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by cindy hirschfeld | December 1, 2009 | Lifestyle
“It’s always been Aspen’s representative hotel,” says longtime Aspenite Tom Egan, communications
director for the Aspen Historical Society. “While it’s become a more high-end place to stay, they still welcome everyone to use the rest of the facilities. It provides the town with a gathering place that remains.”
As the hotel prepares to celebrate its 120th anniversary, we invite you to dive into the Jerome’s past and present.
During the 1950s the Jerome pool was town's see-and-be-seen hot spot
In the beginning...
When Aspen mining tycoon and former co-owner of Macy’s department store Jerome B. Wheeler unveiled his three-story, 92-room hotel on the eve of Thanksgiving 1889, its novel amenities—indoor plumbing, steam heat, an elevator and electricity—wowed guests from around the country. Wheeler’s goal, which mirrored the aspirational outlook of Aspen during that heady time of the Silver Boom, had been to emulate the most lavish European hotels.
For a few years Wheeler’s venture succeeded beyond what even he may have hoped. Wealthy travelers, prominent businessmen and theater stars—many of whom performed at Wheeler’s nearby eponymous opera house—were guests of the Jerome. In 1892 he sold the hotel to Archie Fisk of Denver, who couldn’t pay his taxes in the aftermath of the 1893 silver crash and eventually
relinquished ownership to the county.
Even as economic hard times embraced Aspen, the Jerome was establishing its reputation as the hub of town’s social life. An Aspen newspaper clipping from 1896 describes a party at the hotel given by Mr. and Mrs. S.I. Hallett as the “event of the season.” The tradition has continued ever since, with gatherings like the Jerome Jazz Party in the ’60s, raucous Halloween fêtes in the ’70s and the Shitkickers’ Ball today.
Aspen businessman Mansor Elisha leased the hotel in 1911, and the Jerome led a fittingly quiet existence during Aspen’s “Quiet Years.” Other than the occasional party, like the banquet
and dance hosted by the Pitkin County Stockgrower’s Association in June 1915 or the “welcome home” dance for veterans of World War I in 1919, the hotel hosted just a few guests and some long-term boarders.
During Prohibition the bar became a soda fountain, and legend has it that the Aspen Crud—a milkshake spiked with Bourbon—was invented then.
The First Renaissance
The Jerome got a second wind in 1946, when it was leased by modern town father Walter Paepcke and received a face-lift from Bauhaus designer Herbert Bayer. The brick exterior was painted white, with blue “eyebrows” over the windows. The restaurant served Swiss cuisine. The original, ornate maple bar was completely restored. In Aspen’s first wave of modern celebrity culture, stars like Gary Cooper, Lana Turner and John Wayne visited. Mortimer Adler of the Aspen Institute held court at the hotel’s pool.
And in the late 1950s, the place became a magnet for some of Aspen’s younger residents. “Something about the Hotel Jerome sucked us in as young kids, and we became terrible pests to the management,” remembers native Aspenite Tony Vagneur. Fascinated by the hotel elevator—the only one in town—young Vagneur and his friends loved to fool with the buttons and doors.
Vagneur and his pals also wrangled autographs from visiting stars of the silver screen, who stayed only at the Jerome when in Aspen—and almost always in the same second-floor suite. “It was almost a sure bet that if we knocked on the door, someone would answer that we’d seen on the big screen over at the Isis,” Vagneur says. “We got an autograph from every person we recognized, which at the end of the winter amounted to a fair stack of personalized signatures.”
A slow decline
In the 1960s the Jerome fell into neglect and was closed for a few years. When John Gilmore of Michigan bought it in 1968, its former grandeur was all but gone; beds could be had for about five dollars a night. Gilmore tried unsuccessfully to recruit investors to renovate the hotel. But locals were undeterred by the lack of luxe.
In 1976, during his first summer in Aspen, Egan lived in a log cabin along Castle Creek that lacked running water and electricity. He and others in similar living situations would sneak up to the hotel’s third floor, which had dorms and a shared bath, to maintain some level of personal hygiene. “When we needed showers, we’d go to the Jerome, have a beer in the bar and take a shower on the third floor, until one day when someone got busted,” he recalls. “I never stayed there until I got married in 2002. We stayed in one of the suites on the third floor, and I thought, ‘Now I can take a shower legally.’”
Tim Mooney served drinks at the J-Bar during the mid-’70s, when the party was in full swing. “It was where everyone crossed through, where everyone met,” he says. The Jerome also housed the Rocking Horse, one of Aspen’s first discos, and a Moroccan-themed restaurant with belly dancers; the hotel pool became a notorious party spot.
The J-Bar’s stools were filled with ski bums, college kids, working cowboys—and one daily regular who was parked all day at the end of the bar. Hunter S. Thompson would stop in after getting
his mail at the Aspen post office so he could eat, drink, sort through his mail, drink, watch televised
sports and the news (the Jerome was one of the few places with a tall antenna and regular TV reception) and drink.
“Hunter would be at there at noon, when the bar opened,” recalls Mooney. “He’d order breakfast,
lunch and dinner all at the same time. It was his office. If people wanted to meet Hunter, they’d come to the Jerome.” (Thompson’s 2005 memorial was held in the Jerome’s ballroom.)
The bar crowd, according to Mooney, also included Jack Nicholson, Jimmy Buffett and The Eagles. When Bill Murray stayed at the Jerome during the making of Where the Buffalo Roam, the loosely biographical
Thompson film, the party often continued in Murray’s suite long after the bar closed, with a Jerome bartender on hand to run up drinks.
The Second Renaissance
The hotel’s second revival began in 1985, thanks to Aspen real estate magnate Dick Butera and his group of investors, who bought the hotel the year before. The Jerome was painstakingly refurbished, with many fixtures restored and others customized to recreate the mine-camp Victorian style of the original hotel. Fireplaces, cherry doors and other interior elements came from an 1891 Victorian mansion in St. Louis. The hotel was once again one of Aspen’s premier accommodations.
In 1998 the J-Bar was restored to its original appearance, from 111 years ago, with the help of historical photos.
The Jerome’s latest face-lift, in 2002, involved a $6 million refurbishment. Ownership of the hotel has changed hands a couple of times in the past four years, but the commitment to providing top-notch lodging and service hasn’t wavered. When he took over as general manager of the hotel in late 2008, Brendan Carlin recalled, “Everyone I ran into gave me their Jerome story. I’m proud to be managing the crown jewel of Aspen.”
Egan adds, “It’s almost like it’s taken on a life of its own throughout the years. It’s going to remain an Aspen landmark no matter what people are going to do.” Here’s to another 120 years, and many more.
IMAGE: Maude Banks Duke and architect Herbert Mayer in front of the hotel in 1947
photographs courtesy of aspen historical society