Prospectors poked into the Roaring Fork River country as early as the 1870s. Their finds gave birth to the towns of Ashcroft, Aspen, and Independence and led to the creation in 1881 of a county named for Governor Frederick W. Pitkin. After the 1893 silver crash, Aspen and Pitkin County faded, except for some ranching, haying, and coal mining. Of thirty-four mining, ranching, and railroad communities that once had post offices, only Aspen, Redstone, Snowmass, and Woody Creek survive.
In 1938 the opening of the first ski tow attracted people seeking something more than the weary little rooms at the Hotel Jerome, Aspen's only inn. André Roche, a noted Swiss skier, laid out the Aspen Mountain ski run. Friedl Pfeifer, a former director of the Sun Valley ski school, helped build the Bavarian-Highlands Lodge (1938, Gordon Kauffman), 5.5. miles up Castle Creek Road from Colorado 82. Now a private residence on the Highlands Ranch, it was designed to house potential investors as well as guests. James Bodrero, an artist for Walt Disney Studios, developed an Alpine style for the lodge.
Alpine became the dominant style for two decades. In Aspen, as in its later interpretation in Vail, it is characterized by low-pitched gable roofs, numerous horizontal wood balconies decorated with cutout trim, and wooden window shutters, often painted bright red or chocolate brown. Walls were often stucco, sometimes with false half timbering or log treatment.
World War II curtailed the ski resort business as many good skiers, including Friedl Pfeifer, joined the U.S. Army's Tenth Mountain Division of ski troopers. After the war ended in 1945, many of the division's veterans became interested in developing skiing in Pitkin County. The success of the pioneer ski lift on Aspen Mountain inspired W. V. N. Jones to develop Aspen Highlands Ski Area (1958, Fritz Benedict), 1600 Maroon Creek Road. Benedict, who, along with Austrian designer Herbert Bayer, shaped Pitkin County's renaissance, designed some of the original structures, including the triple A frame lodge of wood and glass. Its roofline is, according to Benedict, “an interpretation of an unusual nearby mountain called Maroon Bells.”
Since the 1950s ski resorts have transformed Pitkin County into a national pacesetter for the architecture of affluence. Meadows rimmed by mountains provide a majestic setting which has inspired some of America's greatest architects. This silver mining region reborn as a recreation center has become a case study in the struggle to reconcile architectural creativity, historic preservation, and intense developmental pressures.
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