Crystal Palace Not Always So Palatial

Crystal Palace Not Always So Palatial

Yore Aspen


The Crystal Palace in 1962, with the Owl Cigars
advertisement on the side. Aspen Laundry was in the one-story white building to
the left. (Frank Willoughby/Willoughby collection)

Click to
Enlarge





Tim Willoughby
September 22,
2007




Imagine dump trucks inside the Crystal Palace, staying warm so they
could start on cold winter days to haul miners up the backside of Aspen
Mountain. Before Mead Metcalf started his dinner theater there, the Midnight
Mine had its headquarters in the building. It reeked of old timber molds,
carbide lantern fumes, rock dust and machine lubricants rather than today’s
captivating aromas of broiling prime rib and uncorked merlot.



Owned by the Midnight Mine, this
Coleman truck in 1927 used to park in the Crystal Palace. (Willoughby
collection)

Click to Enlarge


The pending change in ownership of
the Crystal Palace may alter more than names on the title, especially if Mead
Metcalf takes the stained glass and crystal chandeliers with him. His colorful
remodel in 1960 made the building more Victorian than it was in 1891 when it was
built. Victorian structures in Aspen, with the exception of St. Mary’s and the
Community Church, had simple windows of small squares of colored glass
surrounding plain glass rectangles. Most colorful and elaborate stained glass
was imported from New Orleans and Denver during the ’60s – the 1960s. The Palace
and other buildings were reinvented more than restored.

The Palace from
the mid-1930s to 1951 was the company office of the Midnight Mine, Aspen’s major
employer. It was the ideal building for three reasons. Like most commercial
buildings in the downtown core, it had a second-floor office area where the
company could accomplish its paperwork. It had a very large ground floor, big
enough to park and service its trucks and store equipment and materials.
Finally, it was just one block from general manager Fred D. Willoughby’s home.
He lived at the corner of Hyman Avenue and Aspen Street in the white house that
looks today like it looked back then.

In its
Victorian heyday the Crystal Palace was a commission house much like today’s
wholesale distribution warehouses. Goods traded hands on the ground floor where
ice cut from Hallam Lake cooled a walk-in meat storage box. E.M Cooper was the
proprietor in the early 1900s and in addition to White Owl cigars, as advertised
on the exterior wall, he sold produce grown in the agricultural boom areas of
Delta and Mesa counties.

The Midnight Mine acquired the building after
it had been abandoned for a number of years. The older roof was flat and in
desperate need of repair. The Midnight changed the pitch to shed snow, giving
the building the odd shape it has today.

The Midnight office accommodated
55 employees in the 1940s. Miners and mill operators worked both day and night
shifts, plus the building was the center of business activities and vehicle
repair. As Willoughby served as mayor of Aspen through many of those years, it
also doubled as an unofficial city hall office.

Aspen’s elevation is too
high for most fruit trees. Crabapples are one of the few species to prosper. The
Monarch side of the building provides great sun exposure with the brick wall
holding enough heat to incubate trees. Begun with an apparent toss of a plum
seed, a tree still grows there. The Midnight staff marveled at the seedling’s
survival and gauged the passing of years by the growth of the
tree.

Other than The Aspen Times and a few
lodges, it’s unusual for commercial buildings in Aspen to retain the same use
over the long term. Metcalf’s nearly half-century as the occupant of this
building has provided countless visitors with a unique Aspen experience. Old
buildings, especially the brick commercial-core buildings of Aspen, are hard to
maintain and to adapt to modern uses but their historical soul is a major
ingredient in the Aspen ambiance.

May the next occupant make the most of
the legacy.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began
sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado
Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical
perspective. He can be contacted at redmtn@schat.net.

Jeep Brakes and the Wonderful Willys

Jeep Brakes and the Wonderful Willys

Yore Aspen


Jeanne Willoughby Englert sitting atop a 1950s
Willys in front of what later became La Cocina restaurant on East Hopkins
Avenue. (Doris Willoughby/Willoughby photo collection)

Click to
Enlarge





Tim Willoughby
October 13,
2007




Recently a caller to National Public Radio’s “Car Talk” asked if
something could be done about his Jeep brakes. The Magliozzi brothers’ answer
was a derisive laugh. Jeeps are notorious for poor brakes. They became dangerous
when they put bigger motors in them so they could go faster than the brakes
could slow them down.

In the 1950s, Jeeps were the vehicles of choice
for anyone in Aspen who could afford one. They were the perfect match for
Aspen’s unpaved streets and the most reliable way to navigate deep snow in the
winter. The Willys Jeep, made by Kaiser in Toledo, Ohio, was not designed for
fast travel. Speeds over 45 mph could be attained only if you were traveling
downhill on pavement. At 35 mph on gravel washboard surfaces like Maroon and
Castle Creek roads, you signed up for a noisy, teeth-shattering
ride.

But if you wanted to tackle Aspen Mountain
you could slip the Willys CJ (civilian jeep) into four-wheel-low range and it
would purr straight up Little Nell. The low gearing enabled it to climb any
slope at any altitude, even with its low-horsepower, four-cylinder engine.

Coming down was more interesting. You could stand on the brakes and even
at slow speeds you might not stop, at least not for a long, nail-biting
distance. However, shifting into low range held your speed to a reasonable
crawl. Many Aspenites tell stories of careening down Aspen Mountain or Pearl
Pass, top to bottom, with no brakes at all. Not by choice, but because their
brakes had gone out altogether.

Then there was that other Willys
quirk.

While going downhill with the gears holding back the speed, a bump
from hitting a rock (on four-wheel-drive roads that’s all there is) could throw
the vehicle out of gear. The law of unanticipated consequences ordained this
catastrophe when you were on the steepest grade, the sharpest turn and the
narrowest of roads with a precipitous cliff alongside as far ahead as you could
see.

John Healy worked on all the Jeeps in
Aspen, making him the most likely the national Willys expert. He devised and
patented a device to keep jeeps from slipping out of gear, and installed it on
many Aspen jeeps. Who knows how many fatalities he prevented.

Some Jeeps
had a forward-facing back seat, but most didn’t. Children, or any other
passengers, sat facing sideways on the narrow metal benches above the rear
wheels. There was just enough room for a big dog and a small child, or a big
child and a small dog, and a couple bags of groceries.

There was no
upholstery in a Jeep. The only hint of extravagance was a tiny glove compartment
where you could keep a spare fan belt. Early models, which lacked a keyed
ignition, sported a button you pushed to run the starter motor. That was OK in
Aspen because most people, even if they had keys, left them in their
vehicles.

Except for the brake, the Willys was
one of the most reliable and durable vehicles ever built. They started in the
coldest weather and required minimal maintenance. Because you wouldn’t take a
trip to Denver in one, and usually just used them to get around town, even the
old ones had low mileage accumulations.

Those blessed with having one
will never part with it. Admire them, but if you see one coming up fast in your
rearview mirror, then remember their brakes.

Tim Willoughby’s family
story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen
Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native
town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at redmtn@schat.net.

Jeep Tales and Tips

Many additional comments could be added to Tim Willoughby’s Jeep article (“Jeep
Brakes and the Wonderful Willys,” Yore Aspen, Oct. 13). For nearly 40 years, I
have had a ’63 Jeep in Aspen. Bought secondhand, it has about every accessory
possible. The original owner added a Dodge brake booster that works fine. Brakes
are not the big problem on part of the Pearl Pass road where you need some
people outriggers to keep from rolling. 60 mph is OK in overdrive.

Roland
Fischer
Lakewood, Colo.