Willoughby: The awnings of Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: The awnings of Aspen

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Willoughby collection Awnings, popular in 1890s Aspen, shaded the second floor of the Wheeler.

Most buildings in Aspen sported awnings at one time or another. The digital Aspen Times at the Colorado Newspaper Collection revealed unexpected insights about these ordinary-seeming window ornaments.

As with many architectural details, the use of awnings arose from a combination of technological advances and popular trends. After the Civil War, awnings became commonplace nationwide. The manufacture of plumbing pipe brought about a price drop in the manufacture of durable awning frames, and installers could attach them more simply. At the same time, steam replaced sails to move boats and canvas sail makers needed a new product to keep them in business.

Awnings began to appear in photographs of Aspen around 1886. Their popularity spiked in the early 1890s. It seemed as if every store in the downtown area needed one to compete with its neighbors. Even the post office and jail added protection from the sun. Many awnings worked to keep window shoppers dry during rain as they peered through store windows. Merchants could arrange merchandise in display windows without fear of direct sun damage. The colorful fabric also spruced up brick buildings and whitewashed storefronts.

To add an awning today requires time at City Hall to fill out applications and secure approvals. More than a century ago the process in Aspen did not differ much. The Committee on Streets and Alleys oversaw the approval process. The awning ordinance back then called for an 8-foot clearance from the top of the sidewalk — some were raised board walkways — to the bottom of the awning.

J.M. Bradley’s Upholstery and Mattress Factory provided custom-built awnings. Bradley, who already stocked fabric for furniture, expanded into the awning business.

Like bright flags, awnings gave Aspen a festive feel, more colorful and textured than today’s downtown blocks. But they harbored a downside. Aspen’s summer challenges include high wind. An oncoming thunderstorm would launch flimsy awnings into the streets before anyone could quickly roll them up. The risk paid off in advertising. If you put an awning on your building The Aspen Times reported it. If your awning blew off, you made the news again.

In 1898 the awning at the Aspen Dry Goods store tore loose from the building and shattered the rare, half-inch-thick plate glass window. No reports of injuries surfaced.

As you may expect, some proprietors tried to get away with not removing their awnings in the winter. In 1899 a half-ton of snow fell off the bank building and collapsed the awnings below. Of greater concern, awnings burdened with snow drooped and caused a nuisance. The town marshal patrolled the streets and informed building owners when they violated guidelines to keep sidewalks free of snow and ice. Soon he had to enforce codes on awning height.

Winter awnings became a common complaint of the Times editor: “Much annoyance to pedestrians would be avoided by the removal of the awning in front of stores during the winter. Some of them hang so low that they endanger the hats of passers-by. A gentleman passing along Mill Street the other night had a new hat completely ruined by running against the frozen edge of an awning. When the snow thaws, the people on the streets get the benefit of the drippings. Awnings are of no use in winter. Let them be taken down.”

The dictates of fashion shift with the season. In summer, when Aspen’s entrepreneurs yearned to don big city “window dressings,” awnings fulfilled their fantasies. Like spike heels in winter, however, the awesome building accessories transmogrified into horrendous hazards.

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 redmtn2@comcast.net.