Red Onion paintings draw interest

John ColsonAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN The Red Onion closing party is still a week away, and already the feeding frenzy for memorabilia from the bar has begun – sort of.The Little Bear Antiques store on Hyman Avenue has been advertising a group of five paintings that hung in the Onion, Aspen’s most venerable bar and restaurant, back in the 1950s and perhaps early ’60s.The Onion is due to close at the end of March, and there is considerable speculation around town as to what will happen to the historic furnishings, such as the ancient bar and booths, if the space is converted to some other use.And while the paintings are not part of the Onion as it is today, they are part of its history.The paintings, by Hans Bartosek and G.E. Butler, depict scenes from Aspen’s early years.One shows Ute Indians on horseback fleeing the burning of Burnt Mountain, next to the Snowmass Ski Area; another depicts the Red Onion as it was in the 1890s, complete with “working girls” in various stages of undress in the brothel windows on the second floor; a third shows covered wagons rolling beneath Mount Sopris near Carbondale, though the artist’s perspective is uncertain.Little Bear owner Harvey Gilmore said the paintings came to him from a former Aspen resident and builder, John Huebinger, who now lives in Glenwood Springs.Huebinger got them from former Red Onion co-owner Werner Kuster, who recalled that the paintings hung in the Onion through much of the 1950s. He said paintings were part of the interior decorating that the two artists did at the Onion.At one point late in that decade, Kuster recalled, he hired Huebinger to do some remodeling at the restaurant, not knowing that his partner, Arnold Senn, also had hired someone to do the work. Senn’s contractor got started first, putting Huebinger out of a job.To make it up to Huebinger, Kuster said, he gave him the five paintings.”They’re not all that fantastic, to tell you the truth,” Kuster said Thursday.But Gilmore, who conceded that the paintings are not great art, added, “What these pieces lack in artistic value, they make up for in historic value.”Although reluctant to give the price of the paintings, he ultimately admitted that all five are on sale together as a package for $95,000. And he said he has an interested buyer with sufficient wall space in his Connecticut home.Huebinger said Thursday that he thinks the paintings “need to stay together, because it’s the history of Aspen.”Hearing of the price tag, Kuster gasped and said, “That’s typical Aspen.” He could not recall the exact year they were finished, but remembered that they hung in the restaurant for years.Huebinger said he got the paintings from Kuster in 1964.As the countdown to the Onion’s closing continues, locals are audible speaking in tones of veneration for the old bar, and of outrage at the idea that the space may soon sport a high-end real estate office, retail shop or something else.Proprietors David “Wabs” Walbert and his wife, Ellen “Iggy” Walbert, who have been running the Onion for more than two decades, have scheduled a blowout farewell party for March 31.George Sells, owner of the Omnibus gallery immediately next door, said Thursday that he still expects eviction when his current lease expires later this year, although the fate of the gallery space is not known.According to representations to the Aspen City Council in December, proprietors of the nearby Cache Cache restaurant, Jodi Larner and Chris Lanter, were to manage the bar. But according to a report March 24 in the Aspen Daily News, Larner said the negotiations had broken off, and she and Lanter were no longer involved. She declined to give specifics.Efforts to reach the building’s current ownership partners, Andy Hecht and Ron Garfield, were not successful.John Colson’s e-mail address is