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Loving life

Janet Urquhart

The world is a very small place, especially when it comes right to your door.First, though, it was opportunity that knocked for Harley Baldwin. Or, perhaps more accurately, he created his own opportunities and pushed the door open.The cultural and moneyed elite followed on his heels, along with virtually every other element of social and economic stratification that fuels Aspens love-hate relationship with itself.Both credited and reviled as an astute Aspen businessman, Baldwin is a key player in downtown Aspens landscape and social scene. A prominent commercial landlord, retailer and restaurant/nightclub owner, he unapologetically embraces some would say fostered the resorts transformation into a high-end shopping mecca. He courts Aspens movers and shakers at his swank, exclusive Caribou Club, brings the cutting edge of contemporary art to his Baldwin Gallery and enthusiastically extols Aspens virtues.Urbane and charming, Baldwin is also strikingly happy. Sprawled in a stuffed chair in the lavishly but comfortably furnished penthouse suite he shares with his partner, Richard Edwards, he swings one leg over the chairs arm and chats unabashedly about success something he does not define in strictly financial terms.I think Im blessed because I love business. Everything I do, I do because I love it, says Baldwin. There really arent that many halcyon moments in your life where, you know, youve won the Oscar. A lot of it is about just enjoying the little things.Its a message Baldwin tries to instill in students at Columbia University, where he teaches a one-day business seminar, though he says his own studies in economics and international relations at Syracuse University didnt actually include a course in business.One of the things I try to teach is, its good to make some money, its really quite thrilling, but youve got to enjoy your life and I see so many rich people who, you know, dont seem to really be loving their life dont particularly love what they do and I think thats the key that passion for what you do, he expounds.Its really important to teach people to create the life that they want to live.From the ground upBaldwins own plans werent clearly defined when he headed West in 1968 at age 23 with a military deferment and $1,200 in his pocket. An Air Force brat born in Chicago, Baldwin laughs out loud at the suggestion that he came from money.This is a dirty rumor, that I was heir to a major fortune. Hilarious, he grins, brushing his hand across thinning blonde hair.Nor, he says, was he a ski bum, though hed been to Aspen before making it home. His already-diverse rsum included stints with the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign and at Show magazine, as well as welfare work in Brooklyn.Baldwin plunked down a grand for the most decrepit trailer in the Woody Creek trailer park, which he later sold for $2,000 after moving it to the Smuggler park in Aspen. He spent his other $200 on crepe-making wares after spotting Camilla Sparlin restoring a vintage popcorn wagon in Stans Body Shop in the Brand Building. Baldwin didnt own the wagon, but for a time he ran the crepe business inside it. Customers can still buy crepes at the Popcorn Wagon.Next, he linked up with Jean Ingham to purchase land on the newly constructed reservoir on the Fryingpan River above Basalt, which they subdivided to develop Ruedi Shores.I got a bunch of girls to loan me money based on the fact that they would get subdivided land for the money they gave me for the down payment, Baldwin recalls. They all ended up making like 20 times their money.Living in a cabin on the property at Ruedi, Baldwin remembers toiling with a chain saw to clear future roads, then bathing in a beaver pond and heading into Aspen in the evenings to sell real estate. By the time Ingham returned from a month in Mexico, Baldwin had sold 36 of the 45 lots.Then, he purchased land on Smuggler Mountain, which has since been conserved as open space, and ran a mining company for John Wayne and A.N. Wang, advising them to forget about silver and focus on the value of their real estate.Intent on acquiring a downtown Victorian, Baldwin then made an offer on the Collins Block building on the corner of Hopkins and Mill, which then-owner Robert O. Anderson sold instead to Dave Sardys lumber operation. Baldwin turned his attention to Andersons Brand Building.For years and years, I was theoretically making money, but there was never exactly any money in my pocket, because any time I had 50 cents, I would go try to buy some more land, before I had any idea how I was going to pay for it, Baldwin says.Quintessential AspenIn 1971, the Brand Building was worthy of condemnation, according to Baldwin. It contained a garage and body shop, with gas pumps out front