Near the heart of Aspen, Colo., sits a small miner’s cabin with a white façade, delicate posts and low-pitched roof. It looks exactly the same as when it was erected in 1883 amid the city’s mining boom, a 14-year period in which Aspen produced one-sixth of the country’s silver.
Today, Aspen is a tony resort town brimming with billionaires and celebrities. And that humble cabin is just the facade of what’s now a 15,500-square-foot, mostly underground private residence that took six years and about $20 million to build.
Los Angeles developer Jason Grosfeld, 45, and his wife, Jenna, 42, a jewelry designer, purchased the historic cabin for $4.8 million in 2012 and moved it temporarily from its 8,000-square-foot lot while they dug 45 feet down to create a double basement with a swimming pool, spa and basketball court. The cabin, its interior renovated into a clean, modern space with simple materials and eclectic furniture, holds a guest room and office, is back on top of the foundation. Off to the side, what appears like a separate, wood-clad contemporary box with a metal roof and lots of glass, is actually an addition, attached to the cabin by a breezeway.
Brooklyn-based Guerin Glass Architects designed the overall project, and restoring the cabin made the project more challenging than just building anew, Mrs. Grosfeld says. But “we felt lucky we had the opportunity to mix the aesthetics.”
This amalgamation of old and new embodies a compromise that’s occurred in Aspen itself. The town, with a year-round population of about 7,400 people, is caught in crosswinds between demand for bigger, more modern homes in close-in neighborhoods and pressure to preserve the mountain charm that drew people there in the first place. At stake are about 200 historic Victorian homes—more than half of which are miner’s cabins—located in a quiet, leafy neighborhood just blocks from posh restaurants and boutiques.
To bridge the divide, the town has devised a complex and rigorously enforced solution: Owners can completely renovate the inside of historic homes and cabins, but they must restore the structure and façade as close to the original as possible. Lots can be split, but the new house and any additions to the old house must look different enough to be identified as a discrete building but not so different that they’re architecturally incompatible with the original house. Extra square footage can be put underground, often dug while the old Victorian dangles in the air above it.
Renovating and adding on to these structures involves two design reviews by the town’s nine-member volunteer Historic Preservation Commission. The process typically adds a year and a half to two years to a project.
“We do anything we can do to make sure the historic building looks as original as possible,” says Amy Simon, the city’s historic preservation officer. “We are in a defensive position.”
Ann and Don Short own what from the street looks like a sweet, 720-square foot, 1886 cabin with a white picket fence. But it’s actually a six-bedroom, six-bathroom, 4,000-square-foot home. “It’s cute as a button,” says Ms. Short, who gutted the old cabin and made it one room with white walls, red trim, contemporary white sofas, a glass dining table, carefully curated modern art and a full-on view of Aspen Mountain.
A side door opens up to an outdoor deck that leads to an all-glass, all-white modern kitchen with a flat roof, blocked from sight on the main street by a large tree. Down one level is the master bedroom suite and a gym; another level below that is the media room and remaining bedrooms. Through the use of light wells and skylights, the house, designed by Steev Wilson of architecture firm Forum Phi, feels bright and airy.
Ms. Short, a former Coca-Cola executive whose primary residence is in Dallas, calls the house an “engineering miracle.” She and her husband, who also worked for Coca-Cola and now owns Roxor artisan gin, bought the property in 2012 for $2.445 million, according to public records. They declined to disclose how much they spent remaking it.
In a market where it costs about $800 to $1,000 a square foot to build a spec house that can be sold for up to $3,500 a square foot, it’s worth it for a developer to increase the square footage as much as possible, says Andrew Ernemann, a broker with Aspen Snowmass Sotheby’s International Realty, a listing agent for a number of these historic expansions.
To encourage keeping the scale of new additions to historic lots small, the HPC allows owners who opt to stay below the amount of square-footage legally allowed to sell that unused space to whomever wants to buy it on the open market as “transferable development rights.” These rights are currently selling for about $200,000 for 250 square feet, according to real-estate brokers.
Even untouched historic Victorians are red hot, says Mr. Ernemann. An unrenovated, two-bedroom, one-bathroom 800-square-foot house that sold for $4.25 million in May went back on the market for $5.995 million a month later. Its marketing blurb touts the amount of square footage that can be added.
Architect Kim Raymond, who has been practicing in Aspen for 27 years, agrees that it’s important to preserve the town’s historic properties. She says she likes working with the commission, but the process has gradually become much more stringent. And the town is considering even tougher restrictions.
