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Stone: Tracking the elusive, shy Aspen Big Foot

Andy Stone
Stone’s Throw

They say Big Foot is an elusive creature: shy, solitary, perhaps even mythical.

Not here in Aspen.

In Aspen, Big Foot is always coming around the corner. More to the point, he’s always buying the corner.

A lot of people come to Aspen, look around and say, “This is the nicest place I’ve ever seen. I think I’ll live here.”

Others say, “This is the nicest place I’ve ever seen. I think I’ll buy it.”

Aspen’s original Big Foot was Jerome B. Wheeler, who swept into town back in the mining days and started buying and building all over town. (Think Wheeler Opera House and Hotel Jerome.)

And then there was Walter Paepcke in the 1950s. He bought up big swathes of the town and tried, with mixed success, to wrestle it into submission. (Think Aspen Institute. Aspen Skiing Co. Aspen Music Festival. And he renovated the Wheeler Opera House.)

In the 1970s and ’80s, Hans Cantrup built himself an impressive Aspen empire. He couldn’t snag the Wheeler, but he did snap up the Aspen Institute and what seemed like damn near every hotel and lodge in town — with the goal of building a 480-room hotel. But Cantrup stumbled and fell, leaving behind nothing but bankruptcies, tax sales and a half-completed hotel that loomed over Aspen from the top of Mill Street for years before it was torn down.

The Big Foot list goes on. Not to run it into the ground — an apt turn of phrase, as you shall see — but we do need to mention 21st Century Snowmass Big Foot, Pat Smith, who cornered the market in Snowmass real estate and then cornered the market in abject failure after he choked on everything he’d gobbled when he got sucker-punched by 2008’s Great Recession. Maybe for Smith we should call it the Great Regurgitation. Anyway, his legacy was the Great Mudpit, which Snowmass is still struggling to recover from.

It should be noted that in the end, all of these gentlemen, with the exception of Paepcke, stepped in it — another apt turn of phrase for Big Feet (Big Foots?) — and sank. Wheeler and Paepcke at least have buildings named after them. Cantrup and Smith, not so much. (No, Puppy Smith Street is not named after Pat Smith.)

OK. Please forgive the dose of history, but a little history is helpful because now — hark! We hear the pitter-patter of another little Big Foot.

The new Foot’s name is Mark — as in (to start with a cheap shot, of course) “Ouch! That’s going to leave a mark” — Hunt, who is the latest gent with an appetite for gobbling up big chunks of Aspen.

Last week, it was suddenly as hard to avoid Hunt’s name in the newspapers as it is to avoid the 15 properties he now owns in downtown Aspen.

In a front-page interview in the Aspen Daily News (“On the Hunt: Prominent landlord speaks his mind,” June 16), he insisted that he never does interviews, but while I have no reason to disbelieve Hunt about that, the man certainly does know how to talk the talk. I think it’s part of a developer’s required skill set.

He assured everyone that he really loves Aspen.

“It is unlike any other place I’ve been,” he said (which puts him firmly in the category of “What a nice place! I think I’ll buy it”).

But, of course, while talking the talk may be a requirement for a developer, it is only half the job.

Hunt told the Daily News, “I love the classic Aspen buildings. … I hope to add buildings that fit.”

That admirable statement runs painfully face-first into his first Aspen project, the hulking white mausoleum on Galena Street where the Gap used to stand.

I will skip over the nasty terms I used to described that building in an earlier column (The Aspen Times, March 5). But I have to say that someone who claims to love “the classic Aspen buildings” ought to have noticed that they are almost all red (stone or brick) and that this bright white one absolutely does not “fit.”

He also claimed that he wants “a mix of tenants that will serve all segments of the Aspen community.”

That forces one to remember that the rental pitch for the building said that Galena Street “has become Aspen’s … answer to ‘Rodeo Drive.’” And that the building will be home to a new Dolce & Gabbana store. Serving “all segments of the Aspen community” indeed.

On the other hand — hey, fair’s fair — when Hunt said he wants “to make the construction sites as pleasing to the people as I can,” it calls to mind the flower planters that adorned the concrete Jersey Barriers surrounding the mausoleum construction project.

Lipstick on a pig? Community values? You make the call. The flowers were pretty. And it was certainly a decorative step up from a lot of other construction sites.

And, much more significant, there was no battle to put an third story of obscenely priced condominiums on top of the building.

For that, Hunt truly does get full credit. And he has promised to stick to that approach with all his properties.

So here’s the thing about Aspen’s assorted Big Foots: They each have left a legacy that moved the community (more or less) forward.

Jerome B. Wheeler gave us the Wheeler Opera House and the Hotel Jerome.

Walter Paepcke gave us — well, the best parts of modern Aspen.

Hans Cantrup gave us (through too long and twisted a story to go into here) the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, now the St. Regis.

Pat Smith … well, maybe it’s too soon to judge his legacy. As George W. Bush said about the invasion of Iraq, we’ll have to wait and let history decide.

And now it’s Mark Hunt’s turn.

At the end of his Daily News interview, he said, “I should be held to a higher standard.”

Fair enough.

As protesters shouted during the police riot in Chicago in 1968, “The whole world’s watching!”

Well, the whole town anyway.

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


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