Tim Willoughby: A look back on housing prices and displeasure with construction projects | AspenTimes.com

Tim Willoughby: A look back on housing prices and displeasure with construction projects

Julius Berg house in 1890, above average size for a house at that time.
Aspen Historical Society photo

“Old landmarks are disappearing one by one, giving way to the rapid march of the city’s progress.” You might think that is a recent statement about Aspen, but it was an Aspen Times observation in 1891. The comment was initiated because what was thought to be the first cabin built in Aspen, one on Ute Avenue, had been removed. It was not torn down to build something new but because the mine upslope from it was increasing the size of its mine dump.

Housing construction in 1892 was evident in every neighborhood. A Times reporter walked the streets and inventoried newly built or under construction homes. He identified each one using the builders’ or the owners’ names but noted that there were so many new people he was not able to track down all their names. The article listed 82 new homes, and in addition there were many others listed doing remodeling or additions. The paper also noted that one of Aspen’s contractors had orders for 13 houses he would begin work on in the spring, but he was having difficulty finding lots to put them on.

The inconvenience of construction was never mentioned in the 1890s. There was no one moaning about empty lots turning into projects or older buildings being replaced with newer, bigger ones. Instead, there was pride in progress. Aspen was becoming a more important city with each new resident, home, business and mine. Community synergy pushed for the same goals: put Aspen on the map, attract more residents, entice more investment.

Housing and rental prices are harder to compare. Converting figures to today’s dollars shows that the cost was in no way comparable. As an example, in 1894-95 a common price was $1,000 to $1,100 ( $28,500 to $32,300 today’s dollars). For that price you could buy a four-room house with electric lights. For a little more you could get a house with plastering, high ceilings and maybe a cellar. One at that price advertised “a white coat finish as white as the day it was built.” Lower priced houses had fewer rooms and amenities and sold for as low as $5,700 in today’s dollars.

These days, a large percentage of the Times features real estate ads. In the 1890s, individual houses were not listed and rarely advertised in the paper. Four pairs of real estate agents were the big advertisers, Gill and Reynolds, Mackey and Penhale, and Stockman and Bourquin, but they did not advertise their listings. J.C. Connor was a major agent and he told a reporter of what appeared to be a major high-price sale, one for $3,000 ($81,000 in today’s dollars). What was also different then was that those agents also made or arranged the loans. It also appears that the usual down payment required was 50%.

It is difficult to make sense of what rents were as the rental prices were not often mentioned. An 1890 ad listed a two-room home for $10/month, a five-room for $30 and a six-room for $40, a range of from $270 to $1,080 in today’s dollars. From those figures compared to buying a house, it would look like renting was higher than owning. In 1894 after the Panic of 1893, rents seem to have dropped about 20%.

Residents then had an option that locals do not have today: they could build their own cabin. They could file a mining claim for a small fee, cut the trees and build a home. If they did not want to go to all that trouble, they could pitch a tent anywhere out of town. They did not have to rent an apartment; they could live in a boarding house and even get their meals.

That would keep prices down. It appears that even then Aspen had higher real estate prices. Denver had a similar population boom during those years, but as one Aspen real estate agent-mining stock seller commented, “Buying lots in Denver is not a good investment as there are streets that extend miles with lots for sale.” By 1895 Aspen’s flat land lots were mostly sold and covered with houses.

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 redmtn2@comcast.net.