Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
November 9, 2011
I wrote a column a few weeks ago in which I expressed my deep disgust at the development antics of the Hecht family, who seem to be the latest in a long line of Roaring Fork vandals – eager to loot Aspen, just as the original tribe of Vandals looted Rome.
Their vandalism has been much in the news in the past week as the city council has considered trying to stop the Hecht-planned destruction of the Benton building and Little Annie’s.
The reasons for saving those two buildings are, on one hand, obvious: They are a part of the fabric of downtown Aspen, going back 40 years or more. They are reminders of how things used to be.
Their architectural merit might be debatable (more on that in a moment), but their value as a part of the community’s character should not be doubted.
Aspen is rightly proud of what it was in the 1880s and ’90s, but maybe we need to develop a little more pride in what we were in the 1960s and ’70s.
The Little Annie’s building might be hopelessly funky – and, face it, generally undistinguished in almost every way – but it has real Aspen character. It is, in fact, quite literally soaked in Aspen character (if, by “Aspen character” you mean the fluids, alcoholic and otherwise, that have been spilled and spewed all over those floors – and maybe walls too).
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It doesn’t look – or smell – like every other building on the block.
Great Aspen events have been celebrated at Little Annie’s. Great Aspen romances have been launched – and maybe even consummated – at Little Annie’s. Great Aspen hangovers have been forged at Little Annie’s.
And, yes, maybe I’m being a little gross here, but, damn it, that’s the point.
If everything in this town is going to be bland and tasteful and homogenized to “yield maximum return on investment,” then we really are doomed.
The Benton building is a slightly different case – no less valuable, but for different reasons.
Let’s start by getting personal. It is not some semianonymous “Benton Building.” It was the home and studio of Tom Benton, a longtime local architect, artist and activist who built that building (and covered the roof with old printing plates from The Aspen Times).
Tom, who died not that many years ago, was one of the people who fought like hell to preserve Aspen’s character – how sad if his home should be demolished as part of the ongoing rape of Aspen.
If you really want to get all “historical” about it, let’s look at it this way: Aspen’s modern-day rebirth was sparked by those early “giants” of the 1940s and ’50s, the Paepckes, the Bayers, the Berkos. The people who established the bedrock of Aspen’s artistic-intellectual-athletic character.
But that early burst of creation was carried further by the artists and athletes and crazies who came in the next wave, in the ’50s and ’60s, and turned those early ideas and ideals into a real community.
Tom Benton was part, a vital part, of that next wave. His home deserves to be saved. (Even as we, the community, could not save the Paepcke house a decade ago.)
I know, some “historic preservationists” (an ugly term) argue that the building has been modified too much over the years to merit preservation. It has lost, they say, any original architectural merit it may have had.
But that is really just a good reason to campaign for restoring that building. Let’s bring it back to what it was when Tom lived and worked there, playing his part in making Aspen such a special place that the soulless vandals could make a fortune exploiting and destroying it.
Let’s save it and restore it, not spit on it and destroy it.
(And, by the way, let’s not pretend that anyone really cares about architectural merit. The Given Institute officially had oodles of architectural merit – and that didn’t keep it from being reduced to oodles of rubble.)
But, sadly, any hope for saving those buildings seems to rest on the slim reed of the Aspen City Council – whose wisdom, craftiness and sheer courage are surpassed only by those of a baby duck.
Remember, it was that same august political body whose last encounter with the family Hecht resulted in the approval of the new Aspen Art Museum, that great wart of a building that even now is rapidly descending on downtown Aspen like a vast turd dropped by some enormous winged beast flying over on its way to Armageddon.
Will this new encounter have any different result?
Can the sultan’s chief eunuch spontaneously regrow those two tender orbs that were snipped off before he was stationed in the harem?
Science and experience both tell us no.
But perhaps we might note that The Aspen Times is currently running an online poll asking, “Should Aspen government allow the Little Annie’s building to be demolished?”
When I last checked, two-thirds of the 200 people who had voted answered a firm “NO.”
The public is two-to-one against the demolition. Will that spur the council to be a little more courageous? Hard to say.
And there was the Times poll a week or so ago that asked people what “grade” they would give the council. More than 70 percent answered “F” or “D.”
Now I realize that the people who give the City Council a failing grade might be motivated by all sorts of grievances – from the plastic-bag ban to the hydroelectric plant to the abject surrender in the face of the vandals.
But given the council’s apparent terminal unpopularity, perhaps – perhaps! – they might suddenly be motivated to do the right thing and fight – actually hunker down and fight – to save that little patch of downtown.
Unless they really, truly think there’s nothing left of Aspen’s character that’s worth saving.
Is that what they think?
Is that what you think?
I guess we shall see.