Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen’s Victorian houses were not always so charming. As first constructed, many found them to be subject to disrepair. After years spent neglecting painting and other maintenance, owners of the 1950’s retrofitted and remodeled, but not always with architectural integrity in mind.
At Aspen’s high altitude, exposed wood dries and deteriorates quickly. Keeping wood houses painted is similar to caring for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Once workers reach one end it is time to begin laying on a new coat at the other end. Foregoing a coat for a few years results in exposed wood that quickly wears to a rough raised-grain surface. You can’t just slap some paint on it and expect to achieve a satisfying appearance. The requisite hours of sanding and wood-filling are too daunting for homeowners who merely dabble in home repair.
Once you initiate repair of a 19th century house you encounter a chain of challenges. While filling holes in the exterior walls you come to realize that the reason your house is always cold is that it was not insulated. Some homeowners discovered that their house was insulated with layers of old Aspen Times, gnawed through by rodents. As you undertake insulation, you realize that you might as well install modern wiring and plumbing. Easily, the project escalates to a thorough and expensive remodel.
The 1950’s offered two readily-available innovations. Why scrape and sand the exterior walls when you could just cover them up?
Aluminum, America’s miracle metal came to the rescue. While beer and soda were still sold in glass bottles and cars were still constructed of steel, aluminum manufacturers promoted aluminum siding to increase sales. You may have seen the 1987 movie Tin Men staring Danny DeVito and Richard Dreyfuss. As aluminum siding salesmen, they traveled to every town pressuring homeowners to buy this modern mode of home improvement. Aluminum could cover up any house’s sins, had a built-in layer of insulation, and best of all for Aspen’s needs, aluminum siding did not need to be repainted, ever.
The application of aluminum siding was a project for the man of the house, at least it looked that way before you started. Aspen’s Victorian houses were built with few windows; usually at least one side of the house had none. Home tinkerers started on that blind side, securing the new shell easily, one layer at time, up to the eaves. Siding did not even have to be cut to exacting standards, just close enough to the end of the wall. There, corner pieces covered the joints for at least for a few years before they fell off. The vulnerable point in the scheme was anywhere fit was so unwieldy that water could penetrate.
The sides that had windows and doors presented problems for the amateur who sometimes took the easy way out. If you have ever read the Old House Journal, the Bible of Victorian house projects, you have seen a last page feature, the ‘remuddling of the month’. Each issue contained a photo, submitted by a reader, that illustrated a beautiful house remodeled in ways that destroyed its original character. Many showed Victorian houses clad in odd places with aluminum siding. Windows, porches, and elaborate trim, were simply covered by carpenters avoiding the challenge of what to do when modern material meets old-fashioned craftsmen’s creations.
Aspen homeowners employed another miracle substance, or so it seemed at the time, to cover exposed wood: asbestos. Inexpensive compared to replacing walls with wood, asbestos shingles easily covered most shapes and presented fewer problems around windows and doors. Hard as a rock, they were difficult to nail and to cut, not to mention the asbestos dust raised by saw blades. As was aluminum, they were sold with the promise of paint-free futures. Some houses were shingled in asbestos first, then updated later with an outer layer of aluminum siding.
There may come a day when the cost of repainting the colorful trim and walls of the modern generation of Aspen’s Victorian style houses becomes prohibitive. Will there be carbon-fiber shingle salesmen selling their wares door to door as the ultimate long-term solution?
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I try to remember to give thanks every day I spend outside, whether it be floating the Colorado or Roaring Fork, fishing an epic dry fly hatch on the Fryingpan, or teasing up tiny brook trout on a remote lake or stream. We’re spoiled rotten here, so it’s easy to be thankful.