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Willoughby: City plans and paying for them

Aspen’s first city hall shared a building with one of the fire stations with the meeting room on the top floor.
Aspen Historical Society photo

Dialogue about the planned improvements to Armory Hall, the former City Hall, and putting them on hold because the funding is not there is not a new story. The city of Aspen has had an up and down history of city halls.

The beginning of the pattern was in 1888. The City Council was leasing space for the City Hall, paying $100 a month. It occurred to council that they could acquire their own hall for half that in payments. They combined the hall with a fire station that cost, it would appear from council reports, around $2,300. ($59,000 in today’s dollars). A year later they began debating building a jail; the debate went on for some time and was complicated because the jail they were using was shared with the county, but the county believed it owned a larger share and was dictating down to not sharing a key. They put it off also because the loan rate was going to be 2% per month.

City Hall and the fire station, at the corner of Mill and Durant, overlooking the whole town from the top of the fire bell tower, served the community well for several decades. Many community groups used it for meetings and outdoor events were held in front of the building where the large doors for the fire equipment opened to create a larger space.



Beginning in 1905 Aspen City Council was less disciplined in their spending. Large sums were spent making improvements and advertising the town. Unfortunately, the city borrowed for much of it. After 1918, when the major mines laid off most of their workforce and people began moving from Aspen, tax revenues dropped rapidly and the debt from earlier had not been paid off. The city quit maintaining its city hall due to lack of funds.

The cycle repeated in the 1930s when my grandfather was mayor. With few funds the city put off having mayor/council elections. This went on for several cycles until the younger population and a core business group demanded an election. Grandfather, a relative newcomer, had impressed those key groups and won by a tiny margin. As a fiscal conservative he pushed to bring the city’s budget back to positive so long overdue repairs could be made.




The city adopted frugal budgets. The mayor and council took large cuts in their already meager salaries. Even the town’s policeman took a big cut for a year. What really rankled council was not being able to use the old town hall. Instead, they were leasing space from the Brown family. The monthly rent was the largest budget item. Having a city-owned town hall was given a low priority. Instead, in 1937, the Lions Club with cooperation and funding from council tackled the fire department challenges.

The city still owned the original town hall, but in disrepair they had rented the fire station out to a club that installed billiard tables. It became a youth hangout for a rowdy crowd. Firemen had for decades enjoyed the camaraderie of being in the volunteer fire department and the fire stations were firemen club houses. The city had taken over the Wheeler Opera House from back taxes, so the city created a space there to house the firemen.

In 1942, D.P. Rohlfing, Aspen’s major geologist and mine investor, and my grandfather bought the Cowenhoven Building, primarily to house the Midnight Mine office. Grandfather’s Midnight office had been on the top floor of what later became the Crystal Palace Building and that doubled as his mayor’s office. They made a deal with the city to rent a portion of the Cowenhoven Building, essentially at heating cost, $10/month ($150 in today’s dollars). It was a large enough space for meetings and small gatherings.

Around the same time the city also took over the Armory Hall, then knows as Fraternal Hall. Its large ground floor high ceiling section was the largest space like that in town. It hosted dances, basketball games and many other community events where there might be a large crowd. In 1944, the city moved from the Cowhoven Building into the Armory Hall where it has been City Hall until recent years when the city, finally, built its own City Hall.

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