on the corner of Hopkins and Galena, and a funky ski-rental shop.Theorizing the property was worth the price of the land minus the cost of demolishing the building, Baldwin offered Anderson $163,000.I still didnt have any money in my pocket. He said, Will you give me $165,000? I said, Will you finance it for me for five years? He said, Yes. Today, Pitkin County assesses Baldwins holdings in the Brand Building at $14.7 million. His Collins Block building is similarly valued.Baldwin said he learned later that Anderson, a New Mexico oilman and second president of The Aspen Institute, had turned down four times that sum in cash from someone who planned to tear down the Brand Building. He apparently liked Baldwins plan to restore the stately, peachblow sandstone structure from the mining era.I scraped up the down payment, borrowed money from various people, but didnt take any partners, Baldwin said.Inside, he built an indoor mall what he calls absolutely the triumph of the hippy world with a variety of independently owned businesses and an upstairs residence he shared with his then-wife, Lee, of whom he speaks glowingly. She resides in California now.It was sort of the quintessential thing of Aspen in that period, Baldwin said. Its different now. I love it just as much, but that was a great period.An early advertisement for the newly remodeled Brand Building listed La Bodega, a wine cellar; the original Poppycocks restaurant eight stools for diners who could order crepes, fruit smoothies and espresso, among other things; Aspen Tea & Spice Co., featuring fresh coffees, teas and spices; The Sub Shoppe; Aspen Ice Cream & Phosphates, and other shops.It was way ahead of its time in terms of the flow and feel of the place, said Georgia Hanson, a longtime Aspenite and Syracuse chum who Baldwin lured out to work for him on the Brand Building. Harley has a great vision or sense of what will work. It was before the word was coined, but the Brand Building was yuppie.Since Baldwin didnt have the funds to complete the refurbishment himself, he drew chalk marks on the floor and left it to his tenants to build their dividing walls and finish their spaces.I said, well, the rent should be $8 a square foot, but since I cant afford to pay for the walls, the rent will be $5 a square foot, and everybody was happy, he said.Asked what a square foot of retail space in the Brand Building fetches today, where upscale boutiques like Gucci and Louis Vuitton occupy space alongside the Baldwin Gallery, he shifts for a moment, smiles sheepishly and offers, vaguely, a multiple of that. Its between $100 and $200 per square foot, he finally proffers.If there has been a disaster among his undertakings, its the 59th Street Bridgemarket in New York, where neighborhood opposition watered down his plans to restore a vibrant market in a glorious building beneath the 59th Street bridge. Today, a sanitized version of what he envisioned exists Baldwin calls it a dream destroyed but he still owns a 25 percent share in the enterprise.Back in Aspen in 1988, he purchased the former Crestahaus Bed and Breakfast and adjacent land on Aspens east side with visions of creating a world-class spa, where guests would check in for a week of pampering.City planners at the time thwarted the plan, Baldwin said, and thus squandered a serious opportunity for Aspen.Some of Baldwins squabbles with City Hall are legendary. After he erected a flagpole atop the Brand Building to fly the Stars and Stripes, he was notified it required a building permit. He sued, but eventually relented and paid the $5 permit fee.Despite his grumbling about the fate of the Crestahaus, which he ultimately sold, Baldwin had his hands full with the Collins Block building, which he finally bought in 1988, 17 years after his first attempt. The striking red-brick building now houses his penthouse, high-end shops and, in the basement, the fabled place to see and be seen the Caribou Club.Its the kind of place that gets mention from celebrity gossip columnist Liz Smith, when Diana Ross dragged Baldwin out of bed on New Years Eve to dance into the wee hours of 2004.The exclusive club opened in 1990. Locals paid $1,000 to join, but membership was free for cops, firefighters and the mountain rescue team. A contingent of Aspen despised the concept of a members-only club and its elitist implications.The more of a cause clbre it became, the quicker we sold memberships, Baldwin said. What is interesting, I think, is the fact that, although some people had great fear about what the Caribou Club was going to do to society in Aspen, its turned out to be a place that, yes, does have a few celebrities and the rich and famous, but also has a real cross section of the people that make Aspen work.Its 14 years old, he added. In club years, thats 250 years. We would not be as successful as we are