The high life Colorado: A history of ups and downs has given Aspen a distinctive flavor, to be gulped or sipped at the visitor's leisure.

November 29, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

ASPEN, Colo. - The Mountain Chalet is still the Mountain Chalet, a fixture in town since the days of the $8 room and the $1.50 lift ticket. But what happened to the mountain? Chalet guests on the south side of the building cannot see Aspen Mountain from their windows any longer, not since the big luxury hotel across the road went up and up, red stones rising four stories, blocking a splendid view.

On the other hand, there's a study in contrast: the humble, 51-room Chalet with its wooden faux Tyrolean facade next to the St. Regis Aspen, all 257 rooms of it, commanding the mountain base with the hauteur of a European castle. Side by side, the two hotels make a snapshot of a continuing story of Aspen renewal.

"Aspen seems to reinvent itself about every 10 years," says Larry Fredrick, a volunteer historian with the Aspen Historical Society.

He's overstating to make a point, but clearly Aspen has lived several lives in the ebb and flow of silver and snow. That is, money.

Aspen visitors may sample its several incarnations - a tour spanning more than a century of phases marked by boom, collapse, dormancy, rejuvenation, libertarian ease and wretched excess. Each period has left behind something. A cultural or architectural legacy, a stylistic touch.

If the oldest Victorian buildings in town could talk, they would tell about watching money flood the streets, then drain steadily away, then return, surging into the Roaring Fork Valley. In terms suitable for a bumper sticker, some folks in town sum up this moment in the 118-year life of Aspen by talking about how "the billionaires pushed out the millionaires." Maybe.

Perhaps it just feels that way.

Jody McCabe, director of the Aspen Historical Society, says the high-glitz image is grossly overplayed in the media. What about the culture, she asks? The Aspen Music Festival, Aspen Institute, Aspen Writers' Foundation, Jazz Aspen. That's the real story.

But Larry Fredrick, who moved to Aspen from Wyoming in 1981, looks around at the cars, the clothes, the houses, and cannot help but notice "people trying to out-do each other."

Rough stone and Cartier

Aspen presents a particular blend of Western rustic, Hollywood chic and High Culture earnestness. Today's visitor to Aspen is apt to feel a certain disorientation. To walk around Aspen in the late 1990s is to stop and say: What place is this? Who moved Rodeo Drive to the Rockies? Is this another Trump project, or is that The Donald himself there on the slopes?

Sample this moment, say, at the St. Regis Aspen, the biggest hotel in town, which opened in 1992 as the Ritz-Carlton. The lobby lounge with the rough-stone double fireplace is apt to be populated by a goodly number of 10-gallon Stetsons, but the glass display cases in the ground-floor corridors are not showing livestock feed. The cases show items from local shops: Cartier wristwatches, diamond-studded earrings. At peak snow season, St. Regis rooms start at more than $400 a night.

This has been the drift of things since the late 1970s, when the curtain fell on the era of latter-day hippies, on Aspen's days as an enclave for people who liked their marijuana regularly, their hair in ponytails and their police officers easy-going. The Aspen Skiing Co., the force that set Aspen on its path to greatness in 1946, was purchased by 20th Century Fox for $47 million in 1978. Fox has since been bought out by Lester Crown, a Chicago multi-billionaire.

Hollywood, a presence since movie stars began visiting in the 1940s, thus staked a claim on Aspen's heart and soul. The claim has only grown since. More moguls buying property, more slope-side celebrity sightings. More shops selling wristwatches for the sort of money that could have bought a small house in town in the early 1960s. To quote a cartoon in a local magazine showing a scene in a brokerage house: "Hold Everything! Disney just bought Aspen!"

It's this that strikes you first, this combination of rough-hewn construction and high-gloss accessorizing. It's places like the 90-room Aspen Club Lodge, its lobby done in blond, tree-sized timbers, stone floors and walls, great expanses of glass embracing soaring views of Aspen Mountain. The views, the prices - both breathtaking.

It's the Little Nell hotel right next door, a step up in price from the Aspen Club Lodge and the St. Regis. Named for an old silver mine, the Little Nell sits at the foot of Aspen Mountain, a cluster of peaked gables on the outside, a soothing blend of buttery/chocolatey stone and wood on the inside.

The silver years

Such places speak of mergers and acquisitions, money in commodities, corporate jets and commitments overseas. Much of this has happened in the last 20 years, completing the boom-bust-boom cycle that began when a few prospectors found silver nearby in 1879.

In those days, the place was called Ute City. Tourist traffic consisted mostly of members of the Ute tribe of Native Americans making summer encampments.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.