Willoughby: Aspen’s temporary tent with staying power

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

Side entrance of original tent during a concert intermission. Note the four tall supporting poles and inner rings of supporting poles.
Willoughby collection

The first tent went by several names, Goethe Music Festival Tent and Aspen Amphitheater, but very quickly earned the shorter moniker “the tent.” Walter Paepcke constructed it for the Goethe Bicentennial. A constrained budget and the thought it would be temporary or one time use only structure restrained its design. It endured for 15 years and became the home of the Music Festival.

The budget for the project was $60,000 ($550,000 in today’s dollars). It stretched 147 feet wide and seated 1,000 depending on how close people sat to each other. There were basically three components, a concrete bowl that dropped nine feet to its center to provide raked seating so patrons would not have obstructed views, a permanent stage-acoustics structure, and a canvas tent for summer use only that would cover everything.

Paepcke, through his Container Corporation design contacts, engaged architect Eero Saarinen. Saarinen, at the time, partnered with his father, but was gaining national attention. In addition to buildings Saarinen designed two well-known chairs, the tulip chair and the womb chair. Later in his career Saarinen designed the Washington Dulles International Airport and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

It is a small footnote, not usually repeated, that Saarinen’s interest in doing the Aspen project had a side story. His wife, Lilly, was a skier, but not your average one. She was the alternate on America’s first women’s ski team for the 1936 Olympics.

Paepcke contracted the Chicago Tent and Awning Company, later the U.S. Tent and Awning Company, to construct and erect the tent. It was a small company headed by Charles Hauser. The general idea for the tent came from a similar project at Tanglewood. Locals who last saw a large tent when circuses came to Aspen linked the analogy while gazing at the 9,200 square yards of canvas.

Erecting the tent was challenging. It took three weeks the first time and even after several years of simplifying the process it still took ten days. Hauser divided the canvas top into nine sections, one to cover the stage area and 8 panels, so workers could erect it. The structure, that towered 65 feet above grade, was supported in the center by four tall telephone poll size wood poles, and two rings of shorter ones surrounding the perimeter, to support the edges. The four tallest poles were pulled up and secured with rope (the whole project used a ton and a half of rope), then all the panels were spread out on the ground and laced together.

The biggest challenge was that the panel that covered the stage, larger than the others, had to be placed on top of the stage structure and connected to the others without tearing or ripping it as it was dragged over the sharp stage components. Once all the panels were connected the canvas was hoisted using pulleys at the top of the four poles. The final step was to prop up, from the inside, the two rings of poles, consisting of 20 25-foot-high ones, and many more shorter ones for the outside circumference, and secure everything with ropes staked into the ground.

The four poles, and the middle circle of poles, nestled in notches in the sloping concrete floor, but wind would circulate inside the tent and lift the canvas top and the poles even though they were staked to the ground. It was frightening to many not used to it when during a concert during thunder storms the poles swayed and sometimes would leave the ground and then noisily come crashing back to earth.

Houser put up, took down, and supervised the operations for the first three years. Aspen’s storms, high-altitude sun, and the erection/take down process took its toll on the tent. The canvas top had to be replaced three times in its first seven years.

The Aspen tent was not Hauser’s largest tent project. He built a tent for televangelist Oral Roberts to seat 7,000 and later one that seated 10,000.

The first Aspen tent was replace in 1965 with the Bayer Tent. There was great controversy in the early stages of planning because a permanent structure was proposed, but even though there were acoustic challenges to a tent, festival fans were adamant about having a ‘tent’.

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