Vagneur: The vanilla side of Aspen |

Vagneur: The vanilla side of Aspen

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Look up the word “generic” in The Free Dictionary and the first definition that comes up is, “Relating to or descriptive of an entire group or class.” Example: “Cancer is a generic term for a group of diseases in which cells proliferate wildly.”

The part about cancer is not too far off the mark considering the inexorable mess we have created in Aspen and in surrounding Pitkin County. It used to be entertaining, if not irritating, to the local citizenry when someone bought a chunk of open expanse or laid their hands on a West End or Red Mountain lot, hired some out-of-town designer architect who’d been written up in Architectural Digest, and went for big and ostentatious. Don’t forget the landscape architect (architect?) who caused them to spend a fortune on trees, rocks and grass (the beautiful Rocky Mountain lay of the land never seems to be adequate). Most spend enough of a pile on just the yard to keep many of us in comfortable retirement until we’re at least a 100.

Let’s face it, a man’s money is his own to spend as he wishes, but why do the “recent arrivals” all do it in the same way? Big is better, bigger is even better, and they stack up the pretentiousness to the top of the imported Italian tile that caps the ridgeline of the convoluted roof. It doesn’t matter who the architect is, most of these houses look the same — oversized and dark most of the year. So unremarkable in originality, some have been compared to government buildings in medium-sized towns.

If you know Aspen’s history, and most folks don’t, you’d know that starting in 1888, many of the charming little Victorians that used to line most of Aspen’s streets, particularly the West End, were built in modern developer fashion, that is, a standardized mess of them were built every year just to keep up with the demand of an increasing population. It was possible to construct about four a day during the season. These houses were 28-by-30 feet, five rooms each with an outhouse out back, at a cost of around $1,200 per structure including the lot. These houses were generally financed by outside investors and rented for $300 a year. Talk about employee housing — that was it.

The interesting thing about those long-ago houses was that they all looked pretty much the same, generic if you will, and maybe even boring during their heyday. Once modern Aspen changed the zoning code to allow lot line-to-lot line development in the West End, many of those appealing little miner’s cottages sprouted humongous, hunchback development out back, turning the original bungalows into mud rooms or foyers to the large, modern houses tacked onto them. And guess what — they are all fairly well generic, boring if you can imagine, each imitating the other in ridiculousness.

We don’t do much silver mining anymore, save for the Smuggler and the Compromise, but people still arrive in Aspen with some idea of grandeur to be experienced, if only they could own property here.

Buy a piece of land, put up a monster house, or buy a house in town, tear it down, and put up a monster house. I’m guessing that few of these people have any appreciation for the history of the land that they rape or the generations of mountain family living that preceded them in those tear-down houses.

And it could just be me, but it seems as though both the city and the county encourage the newcomers to stumble right ahead. Take a ride up the gondola and witness the lack of breathing room in town. At least the city has a meaningful transferable-development-rights program to save a bit of open space. The county might as well extinguish its transferable-development-rights program — what’s a 1,000-square-foot cabin hidden in the trees compared with an 8,000- to 15,000-square-foot behemoth clogging up an otherwise reasonably flat and beautiful meadow, obstructing a perfect view of heaven.

Of course, we all know about the Realtors — there might be more licensed real estate brokers in Aspen than actual year-round residents, but they can’t help it if many of these speculators and owners of these Machiavellian Monoliths eventually realize that Aspen locals don’t care if they live or die and decide to move on. Someone has to sell those overpriced fantasies to the next person who thinks Aspen is going to love them. Tragedy waits in the wings.

So what do you get for spending upward of $5 to $10 million (or more) for the house of your dreams? In layman’s terms, just another oversized clump of out-of-place building material, penurious to the eye and diminishing to the pocketbook.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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