Aspen Princess: Home sweet home

Alison Berkley Margo
Aspen Princess

When Ryan and I bought our house in 2012, it had been on the market for five years.

Buyers were probably put off by the low ceilings, the spiral staircase and the trap door in the ceiling that led to the second bedroom. Or maybe it was the fact that the master bath was no where near the master bedroom or that the master bedroom is probably less than 300 square feet and has a half-bath with saloon doors.

The location might be a bit challenging for some people, 5 miles from the nearest town with no cellphone reception or cable TV, on a dirt road with an 11 percent grade that isn’t maintained by the city. Oh, and two of the bedrooms aren’t connected to the main part of the house but have been converted into a mother-in-law apartment on the lower level with a separate entrance.

Of course, Ryan and I fell in love with it immediately. We loved the lot and the views and the privacy, with the Frying Pan River out our front door and the majestic Seven Castles out the back. We loved that it was a decent-size lot, almost 2 acres tucked into the mountainside. We liked the ample deck space and the A-frame. I think it evoked positive feelings for both of us: a ski chalet or a summer cabin by the lake, the ’70s of our childhoods, of oversized collars, facial hair, disco and bell-bottom jeans.

Now that we’ve been living here for five years, we’re itching to make it more ours. All we’ve done on our own so far is tear out the ugly green carpet on the main floor and replace with plywood subfloors we painted gray with outdoor paint. It looks cool, but like one of our best friends said when he first saw it, “It looks like you need to install a floor.”

We managed to create a beautiful little nursery out of what was essentially an attic bunk room, and the babe loved his sweet little nest from the start. It’s cute and cozy, and maybe that’s part of why he’s slept through the night since he was just over a month old. With his crib nestled by a window that overlooks the river, he has the best views in the house.

Once I invited an architect friend who specializes in renovating and preserving old homes in Aspen to come take a look. I thought he’d have some good advice for us, considering our house is 47 years old. I know it’s not of the historical preservation variety, but still.

“You can’t fight the funk,” is all he said, and he charged me $150 for the privilege. Before he left, he added, “You should just tear it down and start over.”

A few years later, I invited another architect friend over to get his opinion. Before I could say “kitchen center island” or “bathtub with a view,” he started rattling off big numbers about how much it would cost for this, that and the other thing, about plans and permits and code and stuff that had nothing whatsoever to do with wide-plank hardwood flooring or Carrera marble counter tops.

“Maybe we’ll just keep it as is for now,” I wrote in an email, my mind flooded with images of collapsed floors and missing walls and drained bank accounts.

So I invited yet another friend over who is a carpenter, thinking he could maybe tackle a few smaller projects for us. He walked around the house with this look on his face that was somewhere between surprise and mild disgust, like when you take a swig of milk out of the fridge and then feel compelled to check the expiration date.

“You’d really be better off just tearing it down,” he said.

A few years ago, I interviewed Chad Oppenheim, a famous architect who bought a cabin on Red Mountain and renovated it, opting to preserve the existing footprint, not because he had to but because he wanted to. Forced to design within those parameters, he ended up with a wholly unique house that had a lot of small spaces, low ceilings and interesting nooks. This is a guy who builds large-scale, luxury commercial properties all over the world. Many of the projects on his portfolio don’t disclose the location and are so modern they look futuristic. Yet the kitchen in his Aspen home is small with low ceilings finished in reclaimed barn wood.

When I asked him about the kitchen, he said his wife loved to cook and that a large kitchen was inefficient. He noted that their favorite thing in the house was the bunk room they’d closed off from the living room, essentially a big closet furnished with a king-size mattress on the floor and all kinds of pillows and blankets where the kids liked to have sleepovers. He said as soon as you destroy an old home and start over, you lose that uniqueness that an old house provides, as well as its warmth.

That gave me some confidence and inspiration, too. Here’s the thing: I love my house. Sure, maybe I’d do anything to get rid of the fake granite counter tops that are an odd shade of green or think about an alternative to the deathtrap that is our spiral staircase, but I love that our home has so much character.

Despite what these Aspen architects might say, I trust my instincts when it comes to design and how I want my home to be. The last thing I want is to live in a glass box that’s all gray and white and trendy. The truth is, I don’t even like subway tiles — they remind me of, well, a subway. I guess if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that my style is anything but square.

The Princess says you get what you pay for when it comes to good bedding. Email your renovation horror stories and advice to