ASPEN - On a windswept hillside overlooking the Owl Creek Valley, a piece of Aspen's ranching history is being carefully dismantled and put back together again.
Soon, passers-by will get their first glimpse of restoration work that has been ongoing since October, when the historic Stapleton house was enclosed within a 3,000-square-foot tent. Inside, a small crew of construction workers labors out of the weather, and general contractor Monty Thompson, of Aspen-based Thunder Construction, is secure in the knowledge that yet another winter's snows won't destroy the decrepit wood structure before he can save it.
Thompson expects the tent to come down in the next couple of weeks, though, unveiling what has been done so far. Locals familiar with the landmark might not notice the changes, but much has been accomplished. Layers of shingles have been removed, and the base layer of a new roof is in place. The house has been leveled, its walls perched on piles of beams and jacks until a new foundation of either concrete or wood is in place. The walls are plumb, or perfectly vertical, though some corners aren't quite square. They never will be because part of historical preservation is retaining the century-old nuances of unorthodox construction.
"How do you define perfection when the beauty is that it's imperfect?" Thompson asked rhetorically.
Imperfections aside, the builder had praise for the craftsmen who worked on the home 100 years ago. Bay windows - a common feature on Victorian homes in Aspen - were installed in the rural ranch house and will be preserved carefully, though new windows must be fashioned. They will look out on a magnificent view.
"For farmers, they did a darn good job," Thompson said. "We were pretty impressed."
The old house, just off Owl Creek Road and the Owl Creek bike trail, between Aspen and Snowmass Village, was built in 1913 by William E. Stapleton, son of Timothy Stapleton, who in 1881 homesteaded in the area now occupied by the nearby Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.
Last year, Pitkin County designated the home as historic and approved a restoration plan that makes the house a caretaker unit for a new home planned on the lot. The James Gordon Trust, represented by Owl Creek Ranch homeowner James Gordon, proposed the project and has since acquired the 5-acre property.
The old, long-vacant house has seen little change since the Stapleton family gathered on its porch for a photograph shortly after it was built. Thompson has a copy of that picture in the office/trailer at the site for reference and inspiration.
The interior of the 1,300-square-foot home has been gutted except for the framing. Anything identified as original has been retained, including the original wood siding that emerged as layers came off. New siding to match the old will be crafted for one exterior wall where it's missing, said Thompson, who has experience in both construction of new homes and restoration of old ones.
He's undeniably captivated by the stories told by forgotten houses, collecting the old newspapers he finds tucked in the walls as insulation, along with other unexpected treasures.
At the Stapleton house, a makeshift root cellar shored up with stones yielded pots and pans. The collection of artifacts also includes a child's leather shoe, found beneath floorboards, a small glass bottle and a couple of license plates, along with bits of newspapers dating back to the 1920s.
The shoe, like the house itself, represents a moment in time - a moment worth preserving, in Thompson's view. The challenge is retaining the home's authenticity while bringing it up to contemporary expectations.
"You're taking a piece of history, looking back at how they did it, why they did it, and bringing it back with that energy - and still meeting modern-day requirements," he said. "It's a bigger challenge, but it's a bigger reward."