What’s behind Aspen’s historic bars?
Many of us who frequent bars have spent countless hours looking at them, but precious little time seeing them. (And yes, some sort of cant see the forest for the trees analogy seems appropriate.) These are the back bars, the part of every watering hole where hard liquor is stored, where the term top shelf, which has entered the popular lexicon, comes from.I have long been fascinated by all manner of back bars, from the extremely ornate and obviously historic to those whose main purpose is as a repository for the stories that all good bars have. For back bars are not limited to pure utilitarianism. They are often decorative place-holders of tavern memorabilia of all stripes: softball team trophies, pictures of the bars anniversary party, imbibery-based bric-a-brac that spans and connects generations.Most back bars worth pondering in any context grander than liquor storage also have stories, or at least back stories, and those stories are worth telling. Here we visit five of Aspens most noteworthy, and maybe even notorious, back bars.
For many of us, bars might as well serve as banks, since such a high percentage of our income is transacted in one form or another credit, interest, loans, karmic debts, pleas for economic salvation at watering holes.Bentleys is a rare bar in that both its bar and back bar actually used to adorn the inside of a bank in England, no less. (And you wondered where all those extra pounds came from.)Sirous Saghatolesami, who owned Bentleys from 1981 until 1989, bought the bar and back bar from an antique dealer in Denver when he was remodeling the facility.I know it came from a bank in England, but Im not certain where, Saghatolesami says. I was looking for a bar and back bar, and somebody put me in touch with this guy, who was shipping the pieces over from England. He sent me some photos. I liked it and bought it. I dont remember how much it was, but it was expensive.Both the bar and the back bar were already in pieces, to facilitate shipping across the ocean. In Denver, those pieces were stripped down to bare wood and stained. They were then brought by truck to Aspen.We hired local craftsmen who did an excellent job of putting everything back together, Saghatolesami says. You cant even tell it was ever taken apart.But you can tell that the bar once called the inside of a bank home. There are remnants of cashier cages, which, to this day, magically attract people to the idea of sliding their money across the polished wood.And the bank motif is further extended to the storage locker, which has a vault as its entryway.
The Crystal Palace is not an imbibery in the traditional sense; it is, rather, a dinner theater so long-lived that it is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary.According to general manager Nina Gabianelli, the Crystal Palace, which is open summers and winters, offers original political and social satire guaranteed to equally offend both sides of the political spectrum. So, in other words, its not a place where the riffraff can just mosey in for a few dozen after-work beers. Youve got to buy your way into the Crystal Palace, by way of scoring a ticket to see the show (or stop by after the show when the bar is open to the public).Founded by Mead Metcalf in 1957, the Crystal Palace features a back bar that was built around part of Metcalfs astounding stained-glass collection.Mr. Metcalf has one of the largest stained-glass collections in the world, Gabianelli says. He has literally hundreds of pieces here at the Crystal Palace.The stained glass around which the back bar is built was procured from a church in Loveland in 1973. Like most pieces in Metcalfs collection, it was saved from the dump.He has paid for very few of the pieces, Gabianelli says. It is unbelievable, but he has procured most of his stained glass by way of salvage, where buildings were being town down and the owners wanted to get rid of the glass.The stained-glass collection serves as a perfect entree to Metcalfs other collectibles, which adorn the Crystal Palace from one end to the other. Cases in point: three chandeliers bought in New Orleans, wainscoting consisting of old hotel doors laid sideways, and a balcony railing made entirely of antique headboards.
You know youve got a fine-and-dandy back bar when its part of the local elementary schools living-history tours.The Red Onions back bar, which is probably the most noteworthy in Aspen when it comes to old-timey mountain-bar-type BS, is a focal point for kids during history tours of the city given by their obviously well-adjusted teachers.Theyre always especially interested in the bullet hole, says Red Onion co-owner David Wabs Walbert.The actual story behind the bullet hole is a tad hazy (it comes from ski-era history rather than Wild West times). But that fact does not minimize the reality that, well, theres a bullet hole right there in the back bar, which is part of the original decor from the late 1800s, when the establishment was known as the New Brick.The bar was completely restored in 1947, but that restoration focused on enhancing the Red Onions history, rather than obliterating it. Two Hungarian Gypsy figures sit atop the back bar, just as they did more than 100 years ago. (One sits near a more modern relic: a box of Flutie Flakes.) One of the most captivating aspects of the Red Onions back bar is the black books that were born in 1993.We had a lot of people coming in who were telling us stories about the old days at the Red Onion, Wabs says. Like, we had one couple come in who had been married a long time who met in the Red Onion. And we had people come in who used to bartend here back in the 40s. So we started asking people to write their stories down. We now have two entire volumes filled with those stories.Wabs says anyone is allowed to peruse those books, and, if appropriate, to add their own Red Onion memories.
Little is known about this little gem of a back bar.The bar boasts a couple of seemingly hand-carved columns, framed by two pieces of stained glass. But the best-known part of Little Annie’s’ back bar takes the form of decoration, rather than integral component. It is an old flintlock, which, according to Fleming, has a story of its own.”I don’t know if this is true, but it sure sounds good,” says Fleming. “Supposedly, the gun came to Aspen from the Navajo reservation by way of a trader. The Indian who owned the gun was put in jail because he knocked all the front teeth out of a town marshal’s mouth with the butt of the gun. The trader’s brother was the marshal who put the Indian in jail, so the trader got the gun from his brother.”It’s not known whether the marshal who arrested the Indian was the same marshal who had his dentition altered by the gun’s butt, and it is not known how the gun went from the trader’s possession to Little Annie’s’ back bar. But that’s the story Fleming has, and, by gollies, we’re sticking with it.All attempts to convince the powers that be at Little Annie’s to let me discharge the weapon were rebuked.
The J-Bars back bar is one of the most ornate in the Colorado high country. According to Jennifer Barnhart, director of public relations and sales at the Hotel Jerome, the J-Bars back macro-story has been lost to history. But certain salient facts are known.We know it was custom-made for the Jerome in 1889, but we do not know by whom, Barnhart says. We are not even certain what kind of wood its made of. We have tried to research its history further, but have only run into dead ends. Its almost like there is some deep secret. We know that its oriental motif was a tribute to all the Asian people who worked in the silver mines.Though its intricate carvings and adornments are the things most likely to catch a visitors eye, the most popular component of the J-Bars back bar is the drawer.There is one drawer in which every bartender who has worked in the J-Bar since its opening day in 1889 has carved his or her initials, Barnhart says. There are hundreds of names carved in that drawer.If its not too busy, bartenders are likely to let curious patrons step behind the bar to eyeball the drawer.
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