Willoughby: Mid-1960s changes redefined Aspen’s path to the future
Legends & Legacies
The mid-1960s changed Aspen. By 1965 the town had entered a phase of rapid transition. Although those years carried less tumult than did other historic upheavals, the mid-1960s’ demarked two different Aspens.
Some of the older businesses changed hands to those of a new generation. The two pharmacies sold: Mathews Drug to Carl Bergman, and Aspen Drug to Dick Long. This transition may not seem significant, but people entrusted their pharmacists with a personal relationship. The departing owners had invested a long run with their customers. One of Aspen’s first franchise businesses moved into town, Walgreens — an unfamiliar-feeling retail brand.
Aspen’s oldest buildings took on a new look with fresh coats of paint and new businesses within. A new generation of shop keepers and restaurateurs opened up dozens of tourist-oriented businesses and filled in the remaining lots between downtown buildings.
Large-scale condos rapidly changed the physical appearance of the town. From the 1950s onward, many new homes and a few new lodges had cropped up. Additional large buildings appeared as quickly as if they had plopped down from the sky. North of Nell and Aspen Square moved business district boundaries to the east and south a couple of blocks. Mixed-use buildings with businesses on the ground floor and residences on top had dotted the town since its inception, but with relatively small residential portions. Soon, condominium projects sprouted within new neighborhoods.
Skiing drove many of these changes. Beginning with the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, the slow early growth of the sport charged forward. Americans took note of the sport and flocked to the slopes. Equipment changed. Learning to ski became easier. People whom you never suspected had it in them would take to the snow, and skiing emerged as one of the few family sports in which everyone could participate. Long lift lines during holidays left locals wishing that no one else had discovered their sport.
Newcomers quickly outnumbered old timers. Almost imperceptibly, people who had resided in town for only three or four years became old timers, at least by self-definition. A look at Aspen High School’s graduating classes shows the trend. At the beginning of the decade nearly all seniors had attended grade school in Aspen. By 1965 the graduating class split about 50-50 between natives and newcomers. In 1966 newcomers outnumbered the others.
The Aspen Music Festival made strides then too. A new tent in 1965 nearly doubled audience capacity. That same year the festival acquired the Castle Creek campus and began to build student enrollment. The Chamber Orchestra was established in 1968.
The creation of a neighboring town, Snowmass, culminated the growth surge. Ski tours on snowcats started in 1963. The lifts opened in 1967 with an entire new village at the base.
Many who moved to Aspen after the 1960s decry business changes, traffic and constant construction. They believe they had settled into a demonstrably different Aspen. Yet every detail of the town’s growth, down to the characteristics of newcomers, has proceeded smoothly on the predictable continuum established a half century ago. In contrast, the abrupt changes of the 1960s — explosive in scale — shivered the town’s timbers.
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.
The chief operating officer of RH recently said the retailer’s presence will invigorate downtown Aspen by day and wake it up at night, but they’ll need some help from the Aspen Historic Preservation Commission.
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