Elizabeth Milias: Historic hysteria and the end of an era
The Red Ant
As The Red Ant marks 13 years covering the shenanigans, subsidies, scandals, secrecy and scofflaws in Aspen’s political realm, the saga of 312 W. Hyman quietly winds to a close. The longest running subject in my coverage of the city of Aspen’s dictatorial, historical hysteria and gross fiscal mismanagement features a modest 1,536-square-foot chalet-style, prefabricated “kit” home, built on a 6,000-square-foot West End lot.
From 1954-56, Herman Birlauf and his daughter Genevieve worked to assemble the kit home on land purchased for $500. It was later sold to long-time local Jordie Gerberg, who lived in the house for over 20 years. Following a city-wide effort in 2000 to formally identify historic structures, Gerberg’s house was deemed to not have any historic significance and officially de-listed. At the time, he was granted a demolition permit, but elected not to scrape the property, instead making updates by removing some of the faux bric-a-brac and other exterior decor.
In 2006, when Gerberg planned to sell the property, bureaucratic overreach and rumors of the prefabricated house’s impending demise were renewed. Enter Amy Simon, today the city’s planning director but at the time the city’s historic preservation officer. Simon, obsessed with the house, together with HPC quickly worked to historically designate the property over the owner’s objection and despite its unqualified rating by the national registry and its own 2000-era “final” ruling. When this effort narrowly failed in a 3-2 decision, Simon, undaunted in her quest to forever protect the “modern movement novelty building” from the wrecking ball and to satisfy her personal agenda, went to a sympathetic city council comprised of historic zealots of the day and successfully convinced the city to purchase the home with housing development money, designate it historic and build additional housing on-site.
Following the city’s detrimental interference with Gerberg’s real estate deal which killed it, and the subsequent decision to buy the house from him, the city’s plans to develop multiple subsidized housing units on the lot were quickly thwarted by its own land use code. No one at the city had bothered to reconcile Simon’s plans with what was actually possible. Since 2007, the house has been a non-performing rental asset. Leased initially back to Gerberg and subsequently to a series of APCHA-qualified tenants, the chalet has also been left vacant for years, yet currently houses the assistant city manager.
This historic fraud was perpetrated on the Aspen public to the tune of $3.5 million in 2007 when city council determined that the Birlauf’s kit-house somehow “represented a trend that made a significant contribution to local history” and that “its physical design embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction, or represents the technical or aesthetic achievements of a recognized designer, craftsman or design philosophy that is deemed important,” when it did absolutely nothing of the sort. Not even close. The Birlaufs, undoubtedly fine people and good neighbors, were mere witnesses to the beginning of the ski industry in Aspen and never a part of it in any way. And regarding its distinctive design and construction, 312 W. Hyman is but a 1950s-era, prefabricated kit the likes of which can still be purchased today and assembled with basic tools. A quick Google search of “chalet kit homes” yields many identical models, including the Deercroft by Modular Homeowners, Timberlake by Apex Homes, and even one on Ebay for $45K. The home is not and never was historic.
Last week, the city closed on the sale of 312 W. Hyman for $3.96 million. When city council approved the sale, it was noted that the nearly half-million dollar “profit” would be added to the housing fund. This is truly how these people think. The reality is that taking account of both rental income and expenses, the property netted the city a 14% return on its investment which is just 1.1% a year, at a time when the average annual increase in Aspen home sales price, adjusted for the Great Recession, was conservatively 5.3%. In other words, according to Zillow figures, the sales price for the chalet should have been closer to $6.8 million, a nearly 60% difference. And that’s directly to the detriment of the housing fund.
The city over-reached and compromised itself by meddling in Gerberg’s private business dealings in 2006, and as a result tied up public money from the housing development fund for nearly 15 years. As a sign of contrition, or even just to make things financially right, the city should have removed the punitive and fraudulent historic designation and torn the house down prior to unloading it. An empty 6,000-square-foot lot in this location would easily have reaped a small fortune to responsibly reimburse the housing coffers. But instead, an LLC will assume the title and the legend of, according to its dubious historic designation, “a fine example of the chalet style of architecture that exemplifies the social and architectural history of Aspen as it began developing as a ski resort,” also known as a cheap, prefabricated, chalet-style kit home.
And so the story ends. Or does it?
Something is not historic simply because you want it to be. The Red Ant encourages the new owners to challenge city’s the fraudulent historic designation on their property. Contact TheRedAntEM@comcast.net
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