbara, California, issued ordinances to preserve historic architecture and adapt it to modern building standards. But in Aspen, as you can see, only a few developers discovered the delights of the original Victorian architecture. Others implemented independent visions.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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