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New life for old homes

Janet Urquhart
Developer Greg Hills new office will be in one of the renovated Conner cabins. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.
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They are a throwback to another era.A trio of quaint miner’s cottages in Aspen’s downtown core, they stand as a rare reminder of simpler times, when modest homes lined many a residential street in the then-booming mining town.The Conner cabins along East Hopkins Avenue behind City Hall have long provided a touch of the mining era, even as Aspen has transformed from funky to froufrou.While most of the town’s other mining cottages are now but entryways to far larger luxury homes, the existing additions to the rear of the Conner homes are barely discernible from the original houses – small clapboard add-ons that are decades old themselves.

Out back, sagging garages along the alley would prove an impossible fit for an SUV. There’s a decrepit shed in one yard and the remains of a clothesline in another. The lawns sport dandelions and the occasional tulip – no manicured landscaping here.Passersby from out of town eye the cottages incredulously. They are a true Aspen anomaly – a striking element in a square block of downtown Aspen that has essentially remained frozen in time for more than a century.Now that block, which also contains City Hall (the old armory) and St. Mary Catholic Church and rectory, is slated for dramatic change.The planned redevelopment of the three cabin properties may begin as soon as next month. When it’s done, the historic homes will be restored for use as commercial offices and three new, three-story residences, dubbed “the lofts” will rise up behind them. The project received the Aspen Historic Preservation Commission’s blessing in April. Members praised developer Greg Hills’ sensitive approach to the redevelopment.So did Claude Conner, whose family acquired the first of the cabins close to 80 years ago.

“I wanted to see the houses restored like they are going to be,” he said. Conner’s parents, Melton and Margaret Conner, both born in Aspen in the late 1890s, purchased the little house on the corner of Hopkins and Hunter sometime in the 1920s and raised four children there. Melton Conner delivered coal for the Koch Lumber Co., Claude said.The house next to City Hall was later purchased by Claude’s grandparents, while his parents purchased the middle one from neighbors as an investment, renting it for $40 a month, he recalled. The middle house had been moved to the property from near the base of Aspen Mountain.The family has been approached repeatedly over the years by prospective buyers, including the city, Conner said. They found the right fit with Hills, managing partner of Austin Lawrence Partners, which has several other Aspen projects to its credit.Hills has an option to purchase the properties from the Conners, including Claude and his two sisters.”Jane and I have always enjoyed bringing things back to life – not just taking a bulldozer to them,” Hills said. Jane is his wife and business partner.

“This is what I really fought for – the three little houses are going to be restored just the way they were,” Conner said. “What you see there now is not what they originally were.”Initially, Hills and architect Michael Noda of OZ Architecture in Denver proposed residential additions to the cabins, but with city encouragement, they designed a project that retains the little houses as distinct structures with commercial uses to ensure they are vibrant.”Having commercial use in the cabins means the lights will be on – there will be activity in the cabins,” Noda said. “The new residential structures are sort of a backdrop to the historic cabins.”The lofts, though three separate residences, will be very close together – much like buildings of old in the commercial core. The architecture of the first two floors of the residences will be patterned after the historic mercantile buildings of downtown Aspen, with a recessed third floor of a more contemporary design, Noda explained. Ten feet will separate the cabins from the new buildings.At 31 feet, the new structures will be 15 feet lower than what’s allowed by zoning.”They would have been such tall structures at that point, we were afraid they might dwarf the cabins,” Hills said.

The allure of the cabin parcels to a developer is obvious. The properties contain a fraction of the square footage that the existing zoning would allow. And Hills’ plan falls within the city’s limits.”Of all the things that could have happened there, I think this is really going to be a good project,” said Chris Bendon, head of the city’s Community Development Department.When work begins next month, the outbuildings in back will be razed and the cabins will be delicately moved to the rear of the site to make way for excavation of basements. Then, they’ll be returned to the street, but closer to the sidewalk than they currently sit.Crumbling siding will be removed from the middle cottage; clapboard will be saved where it can be and new roofs will be installed. Additions on the backs of the cabins will be removed, and enclosed front porches on two of the homes will be removed; the historic, open porches that once graced the cabins will be restored. Altered windows will be restored to their historic proportions.The entire project, including preservation of the cabins and the new construction, will cost $9 million to $10 million, Hills estimated. By this time next year, the cabins should be restored; the lofts should be finished in spring 2007. All six of the structures will be sold; the Hills family intends to own the middle loft and Austin Lawrence Partners will take the middle cottage for its offices, Hills said.Prospective buyers for the other buildings are already in line, he said.

Some longtime Aspenites have lauded the plans, according to Jane Hills. They stop the couple on the sidewalk to praise the preservation effort.”At least the ones that are for the project are excited about the transformation,” she said.But one Aspen native and former member of the HPC wasn’t particularly pleased when details of the project were first reported last year.”Surely one of the most historically intact blocks in town deserves a project that is more compatible in massing and scale than that which is proposed. Not only does the new development overwhelm the historic structures, it destroys the historic context and setting of the entire block,” wrote Lisa Markalunas in a letter to the HPC and The Aspen Times.But the cottages are slowly falling apart, even if they are an appealing reminder of Aspen’s old days, Hills contends.The white cottage on the corner of Hopkins and Hunter has been empty since Claude’s older brother, Warren, died in April 2001. The brown cottage, closest to City Hall, has been vacant for about 40 years – Claude’s son, Kevin, has been residing in the middle gray cottage.

The sky is visible through the roof from inside the brown cottage, which is clearly in the worst shape of the three.”They couldn’t stay like this forever. At some point, this one will fall down,” Hills said with a nod to the long-vacant cabin. “It will be a challenge, but we definitely will save it. We’re surprised it hasn’t collapsed from the snow.”The cabins – particularly the brown one – were in danger of “demolition by neglect,” noted Amy Guthrie, the city’s historic preservation officer.All three of the houses, incidentally, will be repainted in new shades that have yet to be selected.”We’ll try to go with colors they would have used a hundred years ago,” Hills said.And sunflowers and sweet peas – two traditional flowers of old Aspen – will bloom in the yards along the historic block of Hopkins Avenue.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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