To save or scrap?

By Jack Cox
Denver Post Staff Writer

 

Aspen - Of all the upgrades he has made to his Boomerang Lodge over the past 50 years, Charlie Paterson is probably proudest of the Herbert Bayer "addition."

It's a butterfly-roofed house he bought in the 1960s, then later hauled across town and plunked on top of a conventional motel-style wing at his lodge.

"We moved it with everything in it - the furniture, the beds made up - and didn't break a glass," Paterson says of the structure, which the famed Bauhaus artist had designed in 1952 as a prototype for a larger building at the Aspen Institute.

Now, with Paterson's vintage inn on the market for $7.5 million, the 75-year-old former ski instructor says, "I would hate to see it torn down - we put so much work into it."

At the same time, he says, he wouldn't want to see the Boomerang designated as a historic landmark, because the restrictions imposed could mean a new owner "might never be able to change it."

Such ambivalence is shared by many in Colorado's ski resorts, where buildings that sprang up to serve the first generation of skiers are becoming old enough to be given legal protection as community heirlooms, yet are often so dated they're at risk of being demolished.

These are not the Victorian homes or brick storefronts that survived the long decline after Colorado's original silver-mining boom went bust. They're the chalets, cabins and condominiums that heralded the coming of a new industrial economy based on "white gold."

With the gradual disappearance of such touchstones of the era before snowboards, SUVs and even stoplights, the question facing the state's resort towns is: What's worth saving?

"We're still wrestling with this," says Jeff Hill, a town planner in Breckenridge, where scores of restored miners' shacks blaze a colorful trail through an aging and largely neglected forest of more modern housing and commercial development.

"On one side, historic preservation is intended to tell a story, and while the architecture of the '60s and '70s may not seem interesting or significant now, in a few generations we may look back and say, 'Why didn't we keep that?"' Hill says.

"On the other side, a lot of these buildings are outmoded and inefficient, and it may cost more to refurbish them than to tear them down and build anew."

The fate of postwar architecture hasn't sparked much public discussion except in Aspen, where the ski area has been in operation for more than 50 years - the standard threshold for landmark status.

But other ski resorts - notably Breckenridge, Vail and Steamboat, all of which opened more than 40 years ago - are starting to confront the issue as the owners of structures thrown up in the early days feel pressure to renovate or replace.

In Vail, for example, the Sunbird Lodge at the foot of Lionshead will be torn down this spring as part of a major redevelopment designed to make the boxy, '70s-era complex look and feel more like the original Tyrolean-style Vail Village, which sprang up a decade earlier in the '60s.

The impending demolition hasn't set off alarm bells. "There's not much sympathy for the design of Lionshead," comments Vail Homeowners Association director Jim Lamont, but preservationists argue the community may come to regret such losses.

"With some buildings, the significance could be that it was the first condominium development or that it was made by a certain builder," says Laureen Schaffer, historic preservation officer for Steamboat Springs.

"Right now, we might think it's cheap construction. But a few years down the road, it might be recognized as a landmark."

Does this mean that such hallmarks of early condo life as shag carpets, oak cabinets and earth-tone couches may eventually be seen as quaint and charming? Or that the cathedral ceilings and clerestories so popular a generation ago - and reflected in buildings that look today like squinty-eyed shoe boxes topped by rows of stubby smokestacks - may become retro-trendy?

Not necessarily, says Dan Corson, a preservation specialist with the Colorado Historical Society.

"It's very difficult to get the average person to care about modern structures. That's one reason Denver lost Currigan Hall and the paraboloid in Zeckendorf Plaza," Corson says, citing two razed downtown landmarks.

"But we heard these same arguments 30 or 40 years ago, when many of the Victorian homes were coming down. People said they were just old houses."

Because newer structures are only now getting attention, it's hard to gauge how many might warrant protection. But it appears they would be considered on a case-by-case basis, as opposed to being given blanket designation as part of a historic district like the one that covers some 350 buildings in Breckenridge.

Thus Steamboat - which has preserved the original towhouse and warming hut at the base of its historic Howel-

sen Hill - also might decide to preserve one of the stone dwellings built by pioneer skier Carl Howelsen himself, in his workaday role as a stonemason.

