The county seat (1880, 7,908 feet) offers architecture enthusiasts a wealth of Victoriana, Alpine shops and chalets, sleek Bauhaus-influenced structures, raw Mine-shaft Modern curiosities, and various Modernist and Post-modern residences. Some of America's most expensive resort structures and private homes have been designed by internationally known architects and a notable stable of some hundred local firms.
Colorado's most affluent and architecturally distinctive town started out in 1879 as a tent-and-shack mining camp called Ute City. Silver seekers from Leadville struck pay dirt in the broad valley where the Roaring Fork of the Colorado River is fed by Castle, Hunter, and Maroon creeks. After the Utes were dispossessed, the town was platted and incorporated as Aspen. Aspen Mountain south of town and Smuggler Mountain to the east boasted fabulously wealthy mines such as the Durant, the Little Nell, the Midnight, the Mollie Gibson, and the Smuggler, which produced the world's largest silver nugget, 93 percent pure and weighing 2,060 pounds.
From the beginning Aspen seemed ambitious. Its broad (70-to-80-foot-wide) streets were laid out with a compass rather than on the stream-oriented plat of many mining camps. Townsfolk planted street trees and formed a literary society and a glee club. The Denver & Rio Grande arrived from Glenwood Springs in 1887, followed a year later by the Colorado Midland from Leadville. Aspen's population peaked in 1893 at around 12,000 as the town briefly surpassed even Leadville in silver production to become the nation's number one silver city.
After the 1893 silver crash, little was built until the late 1940s, when the ski era dawned. Newcomers acquired silver bonanza structures for back taxes unpaid since 1893. Since the 1950s steady growth has brought Aspen back from a 1930s low point of 700 residents to a 1990 population of 5,049.
Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke of Chicago established a home in Aspen in 1945. Paepcke, board chairman of the Container Corporation of America, brought the Bauhaus designer Herbert Bayer and an intellectual and social elite to town. Paepcke began quietly buying up property, hoping to control growth and restore the Victorian townscape. In an Aspen Timesnotice, he offered free paint to any residents who would confer with Herbert Bayer on color schemes. Few did. Some locals resented Paepcke and also Walter Gropius, whose town plan, commissioned by Paepcke, recommended that Aspenites “restore the best of the old, but if you build, build modern” to avoid “an antiquarian museum of tacky, nonsensical historical imitations.”
Most railroad, smelter, and mine structures had vanished by 1972, when Aspen established a local Historic Preservation Committee. The Main Street and Commercial Core District (Bleeker Street to Durant Avenue between Monarch and Hunter streets) contain some 280 contributing historic buildings. More than 150 locally designated landmarks range from four-story business blocks to simple miners' homes, such as the hand-hewn Callahan Log Cabin (1885), 205 South 3rd Street; the clapboard Thomas Hynes Cottage (1885) (NR), 303 East Main, and the quaint, clapboard Italian-ate Cameron Cottage (1883), 201 East Hyman Avenue.
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