The near-perfect building for a beautiful spot

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Willoughby CollectionHerbert Bayer's original Sundeck was built in 1946 and improved in 1947.

Placing an unpleasant architectural structure at the top of Aspen Mountain, where skiers gaze at one of Colorado’s most beautiful vistas, was unthinkable. Funding for the first Sundeck had to fit into a tight budget, but the task was given to Aspen’s resident Bauhaus artist/designer, Herbert Bayer.

The structure was intended primarily as a warming hut with restrooms, a place to enjoy breathtaking, 360-degree views. The Bauhaus movement emphasized basic geometric shapes so Bayer chose an octagon, as close to a circle as is practical for construction.

The octagon, however, was an interesting choice because Bayer’s favorite shape was the hexagon. His amphitheater and Aspen Institute building designs incorporate hexagons, even in the most minute details.

One story of his passion for hexagons illustrates the degree to which a designer follows his architectural vision to the end product. One day when the Aspen Institute’s building was in the final phase of construction, Bayer was shopping at Sardy’s, then Aspen’s only hardware store. While wandering an aisle he spotted a flood light with a hexagonal diffuser pattern on the glass. These were a standard product, but he had not seen them before. He recognized they were the perfect detail for his new creation. Not wanting to wait for Sardy’s next shipment, Bayer, much to the consternation of the Institute, had enough bulbs for the new building air-freighted to Aspen.

Bayer was not known for practical solutions, but he did incorporate several into his Sundeck design. One was to have a fireplace in the center of the building, where it did not block any views and had several sides to warm skiers wherever they stood. The floor-to-ceiling masonry was the centerpiece of the building even after multiple additions were built.

There was another practical purpose to the centrally placed fireplace. There was no water source atop the ridge. Bayer designed an elaborate but practical water system. Instead of having a steeply sloping roof to shed snow, Bayer created a stainless-steel octagonal basin near the peak of the roof to store snow just above the fireplace. The idea was that heat from the fire would melt the snow, which would drain into storage containers and provide water for the restrooms.

The best of plans have pitfalls. In this case the water didn’t fall. The Sundeck’s location may have the best views, but it is also vulnerable to high winds. As wind circled around the roof, it blew Colorado’s famous dry powder far from the building.

During the first year of operation, water to fill the storage tanks came via the back road from the Midnight Mine, using a tank on a sled pulled with a Caterpillar. The roof was changed in summer 1947, a water system added and all the windows were replaced with Thermopane glass. The old windows were moved outside to the edges of the deck to provide a windbreak for those enjoying the view from the outside.

In later years restaurant space was added multiple times, breaking up the 360-degree views. A second ring was added around the original building for more patron space.

Bayer’s Bauhaus building was remodeled so many times that its beautiful proportional architecture became unrecognizable. Few complained when it was demolished for the current Sundeck building. In its time, however, it was the perfect building for the perfect Aspen Mountain viewpoint.