Stone: Historic preservation? Nah. Knock it down!
I heard on the radio that Mark Hunt — everybody’s favorite whipping boy, mine included — has just been granted City Council approval to demolish and replace a building he owns on East Hopkins, across from City Hall.
And I have to say, I think that’s a great idea.
I admit I’m a little gun-shy here because a couple of years ago I wrote something prematurely nice about Mr. Hunt’s Great White Whale (Great White Wail?) on Galena, right around the corner from this new project.
I wrote that column before the White Whale was built — before, in other words, anyone knew it was going to turn out to be an out-of-place, gleaming white mausoleum in which were interred the hopes and dreams of blah blah blah. (You know how that riff goes.)
So I realize I’m in “fool me twice” territory. But still, for now, I am in favor of the new project.
Well, actually, and this is my real point, I’m in favor of demolishing the existing building.
Indeed, there are a lot of buildings in downtown Aspen that could do with a little demolition.
A little total demolition.
There are big swaths of downtown filled with buildings that range from mildly annoying to blatantly offensive. Toss in the significant number of desperately bland structures and you have the makings of a major Ugly Building District.
And just to be clear, I am not suggesting a new zoning category.
The thing is, we care, properly, about Aspen’s historic character. But sometimes, as a result, we become blindly overenthusiastic and suddenly can’t bear the thought of tearing anything down.
One famous symptom of that foolishness was the move a few years ago to impose official historic status on some buildings from the 1950s and ’60s, Aspen’s early ski era.
“Preserving Aspen’s historic skiing heritage” sounded good on paper, but it ignored the fact that most of those remainders of the early ski days were imitation Swiss chalets (or worse), slapped together quickly and cheaply in a frantic rush to accommodate (i.e., cash in on) an expected boom in skiers.
There may be a few 1950s hidden gems that really do need to be saved and if there are, I will cheerfully stand corrected. But in general it was an era of forgettable buildings that need to be forgotten.
Most of our real history is from the mining days. And through decades of neglect and greed, most of that is long gone.
Walk around downtown and take a look. There’s a handful of impressive solid buildings from the 1800s and a double-handful of unimpressive modern infill, ranging from profit-driven bland to ego-driven offensive.
The building that Mr. Hunt is going to demolish falls squarely into the profit-driven bland (at best) category.
It is also cursed with an aggressively awkward design — angled setbacks and an open-air pit offering so-called “garden level” retail space — that was almost certainly the result of ill-conceived fads in city planning a few decades ago. That building is so lame that if it were a horse, you’d have to take it out and shoot it, which is more or less what Mr. Hunt plans to do.
We should stop for a moment here to consider the buildings that were on that site before the current mess was slapped up.
It was a pair of genuine mining-era houses, long empty and fallen into disrepair, judged unprofitable in an era of skyrocketing real estate prices and allowed to decay to the point where they — quite conveniently for the owners — were declared unsalvageable and therefore exempt from “preservation.”
It’s an interesting cycle. History neglected, demolished and replaced with a modern mess, which is in turn demolished and replaced with … what? Aye, as the fella says, there’s the rub. After demolition comes erection.
And for all our love of preserving the old, we haven’t made any progress on handling the new.
Some cities have dealt with that problem by effectively banning the “new.”
Santa Fe, for example, requires that any new buildings adhere to strict guidelines of conformity with the traditional adobe of the historic city.
The result lacks any great leaps of architectural inspiration, but it avoids aggressively stupid mistakes and provides a pleasant architectural harmony.
I do not for an instant imagine we could do anything like that in Aspen.
We have too many billionaires and too many architects.
There’s too much money here, too much ego, too much determination to be “creative,” to make a “statement,” to show that we are modern and vibrant — even if all that modern, vibrant creativity ultimately results in something that is indistinguishable from cheap and trashy.
And I say that with all due respect to billionaires, architects and cheap trash. (Some of my best friends are cheap trash.)
So Aspen will continue to take its chances on what new buildings we get when we demolish and replace the mistakes of the recent past.
Actually, if we can believe the drawings, Mr. Hunt’s proposed new building looks like a significant improvement over what’s there now. (Of course, those drawings also show a little bit of the adjacent White Whale, reminding me again that I’m in “fool me twice” land.)
But that building still needs the approval of the city Historic Preservation Commission, whose decisions are occasionally a bit, um, shall we say, erratic.
I don’t want to slag the public-spirited members of the Historic Preservation Commission, who volunteer their time, energy and expertise in pursuit of a better Aspen, but their vision of “historic” and “preservation” are often questionable. (I think they do OK on “commission.”)
So I suppose it’s entirely possible that the commission will suddenly require that Mr. Hunt’s new building be redesigned as an imitation of the Wheeler Opera House or, just as likely, be built entirely from stainless steel and glass.
But that historical swamp lies in the future.
For now, at least, the issue is demolition and I, for one, say bring on the bulldozers.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.