Willoughby: Aspen, what kind of town are we? | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Aspen, what kind of town are we?

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Willoughby collection New paint at the Jerome lifted Aspen out of obsolescence.

Thrill to the voice of an opera singer as the sun sets over Venice — at the Grand Canal in Las Vegas. Hang out with Mickey and Minnie — in Disneyland. Or pedal backward in time to talk with a town crier — in Old City Philadelphia. Resort towns foster a thematic identity, and Aspen is no exception.

Such identities depend on well-thought-out zoning and architectural ordinances. For instance, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Santa Barbara, California, preserve their historic appearance through requirements that new construction must emulate older styles. Cities in Arizona restrict light pollution and compete for the business of stargazing tourists.

Aspen’s original Victorian houses and commercial buildings established a ready-built homogeneous model. The town’s architects generally respected this historic ambiance. But the town did not formally move to conserve that identity until 1963, when the Aspen Historical Society promoted the preservation of Victorian structures. The extent to which Aspen retained and restored the old buildings reflected its identity as a historic mining town.

Aspen and Leadville, joined by rail during the mining era, cooperated as sister cities and competed as rivals. Leadville’s Ski Cooper opened in 1941 and forged even stronger ties to the 10th Mountain Division’s skiers than did Aspen. Yet Leadville avoided an identity dilemma. Aspen’s silver mines closed around 1950 and left the town’s brand vulnerable to a takeover by the growing ski industry. But Leadville’s mines continued operation and expanded to extract molybdenum. Leadville’s identity as a historic mining town prevailed.

During the 1930s, the Highland Bavarian project at Ashcroft launched Aspen’s first foray into ski-town identity. Ted Ryan and Billy Fiske, the developers, envisioned a Swiss village built on their experience skiing in Europe. They hired New York architect Ellery Husted as a consultant, but he came up with a different story. At the time, John D. Rockefeller Jr. financed the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, widely regarded as a visionary enterprise. Husted, enamored with the ghost town’s buildings, advised the Bavarian partners to restore those structures and evolve their ski village around that theme.

Identities trailed the sport as it spread from Ashcroft toward town. Should Aspen take on the appearance of a Western mining town or a Swiss village? As recruits to the ski industry hailed increasingly from the Alps, architects favored alpine design. Guido’s Swiss Inn (now Casa Tua) on Cooper Avenue in the downtown area provides an outstanding example with stone sides, a peaked roof and floral-draped balcony.

When Walter Paepcke bought and leased extensive Aspen holdings during the 1940s, he envisioned neither a mining town nor a ski village. Paepcke had formed the Container Corp. of America and knew how to make beautiful boxes. He hired Bauhaus artist Herbert Bayer to oversee renovations in Aspen. They made buildings such as the Wheeler Opera House and the Aspen Block more functional without changing the buildings’ underlying natures. But Bayer unleashed his geometric creativity on the Hotel Jerome and Aspen Meadows, a new lodge built for the Aspen Institute. He applied paint to the raw-brick Jerome and added “eyebrow” accents that contrasted in color and conflicted in style with mining-era traditions. Bayer also imposed flat rooftops on the Meadows, a modern design for the time, yet an unfortunate feature for the place.

Skiing also brought us architect Fritz Benedict, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, who incorporated local materials such as flagstone and log in his designs. After a flurry of counter-cultural A-frames, tipis and yurts, Aspen now brands itself as a high-end, world-class ski resort, framed in mountain architecture, rock and wood.

A persistent architectural mix distinguishes Aspen from other ski towns. Historic mining-era structures stand democratically shoulder to shoulder with period designs. Lacking Vail’s consistent age and style, and absent Santa Fe’s imposed historic zone, Aspen’s theme may be derided as “accidental authenticity.”

Nevertheless, it works.

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.


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