Willoughby: Building on the past, recycle the Crystal Palace
Legends & Legacies
The Crystal Palace building, under remodeling, has served several purposes throughout history. A new life as a hotel would not depart radically from its previous uses.
S. B. Clark built the structure in 1889 to house his wholesale commission business. Some say that Clark arrived on the first Rio Grande Railroad train to Aspen in 1887. He developed a prosperous business selling hay, grain, produce, fish, eggs and poultry. Train-car loads of potatoes, Rocky Ford melons, oranges and apples passed through the building.
The community knew Clark and his wife well. Mrs. Clark sang at events, including those at her Methodist Church. She organized community events for Memorial Day and other occasions. Notably, she sang “The Irishman’s Toast” at the Christomathian program.
Clark endeared himself to The Aspen Times by providing samples of the latest edible arrivals. The press favored watermelons and Mexican oranges.
Seemingly away from Aspen as much as he was there, Clark traveled for business. The couple, and later their two daughters, wintered in rooms at the Hotel Jerome and lived in a house on Main Street during the rest of the year. Clark rented out part of the upstairs of his building as residences for others, rather than use it for his family.
When Ada and Florence, Clark’s daughters, grew old enough, their parents sent them to a boarding school in Salt Lake City. While there, Florence nearly died from appendicitis. Mrs. Clark moved there to take care of her and stayed until the girls finished school.
Clark helped organize and contribute to a railroad car of food for victims of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. A year later, he sold his business to Ed Cooper and J. D. Van Norman. The new owners changed the business name to Aspen Commission Co. and diversified the merchandise and food offerings. They sold cigars, hence the Owl Cigar sign on the side of the building.
Later, the Midnight Mine picked up the building to use as a town office and warehouse. My grandfather, who ran the company, occupied the upstairs for his office. He lived only a block away. The company used the basement to store equipment and the main floor as a garage to service the company trucks. They remodeled the building in 1935, updating power and plumbing. During World War II, the company moved its vehicle and equipment maintenance to the mine, and opened a new office in the Cowenhoven Building.
In 1947, the Midnight sold the building to Joe Walters, who opened Aspen Cleaners. Later, Walters sold the building to Gerard and Clarabelle Gagne, who continued the cleaner business for about a decade.
Mead Metcalf had been operating his Crystal Palace restaurant a couple of doors away from the building. He bought the building in 1960 for the restaurant, remodeled, and incorporated stained glass and chandeliers. The restaurant operated there for so many years that its name became synonymous with the building.
The Crystal Palace building has accommodated truck repair, dry cleaning, tons of fruit and hay and well-dressed diners. As a hotel, its guests would find a home in history.
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 email@example.com.
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This summer in Aspen is likely to include indoor and outdoor concerts, maskless gatherings and no state or county-mandated restrictions on social distancing at restaurants or anywhere else.