Picturesque historical Aspen |

Picturesque historical Aspen

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Willoughby collection Photographer Fritz Kaesar found Aspen's abandoned houses to be a source for still life.

Artists and photographers scout scenery to provide subjects for their work. Maroon Bells attracts landscape photographers, and mountainsides of turning aspen leaves match painters’ pallets. Artists and photographers were attracted to Aspen in the 1950s for an additional resource: remnants of another era.

Iconic mining era buildings and objects interrupt mountain landscapes, providing contrast between nature and human footprints. Often calendar pages feature the Central City Opera House, Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge, and Crystal City Mill.

Some Aspen area landmarks consistently attract artists. The hotel in Ashcroft, often viewed at 90 degrees, so that the snow-covered peaks at the end of the valley show in the background, tops the list. The Sardy House, especially before the addition was built, surely ranks second.

The Aspen of the 1950s provided an extensive variety of juxtaposition props – abandoned tram buckets sprouting wildflowers were popular. Listing miners’ houses, free of paint and long on grainy wood, provided texture. Broken wagon wheels, rusting farm implements, and massive mining timbers provided additional still life subjects.

To say that Victorian houses were painted frequently does not mean that their owners went wild with painting schemes. The houses, completed with Victorian detail, were sketched in pen and ink and then the artists added their deserved colors, artist’s desired colors.

Abandoned houses, before their contents were stripped by souvenir seekers, provided subjects for many artists. Bedrooms with rusting bed springs and frames, living rooms with peeling and faded wallpaper, and kitchens with wood stoves and porcelain pots delighted photographers who rearranged the refuse to fit their artists’ eyes.

Castle Creek had a rough dirt road all the way to Ashcroft that discouraged most tourists, even so, ghost town spirits held. In the 1950s the buildings still contained the possessions of not-so-long-ago residents. Artists and photographers found almost-usable chairs, work pants hanging on wall pegs, and piles of empty rusted tin cans.

Jeep trips up Taylor or Pearl passes beyond Ashcroft, led the curious to some of the most intact mining remnants. The burly rusting siding of the Montezuma Mill, a large structure that hugged the steep western side of the valley, contrasted with the fragility of surrounding columbine. Tramway towers and cables between the mill and the mine at the base of Castle Peak provided inspiration along with the rusting buckets that littered the rocky valley floor.

What some once thought of as junk that required removal, so as not to offend tourists, others considered a treasure trove. Today’s painters and photographers find objects of Aspen’s past only in museums.

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