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Stone: Sticking the heart of Aspen where the sun don’t shine

Andy Stone
Stone’s Throw

Well, ladies and gentlemen, here we go: Five, four, three, two, one, there goes the neighborhood!

Any day now — barring an act of God — the much- (and justly) reviled Aspen Art Museum will open its widely unwanted doors.

I have been ranting against this obscenity for quite some time now, to no effect. Believe me, I am as sick of this as you are. But I am not willing to let it go.

Before I explain why I insist on this apparently pointless exercise, let me touch on one reason that many people cite for opposing the museum: It is ugly.

Well, maybe it is. (A brick thrown through our community window, wrapped in a note reading, “Take that, losers!”)

One of my email correspondents wrote, “It reminds me of a parking structure in the shadow of the Queensboro bridge in Long Island City, New York. All that’s missing is the ever present smell of urine, dust and trashed newspapers circling with each and every breeze, and the hookers and homeless lurking in the darkness.”

Wish I’d said that.

But the museum’s lack of grace or elegance is not (repeat: not) relevant.

Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder, and opinions about the new museum’s beauty — or lack thereof — are strictly that: opinions.

Aspen has a lot of ugly buildings — just look around — and the town has survived.

Not to dive too far into historical digression, but when I first came to town, people were still reeling in outrage about the hideous (they said) North of Nell building on Durant that blocked views of Little Nell, the ski slope it was named for.

One letter to the editor in the late 1960s said, “(E)veryone I have spoken to condemns the building. It is often said the building is so much of an architectural monstrosity it alters the character of the town.”

Check out North of Nell at 555 E. Durant Ave. Monstrosity? Perhaps. Blocking views of the mountain? Sure. (Although — poetic justice, y’all — the view of the slopes from the condos in that building has now been blocked by a newer monstrosity. Nyah-nyah!)

But Aspen has, as I said, survived.

So, the real reason for unceasing outrage about our nasty new museum is that it represents a violent affront to the town, a total and vicious disregard for the community’s values and desires and character.

I once heard a very drunk rugby fan shouting from the sidelines at Ruggerfest, “Tear off their head and (expletive) in the hole!”

I think that pretty well — if crudely — sums up what the new Aspen Art Museum stands for.

The building represents a complete failure of every safeguard the town enacted to preserve its character.

In a brief summation, almost seven years ago the Hechts — Andy and Nikos, father and son — proposed a building for the corner of Hyman and Spring streets that was ruled unacceptable by the City Council.

The council said that the building was much too big, much too tall — in a nutshell (though they politely didn’t put it this way), much too greedy.

The Hechts, of course, responded with a lawsuit. The city won the first round in the courts. The Hechts, of course, appealed.

Then, suddenly, with the appeal still pending, the city announced that the suit had been settled — and the settlement was the art museum, which was pretty much as big, as tall and as greedy as the Hechts’ original proposal. Except that the size and the greed were now wrapped in the fig leaf of “art.”

Lucky us.

It was a back-room deal, reached in secret negotiations without any sort of community input or comment.

It was flat presented to the town as a done deal. No objections, no appeals. Done.

Yes, the council voted publicly to approve what it had already agreed to in secret. Yes, it held a public “hearing.” (It couldn’t truly be a hearing because no one was listening.)

More fig leaves. None of it mattered.

A done deal. That was that.

And now we have this: a building that’s too big and that casts a big shadow, blocking views of the mountain.

Make no mistake, it is a building that is specifically intended to change Aspen, to drag the center of the city away from its proper and long-standing locus at the intersection of Hyman and Mill, where the Wheeler Opera House sits by Wagner Park, gazing up at Aspen Mountain and down the Hyman mall, a spot that combines history, green space, a view of the mountains and the bustle of people walking to shops and restaurants.

Given the shadow-casting height of the museum (and its next-door sibling, also a Hecht project), the effect will be to take the heart of Aspen and stick it where the sun don’t shine.

But even that misses the true and saddest point of all.

A woman I know said, “How did this happen? We elected Mick mayor. We had zoning. We thought we had it under control. We didn’t think we had to worry about” — she waved her hands in frustration — “this!”

And that is the heart of the matter. That is why we need to keep protesting — loudly, vehemently and, yes, rudely.

The museum backers and the developers seem to be, quite simply, beyond shame. There is no hope for them.

But we can still hope that our elected officials will take note and heed our outrage.

Some people have said that what happened was the result of corruption, of payoffs. I don’t agree. Not at all. I think it was the result of a different kind of corruption: the corruption of cowardice.

And we must fight to ensure that it never happens again.

Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is andy@aspentimes.com.


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