Historian Annie Gilbert Coleman, author of "Ski Style: Sport and Culture in the Rockies," notes that structures "don't have to make you feel good all the time" to be worth keeping around.

"These early lodges represent the ski industry at a time when it was growing at its fastest and most egalitarian in terms of who could afford to ski," she says. "Visually, preservation can help people understand the diversity and complexity of what has become a hugely powerful and influential industry in the West."

In short, Coleman suggests, a resort town's earliest condos and chalets, and even the once-iconic A-frames and faux-log cabins, might be enlisted in a marketing effort to lure visitors under the banner of "heritage tourism," right along with its Victorian hotels and Old West taverns.

None of this is lost on Greg Hills, the managing partner in two Aspen landmarks, the Skier's Chalet and Steakhouse at the base of Ajax Mountain, and the redeveloped Christiania Lodge on Main Street.

"But you have to balance your decisions so the town can pay tribute to its past and still compete economically," Hills says.

"Just because a building is old doesn't mean it's important enough to be preserved forever. By the same token, to just obliterate the past for the sake of a quick buck is not a great idea. Reasonable judgments need to be made."

Hills doesn't bemoan, for example, the recent demolition of the Grand Aspen, a hotel that stood for years on the block where a fancy new Grand Hyatt is going in. "It was pretty ugly - just sort of a '60s flat-roofed apartment building with no redeeming qualities," he says.

Nor is he upset over what he views as the likely loss of the Holland House, a chalet-style lodge that stair-steps down the slope just a snowball's throw from Aspen's original No. 1 chairlift. The building, once designated as historic but later delisted for technical reasons, could be updated with brighter windows, bigger bathrooms, kitchenette units and other modern amenities.

"But to spend that kind of money and still end up with 7 1/2-foot ceilings, when people now want at least 9 feet, just doesn't work," Hills says. "My guess is it'll end up being torn down."

Hills says the landmark Skiers' Chalet, on the other hand, will remain intact at the base of the resort's first ski runs. He is working with the city on plans for an addition that would increase its capacity without detracting from the architectural lines of the original structure.

As for the Boomerang Lodge, which occupies a half-block on West Hopkins Avenue just behind the Christiania site, "It would be a shame to have that one leveled," he says.

For one thing, the Boomerang - named in homage to Paterson's childhood home in Australia - is architecturally unique. It includes not only the section designed by Herbert Bayer, whose last work was the towering "Yellow Wall" near Broadway and Interstate 25 in Denver, but a modernist lobby and lounge - complete with a window offering an underwater view of the swimming pool - that Paterson himself designed while studying under Frank Lloyd Wright.

In addition, the lodge is rich in history as one of Aspen's first postwar inns. Paterson opened it in 1956 as a three-unit addition to a log cabin he built in the off-seasons while working as one of Aspen's first ski instructors. He "never quit building" until it reached its current size of 34 units - a number that would have to be doubled to make a redevelopment viable, he maintains.

To keep the Boomerang intact, the city could designate it as a landmark without the owner's consent, as permitted under Aspen's historic preservation ordinance.

"But that's not something we're planning to do," says Amy Guthrie, Aspen's historic preservation officer.

Instead, she says, city officials are hoping to offer incentives - such as waivers of the usual requirements regarding parking, square footage, setbacks and employee housing - to make renovation a more attractive option than demolition.

"In my mind, it's a building that can be adapted to more intensive use, just like any Victorian hotel you could stay in anywhere in the country," Guthrie says.

"If anyone has a creative idea, I think the city would be open to making it work. But it's still a challenge, because you're not dealing with a vacant piece of land, and that limits some of the potential of the property."

Similar problems are popping up across the country as communities grapple with the notion of protecting their postwar heritage, says Jim Lundberg of the Denver office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"As we get farther away from the '40s, '50s and '60s, it's coming to be seen more and more as a period of historical significance. But we're really at the beginning of recognizing this as an issue," Lundberg says.

"What's happening in the ski towns is that real estate values are going up, and without some consideration of whether something needs protection or not, we may not have it around much longer."

Staff writer Jack Cox can be reached at 303-820-1785 or jcox@denverpost.com.