More than a business
Turning 50 isn’t a small thing for a lodge that was built when Aspen was full of empty lots and dirt streets. But these days the Mountain Chalet continues to thrive in the shadows of large, glamorous hotels and timeshares.”People back at that time weren’t looking for anything fancy,” owner Ralph Melville said last week. “They were looking for as low-priced accommodations as they could find – to get out of the cold, have a hot shower and a nice, warm breakfast. That’s what we provided.”Visitors still flock to the Mountain Chalet for those things – last week a baby with a family staying at the lodge represented the fourth generation in one family to come to the lodge. A man from Washington, D.C., is expected this February for his 50th annual visit.”We’ve had a great bunch of guests who have stayed with us, and we’ve gotten to know them quite well,” Melville said. “It’s like having old friends come back, more so than being a business.”But the way Melville tells it, the Mountain Chalet has never been just a business.
Together, Ralph and his wife, Marian, raised six children and two foster children in the lodge, living there for 25 years.Melville built the lodge himself with a friend in 1954, and by the end of the winter season he had nine rooms ready for guests.Nine additions have been added to the lodge since it was built, bringing the total to 60 rooms. Melville said guests used to joke that they came back year after year to see whether the Melvilles had a new child or a new room. Sometimes, he said, they had both.Their children are now all grown, and two of them run the Mountain Chalet while Ralph and Marian Melville remain consummate Aspen residents, skiing and keeping up with lodge operations while enjoying seeing guests return.How it beganAs Melville tells it, he was living on the East Coast when he was young, building houses and knowing that eventually he’d like to own a ski lodge. A ski racer friend who had just finished the International Skiing Federation race circuit told Melville to make sure to consider Aspen, and when the young builder visited town in 1951 he decided that Aspen was “too overbuilt.”
“That shows how brilliant I was at business,” Melville said with a laugh. But two years later he was back in Aspen when he broke his ankle skiing. He talked to locals, rediscovered Aspen’s charm and bought land on the corner of Mill Street and Durant Avenue for $2,000, a sum he considered “highway robbery.””It was a lucky break,” Melville said. “If I hadn’t broken my ankle I probably would have just skied here and left.”Melville met his wife, Marian, in 1956, while he was busy building an addition to his lodge. Marian Melville said her roommate in Aspen came back from a party one night and told her, “Ralph Melville is the most eligible bachelor in Aspen.”They married in August that year, just 13 days after Ralph fell while climbing the Maroon Bells. A wedding portrait shows Marian helping Ralph, who had a cast on his arm and a crutch to help him walk, descend the church stairs. His jaw was also wired shut that day, Marian remembers, so he had to say “I do” through his teeth.Their children, raised in the lodge, grew up playing in the lobby, which served as their living room. It’s still a cozy, homey room with a tall grandfather clock, fireplace and sturdy wood furniture.It’s a world away from the ritzy, upscale hotels that have become commonplace in Aspen with their leather couches, full-treatment spas and expensive artwork on the walls. But the Mountain Chalet’s Bavarian style was meant to be practical and sturdy, and their business has never slowed.
Although Marian said she’s somewhat sad little mom-and-pop businesses can’t afford to start up in Aspen, she also said she accepts change. The Melvilles aren’t wild about the second homes that populate this area and sit empty for most of the year, but they’ve also noticed that people who arrive in private jets to stay at the St. Regis often put their flight crews up at the Mountain Chalet.”We get down-to-earth people, friendly types staying here,” Ralph Melville said.But the Mountain Chalet has been expanding with the times. When the St. Regis was built the Melvilles took the construction opportunity to add their downstairs conference rooms. Most recently the lodge added a fourth floor of rooms and a fifth-floor conference room with sweeping views of Aspen.Each Monday night in December they’re having free dinners for their guests to celebrate their 50th anniversary.”I think to make this work you have to like people, to want to please people and to enjoy doing it,” Ralph Melville said. “If you ever feel like it’s drudgery, you don’t belong in this business.”Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is email@example.com