Aspen’s midcentury-modern roots have dominated home design and the real estate market for years—will the traditional mountain home cycle back?
The North Star Lodge is a beautiful example of classic mountain home architecture.
Once upon a time people built log homes in Aspen because they had to, then because they wanted to—and now they don’t want to at all. The modern has conquered Aspen, comprising the vast majority of new construction over the last decade. The reason is simple: Modern homes are most in demand. Log homes, even stately, finely constructed ones, often languish on the market.
Consider the area east of Aspen. Two new, contemporary homes are for sale by the river but close to Highway 82, both with asking prices of approximately $3,000 per square foot. A three-minute drive away stands the North Star Lodge, a classic, luxury log home with stunning views, its price just reduced to slightly more than $1,200 per square foot. While real estate comparisons in Aspen can rarely be truly apple-to-apple, there’s a clear consensus among real estate brokers and developers—and buyers—that log is out, and modern is in.
What’s behind this shift in taste? Some of it is simply a return to the roots of modern Aspen. Unlike most ski towns, previous design in Aspen includes the modern, which can trace its origins to Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, creators of the Aspen Idea. They brought in Herbert Bayer and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius to help plan and build modern Aspen. Modern took hold, advanced by the likes of Fritz Benedict, once an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright. But the pendulum of taste swings, and there have been times—the ’90s to as recently as a decade ago—when architects like Robert Trown held sway, and Aspen was enthralled with log and dark wood.
Veteran Aspen builder Lee Pardee remembers walking every lot in the Preserve neighborhood, by the North Star Preserve, before he decided to build with enormous logs harvested from the Yellowstone fires of 1988. The area had 120-foot pines, and log homes, he felt, were right. “People like their homes to fit in,” he says. The houses, he notes, were “log facing,” and thus only looked traditional. They had normal walls inside the logs, giving the homes modern energy efficiencies and all the latest gadgetry. They sold well.
Rocky Mountain log home style was influenced by the great Adirondack lodges of New York as well as the rustic cabins of European pioneers in the West. The style is marked by a use of regional materials and a desire to blend with the natural environment. The soaring great room and open kitchen pictured here and below at the North Star Lodge echo the gilded era of mountain retreats of generations past.
Times and attitudes changed. “How many billionaires get picked up from their private jets in a pick-up truck?” Pardee asks. “It used to be quite a few… People in the past had more of an attraction to Aspen, and wanted to fit in more.” Now, he says, they’re bringing more of where they’re from. Some of the change might also have to do with age. Steven Shane, managing director of Compass real estate, notes that buyers who come from finance and tech tend not to be taken with traditional style. “Modern resonates with younger buyers,” he says.
There’s also the issue of peer pressure. “Two things killed the log home,” says longtime broker Lane Schiller. “Starchitects and cocktail-party competitiveness.” Schiller says that there are still plenty of folks who like log homes but are afraid to admit it. Log just isn’t cool.
Developers have adjusted, sometimes going so far as to transform existing log homes into something, well, modern. Take what broker and developer Chris Souki did to a property on Ute Avenue. What Souki saw was a home with a great location, good bones and a “surprisingly good view.” But the interior was traditional and “loggy.” Even the furniture was dark and heavy, including a couple of high-quality German armoires that, in a sign of the times, Habitat for Humanity refused to take.
Souki turned to designer Mindy Kaegebein, with whom he often works. Together they set out to make the home bright and open. They needed to do it without changing a wall or a window, as anyone who’s renovated on a budget and dealt with the City of Aspen Building Department can attest. “You have to take what the essence of the house really is,” says Souki, “and then try to bring it as up-to-date as you can.” So they pulled out every nonstructural log and stripped down the ones that had to stay, which exposed what Kaegebein terms “a really pretty color.”
After a coat of matte varnish, the logs were transformed from their earlier yellow into something gray and clean. Souki and Kaegebein also leveled some ceilings and, in general, brightened and decluttered the space. The result is a home that feels new and modern—and a year later sold for almost 40 percent more than it had before the remodel.
End users are also recognizing the value to be found in a traditionally styled home. Lisie Gottdenker and her husband bought a townhome by Highlands that looked, as Gottdenker’s friend put it, “like Thunder Railroad at Disney World.” This is hardly Gottdenker’s taste, but, given the relatively low price of the unit, she was not deterred. Now they’re “de-logging” the home. “The layout is flawless,” she says, “and we figure we can fix the rest.”
A few people decry the current situation—especially if they happen to be real estate brokers with a log home listing. “The pendulum has gone too far,” says Sotheby’s broker Susan Guggenheim Lodge, who represents an 11,000-square-foot log home in Eagle Pines. “A lot of buyers don’t come here for the contemporary look. [They] want to build a style that’s indigenous to the area.”
Which brings us back to the North Star Lodge. Built in 1993 in the tradition of the great log lodges, the home was originally listed for $16.5 million. Three years later, in a generally rising market, the asking price has fallen to $10.5 million. At a little under 9,000 square feet, with an additional 4,000 square feet of decks, on close to 8 acres, the home boasts an enormous great room, an open kitchen, soaring ceilings, a mammoth fireplace, seven bedrooms and dramatic views, all with exceptional craftsmanship. “The great room of that home is second to none,” says listing agent Steven Shane. The home, he says, “is a piece of artwork in its own right.” Given the home’s proximity to town, he notes that a buyer will get a 50 percent discount for “the inconvenience of a 2-mile drive.”
Is the log home really dead? Many real estate professionals feel otherwise, providing certain upgrades are made. Says Shane, “There are plenty of people who have contemporary homes as their primary residence and want an authentic Rocky Mountain home, but they want it with modern technology.” Chris Souki agrees. “There’s a location and demand for [log homes],” he says, “but no one’s done it at the level it needs to be done.” Mindy Kaegebein says that when traditional makes a comeback it will employ elements of the old and the new. She describes this as “Chalet Chic,” which she says employs “chalet warmth and comfort mixed with luxurious modern accents.”
So, while modern still sells, many are positioning for a turn. Take the cover of Compass’ recent summer brochure, which features not a white and gray modern box, but a traditional log home, complete with a giant elk-antler chandelier. “Much like fashion,” says Steven Shane, “real estate will rediscover previous architecture and design.”
When that will happen is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, you can get a great deal on a log home.
Photography by: PHOTOS COURTESY OF COMPASS