Lum: Preserving the splinters | AspenTimes.com

Lum: Preserving the splinters

Su Lum
Slumming

While the City Council is (I hope) considering reining in the Community Development Department, whose recommendations are so often at odds with the public, they also should turn their attention to the Historic Preservation Commission.

I was shocked to read a statement by Ward Hauenstein that Mark Hunt's original plan for the Bidwell Building was for one story but the Historic Preservation Commission insisted on two stories and that his original plans were for setbacks but the commission insisted on a lot-line-to-lot-line building.

The commission also was fingered for asking (insisting?) that Hunt paint the Gap building white and for approving the salmon building that replaced the parking lot next to Tom Benton's.

Years ago, there was a battle between Rita St. John and the city (I think this was before the Historic Preservation Commission) when she painted the face of her Galena Street shop purple. The upshot of that confrontation was the decision that the city could not dictate exterior colors, and it has been my understanding that the Historic Preservation Commission has not had control over colors, either.

What I suspect is that rather than demanding that the Gap building be painted white, it was, in some nuanced way, implied that a white building would be more likely to be approved by the commission.

It looked about as out of place as a London bank in Stringtown, and I believe it was Hunt who later toned it down to a more tolerable off-white.

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When I was on the Historic Preservation Task Force, which represented two years of mind-numbing futility, we had a discussion about modern buildings being tacked onto old Victorians.

Someone on the task force asked if this were an actual rule and, if so, why. We were told that it was not a rule but that it was a preference of the Historic Preservation Commission and that all the professionals who represented the Victorian owners knew it. And so it came to pass that with the word out that modern buildings smacked onto the old buildings were most likely to be approved, the Victorian owners were advised just to go along with it.

The idea was that additions to old buildings shouldn't pretend to be old themselves — the public should be able to instantly discern what was old and what was new.

This philosophy — in my opinion — has resulted in some ridiculous-looking architecture.

An example is a sweet Victorian two houses down from me that got whacked down to the size of a birdhouse while the entire yard in back was bulldozed down at least two stories right up to the fences on its sides. Now a huge addition is being built behind the birdhouse, which probably will serve as a mud room. Is this how we want our historic preservation to work?

While we're reconsidering things, we should be alarmed that the makeup of the Historic Preservation Commission consists of a historic preservation officer, a planner/technician and a board of seven residents plus two alternates. Of these nine board members, four are architects, two are real estate agents and one is a multiple-hotel owner. The other two are Patrick Sagal, a massage therapist, and longtime resident Nora Berko. Does this sound like an unbiased group?

Our Historic Preservation Commission shouldn't reflect even a scrap of self-interest. One time many years ago, a desperate homeowner cried, "What can I do to get approved?" and one of the Historic Preservation Commission members replied with a sneer, "Hire one of us."

I think it is time to begin televising the Historic Preservation Commission meetings on GrassRoots. Everyone in power claims to be working so hard to save Aspen while it is crumbling around us.

Perhaps if we watch the commission at work, we could identify the problems. We might conclude that Historic Preservation Commission members should be elected, as they are for the hospital and school boards, rather than being appointed.

Su Lum is a longtime local who has seen a lot of rippity teardown and thinks we need tighter rules and fewer variances — sound familiar? Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at su@rof.net.