Willoughby: Story of the Ghost House consistent with Aspen’s history of community debate
Legends & Legacies
The “Ghost House” has been long forgotten because the house is no longer there, but in 1951 debate over its fate dominated community dialogue.
That was the nickname for the Henry P. Gillespie house. Gillespie, one of Aspen’s early founders and reportedly the first to become a millionaire, built the house in 1881. It cost $35,000, ($750,000 in today’s dollars), but at the time it was one of the most elegant of Aspen’s houses, a classic Victorian with lots of gingerbread ornamentation. Gillespie, one of the first mine investors to come to Aspen, bought the Spar and Galena claims on Aspen Mountain from two of the first prospectors to search the area.
The house burned in 1944 leaving an uninhabitable structure. Visitors to Aspen liked to walk Aspen’s Victorian neighborhoods and the fire-damaged house was photogenic and played the role of a ghost house. Movie star Gary Cooper, one of Aspen’s fist Hollywood regulars, was photographed with his family for a Life Magazine spread giving the house even more cache.
Walter Paepcke bought the house in the late 1940s. In 1951 he donated the land to the Aspen School District but wanted to salvage the house or at least the materials. At the time what is now called the Red Brick School was nine years old but did not include the gym or the three classrooms to the west of the gym. The school district wanted to have a playground for the school. The Gillespie lot was the preferred site since the only other district land was where the elementary school was later built, but at the time it was used as an ice rink.
Families were excited about a playground. My mother was the president of the PTA and it wholeheartedly endorsed the playground idea. Others argued that the house should be saved on that site. The School Board had to decide.
Colorado’s most popular historian Caroline Bancroft weighed in on the debate. She had just published Famous Aspen a 46-page tourist guide to the history of Aspen with pictures including an opening about Gillespie and a photo of the ghost house.
Her argument included a warning from Central City where many structures were either torn down or altered from their Victorian peak. She argued that empty lots did not attract tourists, mining-era houses did. Aspen had many empty lots in 1951 as dilapidated structures since the 1930s when Aspen felt they discouraged both investors and tourists had been taken over by the city for back taxes and torn down.
She also made the historical argument that Gillespie was a pioneer and restoring the house would be a tribute. She pointed out that Gillespie and his wife started the town’s first Sunday School, first literary society, and Henry went to Washington to get the first post office established.
Bancroft argued that at the least it should be moved and she tried to recruit donors. She said she would paint it silver, “as a reminder of early silver days.”
The School Board had local architect Fritz Benedict evaluate options. He concluded it could not economically be moved and it would be expensive restore. Herbert Bayer, Paepcke’s architect, deemed it, “a bad ruin.”
The ghost house was one of many Victorians on Hallam. Polling showed that absolutely no one wanted the house to be painted silver, and a majority, both newcomers and old-timers, felt there were enough Victorian houses but not enough playgrounds. The School Board voted to tear it down and chose the bid of two high school students, Neil and Paul Beck, to tear it down. The gym was built five years later.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at 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.
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