Willoughby: Aspen’s city hall and community center accommodate three generations
Legends & Legacies
My grandfather and parents would find the current debate over City Hall and community centers akin to the question, “Do you want ice cream on your apple pie or in a separate dish?” For three generations, Aspen residents varied use of Armory Hall as a community center and City Hall.
In Aspen’s early years, a building on Durant Avenue with a tall bell tower served as City Hall with the jail and fire station on the bottom floor and offices and council chambers on the second floor. Around 1915, the City Council ran up debt. Major mines closed in 1918 and tax revenue dropped. Eventually, Aspen ceased maintenance on the Durant building.
Aspen was left with no City Hall during my parents’ younger years — when Fred Willoughby, my grandfather, was mayor. By then, the Fire Department consolidated abandoning City Hall, and city prisoners were housed in the court house basement. The city leased space for meetings in the Cowenhoven building at $490 a month in today’s dollars. That expense remained a significant budget item throughout those austere years.
At first, Grandfather used his Midnight Mine office in the Crystal Palace Building for city business. Later, he and founders of the Bank of Aspen bought the Cowenhoven Building. After he moved the Midnight offices into the Cowenhoven, the council met in those offices.
During the 1930s, Grandfather sought, but did not obtain, Works Progress Administration funding to build a community center. The Hotel Jerome provided one of few community gathering places. Some of the schools had been shuttered. Teachers taught high school classes in a house that did not offer much in the way of community space. The city owned the Wheeler then, but the theater was not usable and the town did not have enough money for renovation. And when the city considered all needs for space, they gave priority to the Fire Department.
The Armory functioned as the community center when Fred Willoughby and Wilmina Sheehan, my parents, were young adults. High school students played basketball games there. Youth favored the location for dances, a popular social activity. And equipment that remained from when the building had served as a public gymnasium attracted athletes. My father worked out on gymnastic rings that hung from the ceiling.
After renovation in 1956, the Armory housed city offices, including the Water Department, where my mother worked. My first memory of the building’s interior goes back to when I would stop to see her on my way home from school. New linoleum and florescent bulbs outshone the floors and lighting of many other old buildings I knew.
After I checked in with my mother, I would exit by the Galena Street main entrance. From there I would head around the corner toward the city’s garage — big enough for several dump trucks — at the side of the building. Through the expansive door, I would watch city mechanics repair trucks beneath a vast ceiling. Community events could not compete for such economically valuable space. Cars and trucks had taken over Aspen’s Victorian buildings, the only spaces large enough to accommodate them. Corners of the Aspen Block and the Brand Building housed gas stations, and much of the ground floor of the Brand Building housed an auto-repair shop.
Around the same time, the school added three classrooms and a gym to what is now called the Red Brick school. The community centered around the school so those additions turned the building into the major community center. Other than banquets held at the Jerome, most events and meetings were scheduled there.
In Aspen, active residents wear several hats. For instance, entrepreneurs volunteer in schools. Parents serve in government. Health care workers organize local events. Similarly, historic buildings continue to wrap their walls in multiple configurations around Aspen’s government and community.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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