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How Mastuhisa Aspen Reimagined a 100-Year-Old Cabin 20 Years Ago

By Amanda Rae | March 12, 2019 | Food & Drink

How Japanese mecca Matsuhisa Aspen commandeered a 100-year-old cottage 20 years ago.

matsuhisa.jpgNow home to Matsuhisa Aspen, the 1887 Thomas Hynes House on Main Street (seen here at the turn of the century) was once a schoolteacher’s home.

Oh, if the walls of Matsuhisa Aspen could talk! While decadence, debauchery and chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s divine Japanese fare would dominate tales, the landmark restaurant might also share its adventurous origin story dating back 20 years. Considered the most ambitious underground construction project our town had ever seen, the mostly subterranean Matsuhisa rivals new builds even today.

First, though, the 1887 Victorian mining cottage on the corner of Monarch and Main streets—formerly a schoolteacher’s home, briefly headquarters of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, an art gallery and for years protected on the National Register of Historic Places—took a trip. In the wee hours of a midsummer morning in 1997, the 1,611-square-foot, 25-ton Thomas Hynes House was lifted from its foundation and trailered down Main Street to the base of Shadow Mountain.

“We only had a foot clearance between the traffic lights,” says Niklaus Kuhn, longtime owner with wife Gertrude, as he flips through photos in a hefty scrapbook. “We had to pretty much touch Carl’s Pharmacy and then turn it, go [forward], turn it again.”

matsuhisa-2.jpgMatsuhisa Aspen’s swanky, subterranean dining room has remained virtually unchanged since its herculean construction in 1997.

Removal of two centenarian cottonwood trees, one reportedly in decay following a previous lightning strike, to complete the feat sparked hubbub among environmentalists. By August’s end, the crew excavated some 160 truckloads of sandy dirt from the full-story basement, clearing the way for Matsuhisa’s spacious downstairs dining room. Serendipitous road paving that summer allowed Kuhn to install water lines from across the street and expand the property’s historic brick sidewalk by a few feet.

Though the shack’s dilapidated roof required total replacement, Aspen’s Historic Preservation Commission required that the 100-year-old wooden siding remain, repainted in the original blue-gray tones with rust-colored trim. The Aspen icon has required constant upkeep since it opened in 1998, and Kuhn might argue that its ancient exterior nearly forced its demise. When Kuhn sparked a fire after melting ice from a frozen eave with a blowtorch during the frigid winter of 2004, firefighters had to cut an 8-foot hole in the floor of the upstairs bar to extinguish the hungry flames.

matsuhisa-3.jpgConstant upkeep, including fresh paint on 100-year-old wooden siding, has made the restaurant an Aspen icon.

“We stayed open!” recalls Matsuhisa Aspen Director of Operations Todd Clark, who also remembers marveling at a newspaper image of the building rolling down Main Street shortly after he moved to town. “If you think about wear and tear—1,000 to 1,500 people a week coming into this building—it’s amazing, a testament to the job they did when they built this.”

Kuhn, meanwhile, has one, ahem, sizable regret: “I should have gone two stories down!”