Willoughby: Exploring Aspen’s historic buildings

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Cowenhoven Building after its first remodel.
Willoughby photo

Historic buildings, even with multiple renovations, have a special aura, something you can experience but not easily explain. The following are places that are deeply rooted in my childhood. Turn off your phone, free your mind as best you can, and spend five or 10 minutes experiencing them, the buildings will speak to you.

The corner entrance to the Wheeler has sandstone steps flanked by thick sandstone sides curved instead of straight. Since my mother was a volunteer when the county library first opened using the Wheeler site, I spent hours inside, pouring through books but also outside on those steps.

The curved sides were like playground slides. But, the best aspect was that the curves and angle of them created a kind of bed. Add to that the heat absorbing stone, and you have a great place to lie down. Pick a sunny day, and give it a try. Enjoy the heat on your back, and tilt your head back, so you are looking upside down at the tall building above you. Note: This is the only building corner that is not a right angle joining of walls. The density of this corner of the building shouts “long-lasting.”

Sit up, and enjoy the view up and down two of Aspen’s major streets and an unobstructed view of Aspen Mountain. The gazing angle gives you a different view of the pedestrians. Count how long before someone you know walks by — this is a test of either how many tourists are out or how long you have lived in Aspen. Picture Jerome Wheeler strolling up the steps on his way to his bank and office. What would you like to ask him?

Need a few moments of quiet and reflection? Stop by St Mary’s, but do it in the winter in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is shining directly through the stained-glass windows. On the way upstairs, note that there are two stairways — what an architectural indulgence — and how wide the stairways are. Miners climbed those stairs to go to mass. Skiers, some wearing their ski boots, stomped up the same stairs. Sit in the oak pews on the west side, and enjoy the dazzling colors of the stained glass. It is one of the quietest places in town; you might even hear the creaking and hissing of the heating system demonstrating that the building is as alive as you. 

No matter what your religious beliefs, the high ceiling and dazzling light will encourage expansive thoughts. You will discover that, when you leave, even though you were only there a short time, it seemed much longer. If you need something to think about, try to envision Aspen lives at their beginnings and endings — babies being baptized, and those there for their funerals, generations of Aspenites.

In contrast to St. Mary’s, go to what has been one of Aspen’s busiest spots for over 130 years: the lobby of the Hotel Jerome. Try this at around four in the afternoon when skiers are returning from the mountain, new guests are checking in, and others heading for a quick drink at the bar.

A good place to stand for a few minutes is against the west wall of the lobby but at the northern end. Check out the entry doors. They are massive. Many miners were short in stature, 5-foot, 6-inches — not 6-5 like basketball stars today. The scale of those doors will seem even taller to you thinking about that.

Notice the width of the stairway, but picture an 1890’s guest deciding whether to take the elevator, a newfangled scary thing, or the stairs. Tall doors, high ceilings, not great for heating but good for dispersing multiple simultaneous conversations.

What does this this lobby say about the town? The building will speak to you. Watch the current guests passing by or registering, and remember they, as countless thousands before them, have contributed to Aspen’s economy whether salesmen, silver speculators, or skiers.

Go to the Cowenhoven Building, but do it during a snowstorm. Go into one of the stores on the Galena Street side that has windows circled with square stained-glass panes. Go inside, and look out the window. Now, picture me as a child when I lived in that building and looked out that window, and picture it at Christmas time. My father brought home a fresh Christmas tree from the Midnight Mine, taller than most people’s trees because of the high ceiling and, oh, the fresh pine scent. I was blessed living on the ground floor of one of Aspen’s historic buildings with a view of its busiest street.

But, in a snowstorm, it was a quiet street. In a snowstorm, the Aspen Block on the other side of the street looms like a ghost. The details of the building, especially the details of the top edge of the building stand out. Imagine horse drawn sleighs from another era passing by. At this normally busy location, in a storm, it is quiet, and, looking out the window, you can imagine almost any future. If it is the Christmas season, you can envision peace.

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