Willoughby: A building is only as good as its foundation | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: A building is only as good as its foundation

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
The original location of Crystal Palace, on Hyman Avenue, featured a false front.
Willoughby Collection

I found more old houses in Leadville than in Aspen when I shopped for one, decades ago. Most of Leadville’s old houses predated Aspen’s oldest homes. Searching the Leadville listings, you’ll frequently see “date built 1888.” You may conclude that was a boom year. But bureaucracy offers an alternate explanation: after a loss of building records, any house built earlier has been recorded as 1888.

Friends and family politely called the house I bought a “fixer upper,” rather than a more accurate label, “tear it downer.” Milk spilled in the front dining room didn’t pool on the floor, but flowed all the way to the back door. The floor had been tilted, propped up just above ground level with a few flat rocks.

In contrast, most houses in Aspen had been built on a surrounding foundation. These solid foundations did not arise from building codes; they resulted from the times. Mining settlements had begun to shift from temporary camps, where a few bachelors worked a claim, to industrial mining towns with larger mines that supported many employees and their families. This change in Aspen’s demographics called for more substantial housing.

Most mining money came from stock sales rather than tons of ore produced. A mine’s promoters wanted to show that an investment would be solid and long lasting. A town’s buildings reflected this aspiration. A tent camp, or a quickly built town of false-fronted wood buildings, did not convey longevity. Brick buildings, however, implied a thriving past and future.

It is not by coincidence that Jerome Wheeler invested as much in large stone and brick buildings — Hotel Jerome and Wheeler Opera House — as he did in his mine’s infrastructure. He knew that increased sales of mining stock due to customer confidence would far exceed revenue from ticket sales at the theater.

The luxury of a choice of foundation material confronted Aspen’s builders. The valley floor offered glacial material reworked by streams, rounded granite stones that ranged from small to boulders half the size of a car. A few hours of digging and sorting produced enough rock to form a foundation. These rounded stones required much concrete to hold them together.

Square material produced a better and less expensive foundation. Feeding the uptick in home construction, Aspen’s brick works kicked into gear.

Sandstone took even less concrete than brick, and concrete was not as easily available or as cheap as it is today. Aspen’s sandstone quarry, at the lower end of Maroon Creek road, provided a third choice of substantial foundation material. Once the Midland Railroad arrived in 1887, a better quarry located up the Frying Pan River along the Midland Railroad route took over the business. Most of Aspen’s buildings in the commercial core combined local brick with Frying Pan sandstone.

Whether made of granite, brick, or sandstone, foundations lifted new structures above the average height of older buildings, a point of pride for some owners. And to more practical advantage, a foundation raised a building’s wood walls above damaging, ground-level melting snow.

Two typical, single-story houses in my family exemplify the style. One had been built on a brick foundation, the other sandstone. Each foundation lifted its house about 18 inches above the ground. This gap allowed positioning of a porch area, one half step below the door threshold and another step or two to the ground level. Neither house had been built over a basement.

When the owners added indoor plumbing and/or central heating, they dug a basement under the house. This hole resembled a cave more than a modern basement. They breached the foundation on the back side of the house, dug out a small room, assembled steep steps from ground level to the basement’s dirt floor, and then built a porch overhead to protect the underground room from snow and rain. A trap door in the floor allowed year-round entry from the porch.

Two- and three-story houses typically included basements from the time of construction. The basement walls, usually of quarried sandstone, doubled as the foundation. As I recall, the dirt floors were left as-is, with concrete added later.

Builders construct today’s structures over foundations of reinforced concrete. The test: wind, rain, snow and the rigors of a changing climate. How long will these new buildings continue to stand alongside Aspen’s original, 130-year-old treasures?

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching 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.