Stone: A troubling project, a difficult subject |

Stone: A troubling project, a difficult subject

Andy Stone
A Stone’s Throw

Big money determined to put its stamp on Aspen with an architectural intrusion of debatable value.

And, while we’re at it, an assault on Aspen’s historical heritage.

Sounds exactly like something I ought to be agitating about, and I suppose I should — except that when you check the name tags that this project’s parents lovingly sewed into its underwear before sending it off to summer camp, what you see is, “St. Mary Catholic Church.”

Well … hellfire and damnation — which pretty much sums up the reasons I have been keeping my mouth shut on this particular issue. But, hellfire and damnation notwithstanding, the project makes me uneasy — even though, or perhaps particularly because, it’s none of my business. I mean, it’s someone else’s religion.

Except that, forgive me, my religion these days is the nondenominational Church (militant though rarely triumphant) of Aspen. Our core belief is a pretty simple one: Aspen is a pretty great place, and we should all work to keep from screwing it up. And as the bumper sticker used to say, “Sorry, my karma just ran over your dogma.”

So let’s just chat about this project.

A recap for those who haven’t been following along: The plan is to build a major addition to the historic St. Mary Catholic Church on Main Street across from the Pitkin County Courthouse. Millions of dollars have already been raised. Some congregation members are excited. Others are outraged.

Stories in the newspapers and letters to the editors make it clear that there are all the usual divisions roiling the congregation. And as far as I can tell, the bottom line, as expressed in a recent letter to the editor, is, “If the majority of active parishioners did not vote for the changes planned, it would not be done.” So there’s that: Their church, their decision.

Still, the changes will have an impact on our city, so those of us who care about Aspen should get to express our opinions, even if we don’t get to vote. And that raises an interesting issue. Normally, the concerns of the community do carry some weight when it comes to projects that have a significant impact on the town. Those concerns are generally expressed through various government bodies: the City Council, the Planning Department and the Historic Preservation Commission.

But since this is a church project, the government’s ability to impose its will (or the people’s will) is limited by that pesky First Amendment. Freedom of religion trumps planning and zoning.

Yet still, I am concerned. The church property is a quiet slice of old Aspen. The church itself is, forgive me, more charming than awe-inspiring, but, dedicated in 1892, it is unquestionably historic. Most of the property, including a substantial residence, a fairly recent garage/employee-housing unit and a surprisingly large lawn, is somewhat hidden behind a tall hedge.

I called the property a “quiet” slice of Aspen even though, oddly, it’s on a busy block of Main Street, where traffic speeds up as it escapes the congestion of the commercial stretch from Aspen through Galena streets. It’s not a block for a quiet, contemplative stroll.

Attention that might focus on the church is diverted by the County Courthouse — and I should note that anything “quiet” about that block is soon to be violently disrupted by a major project, replacing an existing office building with a substantial courthouse annex directly across the street from the church.

It sounds as if I am arguing against concerns about the project’s impact on the historic nature of the church, but history is history, and it should be respected, even if it’s not showy.

And so, again, I am uneasy as I consider this project: none of my business; someone else’s religion; the congregation has a strong say; the First Amendment rules; the historic impact is muted.

But there’s another factor. It seems that a large part of the impetus for this project is coming from outside Aspen, from the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, an online Catholic religious institute whose founder, chairman and president lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and whose co-founder and chief academic officer lives in Oxnard, California.

All this is fine — again, not my religion, not my concern — but my attention was caught by the Avila Institute’s declaration that it aims to “transform one of the most secular and wealthy communities in the United States into a haven for the finest in Catholic spiritual training and formation.” And whenever I hear about someone from somewhere else who intends to “transform” Aspen, my Church of Aspen hackles begin to rise.

Those hackles were not smoothed in the least by reports that when fundraising began, $4 million was donated in four months, with most of it coming from a very few large gifts, between $500,000 and $1.5 million.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I read that the Rev. John Hilton, St. Mary’s priest, declared: “Not a single one of them has asked me what the building will look like.”

Hilton thought that was praiseworthy. “They’re not interested in a monument,” he said. But I can’t help thinking that the donors’ complete lack of interest in what the building is going to look like betrays a complete lack of interest in or concern for the community.

In Aspen, where historic preservation and sensitivity to the values of the community are vitally important — both for the community itself and for the continued vitality and viability of the town as a world-class resort — that lack of interest in what a major building will look like is troubling.

Here’s a couple of million bucks. Go build whatever you want. Who cares what it looks like?

Hilton also said those early donors wanted to remain anonymous. Again, double-edged. Making a six- or seven-figure donation anonymously certainly can be considered praiseworthy. But it also can be seen as a way of concealing where the money is coming from. From Aspen? From those who want to “transform” Aspen?

There’s a lot I just don’t understand. And so I am troubled.

Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is

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