Lookingout for old Aspen
Ask Les Holst why he is so doggedly determined to preserve Aspen’s past and he will tell you it’s because of the ghosts.He’s not talking about the kind that say “boo” and haunt a place. He believes spirits live on in Aspen’s mining-era buildings: Workers who painstakingly pieced together the grand Wheeler Opera House, for example, or handle-bar mustachioed bartenders at the Hotel Jerome, and the working-class families who occupied the quaint little miner’s cottages when silver was king.”There are ghosts in the all the old buildings. I don’t care what anybody says,” Holst said.By preserving its buildings, he said, Aspen maintains a vital connection with its soul.Holst isn’t the kind of guy who quietly sits back and crosses his fingers in hope that Aspen’s elected officials preserve old structures. He raises hell for history.He made a splash in Aspen’s political scene last month by storming City Council chambers with 50 locals wearing white T-shirts that proclaimed, “I Love Aspen.” A call for a six-month moratorium and greater effort to preserve Aspen’s small scale and historic structures were among their demands.To the surprise of many observers, the City Council took at least some of Holst’s advice on April 25, enacting a six-month moratorium on land-use applications.But Holst is no newcomer to Aspen politics. He was a maverick who burst onto the scene 20 years ago. After serving in the U.S. Air Force as a bomber pilot and flight instructor, then logging 25 years as a pilot with United Airlines, the globetrotting Holst was trying to decide where to settle in the mid-1980s. He kept a VW bus in France and one in the western U.S. He liked to roam in search of the perfect place. He claims to be the first person to ski Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro and has pictures and newspaper articles that confirm the trip.”I kept coming back to Aspen,” he said. “I feel that once you’ve been here, you always come back.”
He was based out of Denver while flying for United Airlines and frequently stayed in Breckenridge, where he became enamored of mining history. He roamed the hills around that former mining town and checked out scores of miners’ shacks. The U.S. Forest Service had a running battle with squatters occupying the old cabins in the 1970s. To address that problem it was tearing the old buildings down.”I went nuts so I started battling them,” he said. “I didn’t win, of course.”But the experience stoked a fire in him for historic preservation. Holst acquired an old tipple, used to load silver and other ore in rail cars or wagons, and turned it into a six-story house in the Breckenridge area.When he relocated to Aspen, his passion for history forced his hand almost immediately. In the mid-1980s, Holst was horrified that a ramshackle miner’s cottage known as the Lillie Reed house was slated for demolition as part of the redevelopment in the 300 block of East Hopkins Avenue. Famed photographer Franz Berko used the house as a studio and his wife, Mirte, ran a toyshop there.While sitting in Francis Whitaker Park one recent, picture-perfect spring morning, Holst recalled that he stood in the street and gathered signatures for a petition demanding that the Reed house be included in the redevelopment plan.He said he gathered about 1,000 signatures, signifying just how much people cared about historic preservation. He presented the petition to the Aspen City Council and lobbied the board to overturn a decision by Aspen’s Historic Preservation Committee that allowed the house to be torn down.The house was moved a couple of lots to the west and refurbished as part of the development of the building that houses the Steak Pit. The charming Reed house is now the home of Timberline Bank at the corner of Monarch and East Hopkins.
Bill Stirling, the mayor at the time of the Reed house controversy, credited Holst with “inspiring and browbeating” the council into a more active role in historic preservation. Stirling and Holst quickly became political allies through their shared passion for history. Stirling convinced Holst to join the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, and Holst served on the volunteer board from 1989 to 1996.Stirling served as mayor until 1991. Late in his tenure, the city strengthened it historic preservation code, with Holst’s help.”We really began to put the teeth in historic regulations,” Stirling said.Holst admits he wasn’t above bending the rules to get his way. In the early 1990s, neighbors of the Red Brick School wanted the structure sold, knocked down and replaced with housing. Holst suspected their motive was to increase their property values. He led a group that felt the building should remain in public hands after the elementary school relocated to the Maroon Creek campus.When his foes contended the building was structurally failing, as it appeared to the naked eye, he challenged the assertion. Holst “kicked in a window” one night and spent the weekend in the building, cutting holes in the walls to examine the structural integrity. He found iron beams and sound design. The sagging ceilings were cosmetic only. He passed on his findings to city officials, who dispelled the myth of an unsound building.The city’s purchase of the structure went to an election and residents decided to buy the building by the razor-thin margin of one vote.Even when Holst was part of the establishment, he was anti-establishment. In 1992 the historic Pioneer Park house and an open garden next door on Bleeker Street in Aspen’s West End were purchased by a developer. After more than a century of protection in private hands, the garden was placed on the market and threatened with development.Holst camped on the property to draw attention to a fundraising effort. “I lived on the site for almost 10 days,” he said.The stunt worked. Everyone from wealthy widows to school classes contributed to the cause. Holst and others who rallied to his aid raised roughly $500,000. The city government chipped in additional funds to acquire the garden and preserved it as a city park.
