Vagneur: Preservation without preservatives |

Vagneur: Preservation without preservatives

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

The study of history is likely one of the most significant things anyone can do, but it’s important to get it right if you’re going to do it. Old newspapers are a place to start, but we all know that such stories aren’t infallible, especially if we’ve happened to be eyewitness to some event or other.

Modern Aspen took off like a flash, depending on when you establish a baseline for “modern,” but by 1963 some caring folks became alarmed at the rapidly disappearing history of Aspen and formed the Aspen Historical Society in an effort to save what still remained. For a small museum, the success of Aspen Historical Society has been remarkable, especially in preserving the written and photographic history of Aspen. The stories are imperative and oral histories of old-time and other residents have been recorded for the ages to peruse. Besides that, there are tons of artifacts too large to position in the Wheeler/Stallard House, stuck in storage, waiting for a proper home someday.

By 1972, and in another historical plane, the city became aware that the visual of Aspen, the architecture, consisting of the old buildings and Victorian cottages from the mining days, needed to be preserved in some fashion and the Historic Preservation Commission was formed. Unlike the Aspen Historical Society (keeper of the stories), its responsibility was to catalogue the buildings deemed historically important and to safeguard the existence of those buildings. Over time, a list of guidelines, qualifications and other criteria was developed and is periodically reviewed.

In that period called the Quiet Years, just before “modern” Aspen erupted, the town was hanging on, one foot in the past with an eye toward an invigorated future. The downtown core was a mess of sorts, what with burned-out buildings on almost every block, sagged and fallen into their basements, others, such as the Cowenhoven and Aspen Block, were strong survivors of a once bustling town gone quiet.

At the same time, the West End, on both sides of Main Street, was conserved as though in an imperfect formaldehyde solution from the 1880s. Some houses needed only paint, such as my grandmother’s house at 233 W. Bleeker; others, such as the magnificent Gillespie house were unoccupied and in need of repair or demolition; many others were well-preserved, glaring reminders of opulent times past, such as the Lamb and Waite houses, both on North Second.

If you take a drive along Lake Avenue, or any street in the West End, you see many Victorian houses still in their original locations, still with their charming fronts facing the street, but with modernistic additions cobbled onto their backsides. Literally, though not officially, they are hunchback houses, the new upon the old. If you go to the Historic Preservation Commission website under the city of Aspen, you can find the reasoning behind this non-conforming architecture stacked upon the original structure, reasoning you will likely find most enlightening.

We have to recognize that the Historic Preservation Commission has done a phenomenal job, given what the city has given them to work with. The groundwork for allowing houses almost lot-line-to-lot-line was established back in the 1960s and ’70s, a strange zoning idea that was no doubt adopted before the city realized that almost every jamoke with a wallet to stand on and who came here a month or two a year needed a huge house to show off his/her space requirements.

According to information provided by the Historic Preservation Commission, most of the West End lots were 6,000 square feet, about subdivision size in most towns. The beauty of those houses of yesteryear was that they stood on those 6,000-square-foot lots, had a yard in front, side yards and a large back yard as well, one that most likely contained a shed or two and the requisite outhouse.

Over the years, we have spent untold hours drawing up guidelines for historic preservation, stirred up controversy over what is historic and what is not, have alienated a portion of the citizenry over such issues, and all along we have missed one of the most precious aspects of historic Aspen — the space.

The enduring, unique miner’s cottages didn’t sit on those lots for over a hundred years just to be assaulted by modern development. When considering remodel of those houses, yard size should be an important ingredient of the overall calculation and it should be compromised only minimally, if at all. Buying a house on the historic register shouldn’t give license to doubling or tripling the square footage, keeping a unique relic out front on the street side only because it’s required.

Open space, room to breathe, is our most important commodity. If we put the skids on modern architectural additions to these beautiful, surviving homes from our past, we will make the job of the Historic Preservation Commission much easier, and we will more accurately preserve much of the history of Aspen.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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