Crystal Palace Not Always So Palatial
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
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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.
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
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
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 ten.tahcs@ntmder.