Aspen walking tour

The Red Onion restaurant in Aspen
The Red Onion is the oldest restaurant in Aspen, dating back to 1892. | Photo by John Leach

By John Leach

Aspen has dozens of historic buildings, and many of them can be explored on foot. Here is a walking tour that stops by key buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places that tell Aspen’s story.

Start at Durant Avenue and Hunter Street, near the plaza for the Silver Queen gondola. Walk a block south to Cooper Avenue, and the La Fave Block building from 1888 on the southwest corner (405 S. Hunter St.). The two-story, brick building was built by Frank La Fave, an early settler, and is Aspen’s second-oldest commercial building. The building originally housed a restaurant on the ground floor, and Stein Ericksen, the Olympic skiing gold medalist, ran a ski shop there in the 1970s.

Walk west on Cooper for a block, and you’ll enter a pedestrian mall created in 1976 with bricks that had been laid on St. Louis streets around 1900. The very small stream running down the middle of the street eventually feeds into the Roaring Fork River.

Halfway down the block is The Red Onion, Aspen’s oldest restaurant (420 E. Cooper Ave., photo above). The brick, two-story Italianate building was freestanding when it was built by a town alderman in 1892. Legend has it that a brothel operated on the second floor. The building was listed on the National Register as “New Brick – the Brick Saloon,” the restaurant’s name before it became the Red Onion, a colloquialism from the late 1800s for something rare and unique, much as a “white elephant” is today.

Cooper Avenue runs into Wagner Park, a popular spot in the summer for throwing Frisbees, running through the grass and playing rugby. There is a public restroom here, with its outside walls bearing displays telling the history of Aspen.

Turn north on Mill Street, which continues the pedestrian mall, and a block later you’ll hit Hyman Avenue, with the dancing fountain and Wheeler Opera House. Below-ground jets spray water in seemingly random patterns to create the dancing fountain, a popular spot with kids in the summer. The computer-driven wonder debuted in 1979.

Across Hyman is the three-story Wheeler Opera House (330 E. Hyman Ave.), which was built by Jerome B. Wheeler, who had made his fortune with the Macy’s department store and had invested in silver mines around Aspen. The opera house opened in 1889, was extensively damaged by fire in 1912, and was restored to its Victorian splendor in the 1980s. The peachblow sandstone used on the exterior was taken from local quarries.

Walk north for a block and you will find the Collins Block building at the southeast corner (204 S. Mill St.). The two-story structure was completed between 1891 and 1893 with peachblow sandstone on the ground floor and brick on the second floor. A flat wooden roof extends out over the sidewalk and is supported by wooden columns. Local developer Harley Baldwin bought the building in 1988, turning the top floor into a residence and creating the exclusive, members-only Caribou Club in the basement, while the ground floor retail spots went to high-fashion boutiques.

Next door to the east is the Hyman-Brand Building (203 S. Galena St.), which was erected in 1891 with an exterior of peachblow sandstone. It was built by David Marks Hyman, a Cincinnati lawyer who made a fortune from his investments in Aspen silver mines. It was slated for demolition in 1971 but was saved by Harley Baldwin, who renovated it and opened the art gallery there that bears his name, along with high-fashion boutiques. The two Baldwin buildings were nicknamed “Glitter Gulch” by Aspen residents.

Across Hopkins Avenue on the northeast corner is Aspen City Hall, which historically was known as the Armory Hall and Fraternal Hall. The brick, three-story building was erected in 1892 as a National Guard armory and served as a community meeting place and a venue for dances and concerts. It became the Aspen City Hall in 1956.

Head north on Galena to Main Street, and you will find the Pitkin County Courthouse, which has handled hearings and trials for serial killer Ted Bundy, singer Claudine Longet, journalist Hunter S. Thompson and actor Charlie Sheen. The brick, two-story building was erected in 1890, nine years after Aspen became the county seat.

Finally, walk two blocks to the west, and you will be at the brick, three-story Hotel Jerome, a grand hotel in the European style built by the same Jerome B. Wheeler who was responsible for the Wheeler Opera House. The luxury hotel debuted in 1889 and immediately became an Aspen landmark. If the time is right, stop into the J-Bar and order its signature drink, a bourbon-laced milkshake called the “Aspen Crud.”