Aspen’s mountains and meandering river valleys have been a natural setting for revivals of the Swiss chalet. The romance of gemütlichkeit is tempting for contemporary architects. After all, the rustic style, with its stacked logs and pitched rooflines, has been closely associated with an idyllic place of refuge, where winter sport enthusiasts were free to graze the snowy hillsides and escape the daily monotony of their lives. It is the quintessential picture of a holiday home. Yet, when it came time for Robert A.M. Stern to design a residence in Aspen’s Starwood community for a philanthropically minded client, he opted instead for a more dignified design. You know — the kind that was worthy of entertaining presidents, dignitaries or a rock star or two.
“We agreed that we wanted to create a formal house, with strong classical bones,” says the architect, from his office in Midtown Manhattan. “It was intended to be a year-round house that could be used in the ski season and during the summer months. The client wanted a house that was very comfortable, yet also elegant — a place where you could feel at home in hiking boots or suit-and-tie.”
Stern knew exactly where to look for historical precedent: Sir Edwin Lutyens’ Tigbourne Court in Surrey, England. Built in 1901, the arts and crafts-style country house represented “formal simplicity,” as it emphasized simple forms, a connection to nature and honesty of materials. It seemed apropos for a stately residence set against the rural backdrop of Aspen.
“I like to design houses that are very site specific,” says Stern. “Most of my clients have strong ideas about how they want to live, and that was the case with this house.”
Some of those ideas included creating spaces that would function well for private moments of relaxation and large-scale entertaining. In fact, Stern’s clients — a generous couple with grown children — were known for lending their property out to friends and family for use when they were not in residence, and hosting fundraising galas with such prominent guests as former President Clinton.
“It has been the one place in my life where I always felt I could totally relax and feel pampered,” reveals the homeowner. “It’s better than any spa or resort. It has absolute privacy, and yet you have access to the most beautiful views of Roaring Fork Valley and the ski slopes of Aspen Mountain and Snowmass.”
Stern and his partners collaborated closely with the homeowner to reinterpret Lutyens’ notions of simple formality in every detail of the 13,927-square-foot residence, which is currently listed for $11,995,000 by Carrie Wells of Coldwell Banker Mason Morse. The driveway curves along a steep rise from the street, marching to a grand motor court and triple-gable entry façade. In a stroke of genius, Stern thought to place the garage off to one side and bury it into the hill behind a pergola screen. To reduce the apparent size of the main mass of the house, he also carefully arranged the pavilions and bays on the site.
The exterior itself (rendered in a tawny Weymouth granite conveys stature, while its golden tones — caught in the warm glow of the sun’s rays at just the right time of day — commands an angelic sense of awe. The mottled purple and green slate roof and the natural wood trim were all designed to blend with the environment. “The garden elements — reflecting pool, retaining walls, wood pergolas and terraces — further lock the house into the steeply sloping site, so that it seems set on a natural shelf or plateau rather than feeling perched on a hillside,” explains Stern.
Organized on three floors, with the entrance and principal rooms on the middle level, the interiors were designed to take full advantage of the abundant western light. The living room, for example, was oriented to frame the view across the valley. The south-facing dining room also enjoys a glimpse of Aspen Mountain across the reflecting pool and a sculpted garden.
Upstairs, the five bedrooms each have their own unique relationship to the outdoors.
Knowing the owner wanted the house to serve as a retreat, Stern created an expansive spa suite on the bottom level with a Swedish sauna, fitness center, full racquetball court, billiard room and spectacular indoor pool opening up to a terrace nestled in the trees. In a testament to Stern’s attention to detail, the lights on the ceiling of the indoor pool were patterned after the stars as seen from Aspen on the night of December 25.
“Almost everything was custom-made, and if it wasn’t, we sourced antiques at very special places in New York and Paris,” he says.
Stern and his team also took special care when it came to the outdoor spaces and gardens.
“When the weather warms up for the summer, the gardens are very special,” says the architect, who first visited Aspen in 1963. “It’s wonderful to sit on the porch with the outdoor fireplace in the evening hours and watch the sun set over the valley.”
It is this sort of experience that the homeowner treasures most. She calls the house a “total joy” and a “blessing” to have hosted presidents, celebrities and anyone else who needed “a break from their busy schedule.”
If that isn’t gemütlichkeit, then what is?