Despite the victories, Holst is haunted by the losses he believes the town’s historic stock has suffered. He laments the replacement of the music tent, as much for the feeling as for the structure. It used to be a true community meeting place when it was all general admission seating. Friends would just say I’ll meet you on the left side of the tent or the right side or the center, he said. That feeling is gone with assigned seats. He also groused about the acoustics, which he says haven’t been fully solved in the last few years.”It’s a gorgeous building,” Holst said of the tent designed by acclaimed local architect Harry Teague. “It doesn’t belong in Aspen. It belongs somewhere else.”During his seven years on the HPC, Holst said there was only one decision he truly regretted. A single mom who owned a charming little Victorian house pleaded hardship in a quest to make major alterations and sell the structure for top dollar. Holst the other committee members capitulated when the buyer appeared and swore he wanted the property to provide his son with a place to live in Aspen.The committee approved a remodel that might not typically have flown. As soon as the deal was done, the buyer flipped the property for a tidy profit.Holst isn’t just a romantic clinging desperately to Aspen’s past. Some of his views on historic preservation might shock a “purist.” He’s proud, for example, of the way small miners’ cottages were preserved in the West End during his tenure on HPC. It doesn’t matter to him that enormous, modern additions known as “bustles” (named after the bulging bustles on women’s Victorian-era skirts) were added on the back of many of the houses.The important point was preserving the small-scale cottages so visible from the street, he said. He doesn’t consider them bastardized by the additions.
Holst isn’t bothered, either, by what some derisively refer to as Aspen-style historic remodel in the commercial code. That’s when a structure like the old Elli’s building is gutted and only the old facade gets tacked back on. Likewise he considers the Isis Theater remodel a success, even though one classic theater turned into a multiplex in the expanded building. Usually Holst was relentless about making property owners adhere to historic preservation rules. His nickname was Les “No” Holst because he never supported exemptions.Holst took the position so seriously that it started to affect his life. He wouldn’t go on vacation when the HPC was scheduled to meet for fear that some development would sneak through while he was away.”I was basically the lunatic fringe,” he acknowledged.While most of the HPC members he served with were architects, planners or builders who couldn’t afford to offend potential clients, Holst had no such shackles.”My big advantage was I never had to make a living in town,” he said. “I never had to cater to anyone.”Along with his pensions from the airline and military, Holst makes a living in a variety of ways, most notably as a consultant and producer for Terrific Television Productions, which makes commercials, and from investments. Holst he said he studies a handful of stocks each year and selects one as an investment. Some of those stock have done very, very well, he said.Holst won’t disclose his age. His dad, Aspenite Jack Holst, recently celebrated his 100th birthday. “My goal is to live forever,” Les said. “I haven’t figured out how to do that yet.”
Holst is raising hell again and browbeating the City Council. Mayor Helen Klanderud said she welcomes all opinions, including those of Holst, whom she has known for years. She said Holst is able to bring up angles of an issue that otherwise might not be considered.On the other hand, he frequently leaves Aspen for long stretches of time and loses track of issues or might not fully understand the history of a topic, according to the mayor.”He comes back to town, something catches his interest and he starts in again,” she said. “I think he shoots from the hip, and that’s all right too.”Holst agrees that his approach isn’t always the best. “The one defining characteristic of an airline pilot is you’re never wrong,” he said with a chuckle.In his exuberance to share his view on a topic, he sometimes comes on too strong and offends rather than enlightens, he said. “I’ve mostly come from anger, and it hasn’t worked.”Sometimes he just can’t help himself. The changes in Aspen demoralized him to the point where he was going to leave town. He listed his funky, post-World War II l Pan-Abode log home on Francis Avenue for sale while building a home in Florida three years ago. He was ready to write Aspen off. “You can only lose so many battles,” he said.On a return trip to Aspen he happened upon a real estate agent showing the place to a prospective buyer. Holst said the broker explained what could be built on the lot if the house was scraped. Before his heart could break, Holst and his wife, Ellen, pulled their place off the market. Since then, they have spent more time in Aspen and Les has occasionally fired off a letter to the editor or attended city hearings on issues that interest him. When regulations encouraging infill development were approved three years ago, for example, he complained they would “ruin” Aspen by allowing developments that exceed the historic scale.This spring something snapped. An accumulation of events spurred Holst to form his unnamed group and voice their concerns to the council. He watched as several projects were approved that transformed small lodges into mega-properties. Lot splits were approved on sites of historic houses, allowing more street-scape development.
His horror culminated with the height variance for the free-market portion of the development to replace the old Limelite lodge.”I knew we had to do something pretty soon. We were in deep shit,” he said.In a risky move to spark interest, Holst penned a letter to the editor of the local newspapers imploring all residents with concerns about the city’s direction to show up at the next council meeting. To his delight, about 50 people showed up. The “I Love Aspen” T-shirts were passed around before the group swamped the council chambers and voiced their concerns.Holst says the group and its goals appeal to a “silent majority” mostly consisting of “old-timers.” He said people snatched up 150 of the shirts almost immediately. Another 100 shirts have been ordered.Even though the group struck a nerve, members won’t be able to attend every council meeting. That’s all right, said Holst, because the message has been sent that there is a silent majority that still cares.”The shirts worked,” he said. “They did what they have to do.”At the core of all of Holst’s efforts is a message so simple it frustrates him that it’s not more easily grasped: Aspen’s appeal hinges on the human scale of its mining-era architecture.He’s determined to hammer that point again and again with the council. It might even require bending the rules again.”My life has always been about extremes – nothing in the middle,” said Holst.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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Aspen and Pitkin County have the largest black bear population and as such, are hoping for a big portion of a Colorado Parks and Wildlife grant to help educate and enforcement rules around securing trash.