A project Ms. Raymond is designing, which involves a Victorian that’s now attached but separately owned from a modern home, had a hiccup when Ms. Simon, walking by the site one day, peered in and saw that contractors had removed original siding in a manner that didn’t comply with the preservation commission’s guidelines. As a result, the owners agreed to the commission’s decision to keep the $30,000 that was held in escrow—a requirement when a historic structure is lifted to excavate a basement.
Sam McBride and his wife, Caroline, put an offer that’s pending on a modern addition to a historic Victorian for $9.5 million. The houses are physically attached but there’s no access between them and the Victorian part is still being restored and renovated. The couple, both 32, live in Chicago, liked the atmosphere of the West End, the neighborhood where most of the historic houses sit.
Their contemporary addition has four bedrooms, four bathrooms and two powder rooms, with sleek and modern touches, but they remain smitten with the city’s rustic charm.
“The Victorian influence is part of what draws us to Aspen,” says Mr. McBride.
Every winter is big business for the swanky ski town, and this year, a slew of high-profile openings and updates are garnering buzz. From classic hotel renovations to Snowmass’ major transformation, here is a guide to what’s new.
Eat in a Miner’s Cottage
The Cooking School of Aspen has just debuted The Cottage Aspen, in the 1889 Lily Reid House in the heart of town. The event and private dining space will offer special multi-course dinners to the public throughout the season. There’s also SteakHouse No. 316, Hillstone’s White House Tavern and the 20-year-old Matsuhisa Aspen.
Stay at a Classic Hotel, Updated
The legendary Hotel Jerome—originally opened in 1889—just completed a renovation and expansion that included restoring the neighboring Aspen Times building and adding two three-bedroom residential-style suites. Aspen’s grande dame hotel, The Little Nell, recently renovated its 86 guest rooms. This ski season is the last chance to enjoy the property’s lobby, living room and Chair 9 bar area before they undergo a redesign in the spring.
It can be tough to beat truffle fries and rosé on the patio of Ajax Tavern at the base of Aspen Mountain. However, for something different, try Clark’s Aspen, the new oyster bar from prolific Austin, Texas, restaurateurs Larry McGuire and Tom Moorman. And after nine years running the St. Barth hotspot Bonito, French chef Laurent Cantineaux and Venezuelan architect Juan Carlos Pérez Febres are bringing a bit of the islands to Aspen in December with Betula, serving French-inflected cuisine in a second-floor indoor/outdoor space overlooking the mountains.
Bring the Kids
A short drive outside of Aspen, Snowmass Base Village will unveil the core of its massive 10-year, $600 million redevelopment in December. The centerpiece is the Limelight Hotel and Residences, the sister property to the original Aspen location. The ski-in, ski-out destination will have 99 guest rooms and 11 residences (three are still for sale), as well as the members-only Snowmass Mountain Club. The village’s new public plaza will include an ice-skating rink and a towering 54-foot glass-encased rock-realistic climbing wall.
Get a Taste of New York
On the heels of its wildly successful EMP Summer House in the Hamptons, New York City’s famed Eleven Madison Park is launching the Aspen version, EMP Winter House. The seasonal pop-up restaurant will be in the former Chefs Club space at the St. Regis Aspen Resort and serve alpine classics like schnitzel and fondue from Swiss native chef Daniel Humm.
Dallas-born fashion mecca Forty Five Ten is opening its fifth location in November. The hyper curated selection will bring designers such as Sies Marjan, Monse, Rosie Assoulin, Thom Browne and Rosetta Getty to Aspen for the first time.
1970s Homes Preserved and Protected
In recent years, Aspen’s Historic Preservation Commission has added more modern homes to its list of historically significant properties. One such case involves a house designed by well-known architect Victor Lundy in 1972 with almost 20-foot high brick walls. A group of developers from Florida and Aspen bought the house in 2014 for $5.7 million and spent $19 million to expand it to 10,000 square feet. Now, the house is back on the market for $29 million.
All went well until the owners decided to plant seven trees between the house and the street in an attempt to offer privacy. After a six-month debate with the commission, the trees were pulled out to allow the house to be more visible from the street. “The whole idea is that the public should also be able to enjoy these buildings,” says Amy Simon, the city’s historic preservation officer.
Write to Nancy Keates at email@example.com
Appeared in the November 2, 2018, print edition as ‘Millionaire Miner’s Cabins.’