Willoughby: The lowest bid saves money now, but …
August 4, 2018
Built in 1965, the Bayer Tent wowed the Aspen crowd. Herbert Bayer designed it using his favorite shape, the hexagon. Like the previous tent, the new one allowed a free flow of mountain air. And high-altitude sunlight filtered through the canvas top. But below these lofty natural elements, musicians faced a concrete stage. This fundamental flaw revealed the Bauhaus artist's shortcoming as a performing arts architect.
Musicians could list the unsuitable aspects of a concrete stage. Cellos and bases sound better with wood under them. And if wood flooring covers empty space, sound resonates more. Brass players would identify the loudest reflecting surface, concrete. Imagine a conductor's nightmare — to balance strings, woodwinds, percussion and brass on a concrete stage.
My cousin Ralph Johnson and I worked as the tent crew during 1967, and we dealt with the tent's flaws. By then, the festival staff had heard the musicians' message loud and clear: Do something about the stage.
It may appear negligent that those responsible would have approved a concrete stage. But once the festival tent goes down, the stage undergoes a long, dark and cold winter, directly exposed to snow and other forms of water. The previous stage, a wood one, had succumbed to the onslaught.
The stage had several levels, each about seven inches higher than the one below with the top level the same as the stage entrance. A wood stage built in sections that could be removed and stored at the end of the season was proposed. It would eliminate one level in the process, making the top level larger but with part of it wood and the rest concrete.
No managers drew up a comprehensive list of specs. They just put the project out to bid and expected a contractor would figure out the details. In a decision not unusual for the festival, they opted for the lowest bidders, two local carpenters. Beyond low, the winning bid had come in significantly lower than that of anyone else.
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The carpenters showed up with skill saws and hammers, 2-by-8-inch framing lumber, and a pile of 3/4-inch plywood. They took measurements and discovered each level was different. The angles where the stage changed direction to reflect a hexagonal shape lacked precise symmetry, and standard framing lumber was not sufficiently straight for the scheme. A plywood platform that rests on slightly warped framing lumber would wobble a bit, and that effect would not exactly instill musicians' confidence. Add to these concerns the prospect of a 1,300-pound piano rolling into place quickly, between performances.
After a few days work with little to show, the carpenters departed. Although they had not come up with a viable plan, they had figured out that they would lose money on the bid.
The festival found a new contractor, who began work just days before the opening event. They invented a simple system. Rather than build box-type levels with no connection between them, the new contractors lapped the surface plywood over the frame. This way, each 4-foot by 8-foot section snuggled tighter to the adjoining one. Screws fastened them in place.
The contractor set up a production system with gigs to hold parts as they were assembled. The system allowed them to quickly construct all of the rectangular pieces, and then custom-fit angular "pie pieces" where they came together.
After a couple of grueling days and nights, the contractor met the deadline, and the stage satisfied the musicians. Sure, it wobbled a teeny bit and narrow gaps between sections could trip you up if you didn't pay attention, but no one let "perfect" be the enemy of "good enough."
At the end of the summer we pulled and labeled the stage parts. Although we stacked the pieces at the back of the stage, under the permanent shell, snow blew in and melted. Over several years, the warping wood contributed to a wobbly stage.
We needed a stage that would withstand winter. After the low bid solution failed, managers assigned the stage high priority. As pricey as plywood can get, Norwegian marine plywood lived up to the challenge. What magnificent, dense wood — beautiful, with no air spaces between laminations. Yes, it cost more upfront, but the new stage lasted throughout the remaining years of the Bayer 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.