without people really enjoying it and having a heck of a good time.The clubs staying power rests on its members-only policy, Baldwin says. Of course, temporary memberships are available $500 per couple, or $1,000 during peak periods. A regular membership is $3,000 to join, plus $1,000 annually, or $10,000 for a lifetime membership.Theres a waiting list, but its not terribly long. You can skip to the front of the line if youre really adorable, he adds. Especially if youre a great female dancer, because I love to dance.The art dealerRunning the Caribou Club is a lot of hard work, but thats not Baldwins job. Im an art dealer, he declares.The gallery, he says, starts with his partner, Richard, who left a high-profile international law practice in London to reside in Aspen after the pair met at the Caribou Club a decade ago. Edwards, the majority partner in the Baldwin Gallery, runs the business, and Baldwin deals with the artists.The duo quickly eschewed the New York galleries that were running the contemporary art scene and boldly dealt with artists themselves.Either we were going to directly represent the best artists in America, or I didnt have to be in this business, Baldwin said.Many of the worlds serious collectors pass through Aspen, and they frequent the Baldwin Gallery.All the artists in New York and L.A., which are the centers of art in America, know that the Baldwin Gallery is a major institution for selling important work to the best collectors in the world, he said.The gallery began with 1,200 square feet in 1995 and, after several expansions (including the ambitious excavation of a basement beneath the Brand), is now an 8,000-square-foot space that regularly offers what Baldwin terms museum-quality exhibits.The indisputable international reputation of most of the artists they show establishes them as one of the most important galleries between New York and L.A., agreed Dean Sobel, executive director of the Aspen Art Museum.Dedicated follower of fashionEqually unique are Aspens Rodeo Drive-style boutiques.Says Baldwin: Aspen has the best shopping between Chicago and L.A., and I would argue that its probably better than Chicago. His buildings hardly house the only glitzy shops in Aspen, but theyre home to an array of them.I essentially believe in fashion. I think art and fashion are inextricably entwined, Baldwin said. Fashion, whether you like it or not, is an important part of the economy of the world.Though some would blame Baldwin for ushering in the era of ostentation and conspicuous consumption in Aspen, he suggests he was simply running ahead of the mob.Whether a perspicacious businessman or ubiquitous and bloviating agent/landlord, as detractor Bill McDonough put it in a letter to the editor, Baldwin is likely both an instigator and a reflection of present-day Aspen.But McDonough, a former ski clothing retailer, believes Baldwin and other commercial landlords have sold a once-unique community to upscale chains in the name of profit.As a citizen of the community, I would give him a failing grade, McDonough said. He has simply tried to line his own pockets.I wouldnt mind so much if these guys would just stand up and admit what theyve done, McDonough seethed. Theyve made a lot of money and I dont resent that. I just dont want them to think theyre Mother Teresa out there. Theyre greedy landlords.On the other hand, notes Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud, Baldwin keeps retailers in his street-level storefronts. The much-lamented proliferation of timeshare sales offices elsewhere in the core hasnt spread to his buildings.Im of the mind that what we need here is the diversity, she says. I think the Pradas, the Louis Vuittons, the Fendis add a certain cachet here. We also need the funky stores.But, as ski resorts go, the designer [boutiques] that are here are also unique to Aspen.Baldwin, she believes, cant be blamed for Aspens glitz.Does it seem unusual that Aspen would have evolved in this fashion? I dont think so, Klanderud said.Baldwin, for one, gushes about Aspens mix of culture, shopping, dining and recreation, and the fascinating people it draws. When he isnt hobnobbing with them here, he and Edwards find them in New York, where they spend roughly two months a year at their Central Park South residence, or abroad, where they spend another two months or so each year.Richard and I sort of work all the time, but what were doing for work is dealing with the most interesting people in the world either great artists or great collectors or fashion designers.I dont have an office and I dont have a secretary, but I essentially walk down a street anywhere in the world and I do business, Baldwin said. The world is a very small place.Janet Urquharts e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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