Written by Christine Madrid French
New visitors to contemporary Aspen are undoubtedly surprised at how much this small city has changed in the last 100 years. An online slide show of vintage photographs, hosted by the Aspen Historical Society, shows unpaved streets and hardscrabble miners, later replaced by Victorian ladies in long dresses waving to cowboys on parade. Looking at those quaint images, it is easy to forget that Aspen almost disappeared from the map before the turn of the 20th century. The “Quiet Years” – a forty year period starting in 1893 according to the Historical Society – nearly doomed the town until the promise of salvation arrived in the form of twin wooden runners and attached boots.
Aspen survived, where others perished, by becoming an early adopter of sport skiing, up to that point primarily known as an amusement for Europeans. The city and its spectacular surrounding environment are now synonymous with “the art of sliding;” indeed one cannot be separated from the other. Residents protect and embrace that legacy as their own. At recent architectural discussions in Aspen, one part of our Modern Module series of events across the country, we attempted to expand this passion for the past to include the built environment of the second half of the twentieth century. My previous post detailed the history of the buildings from that period and some of the controversies surrounding the preservation of these structures. Now, post- meeting, we can explore a few of the ideas deliberated during the symposium.
The evening panel discussion, held at the Swiss-style Mountain Chalet, was artfully moderated by Adrian Scott Fine, director of the National Trust’s Center for State and Local Policy. The panelists included State Senator Gail Schwartz, Harry Teague, AIA, of Harry Teague Architects, historian and Aspen Times columnist Tony Vagneur, Peggy Smith of Wake Forest University, and designer/builder Tim Semrau.
Teague, a prolific contributor to the built environment and aficionado of Aspen modernism, spoke eloquently in reference to architectural atmosphere in this mountain town, gained by early experiences observing sunlight filtering through lace curtains. He warned against the idea of “blanket preservation,” in which practitioners fail to delineate historic significance, but was encouraged both by the conversation and the turnout (more than 80 people braved the thunderstorm to attend). “This is a beginning,” he said, towards a new way of understanding Aspen and its landscape. Throughout the evening, the panelists referenced Aspen’s storied past, and the efforts of 20th century designers and patrons to incorporate the “mind, body, spirit” mantra of the city into their work. Attendees, including a city council member, two former mayors, and the current mayor Mick Ireland, participated in a lively Q&A, highlighted by one participant who challenged the panelists to invent a tagline for modern heritage tourists. Peggy Smith, author of a forthcoming book on American ski resort architecture, readily supplied her answer: "You don't have to go to Germany to see the Bauhaus. Come to Aspen."
A roundtable gathering the next day followed up on the ideas forwarded during the panel event. Community members representing architects, artists, the Aspen Art Museum, the Aspen Historical Society, the Historic Preservation Task Force, and the Aspen Institute arrived ready to talk about this “front burner issue.” Barb Pahl, director of the National Trust’s Mountains/Plains Office in Denver, skillfully led the participants through a focused agenda targeting the opportunities and challenges inherent in the preservation and interpretation of historic modern structures.
During the course of a few hours, nearly a dozen “hindrances” to preservation were delineated, including the economic incentives behind teardowns, perceived inconsistencies in preservation principles, and a general lack of awareness of the significance for this period of building. “Prospects” in this area included the and rise of new—and generationally younger—leaders in community planning and a long-needed streamlining of historic preservation regulations and guidelines to enhance public understanding of the process. Georgia Hanson, director of the Aspen Historical Society, noted a dismal and dismaying study: less than five percent of Americans are interested in learning more about history and visiting museums. With that in mind, the society developed an exhibit exploring Aspen in the early 1970s, an expansion of context that effectively reaches out to new constituencies in terms of both history and preservation.
Most participants at the roundtable agreed that what is most needed in Aspen is a third-party preservation or “friends” group to help triangulate the sometimes tense discussions between the city and the community about what to save and how. A number of cities are now sponsoring Community Design Centers (see Charlottesville, Virginia, for a successful downtown model) to raise consciousness, find common threads, and initiate the exchange of ideas. Perhaps this is the answer for Aspen. We ended our brief discourse on that day with optimism, confident that this consortium of engaged citizens can work together to develop the tools needed to address these ongoing preservation issues.
Christine Madrid French is the director of the Modernism + Recent Past program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
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