American Society of Landscape Architects ASLA 2005 Professional Awards
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In an emerging mountain forest at the base of Aspen Mountain, a forgotten treasure has been restored and brought to its rightful place among the historic landmarks of Aspen. Once overgrown with vegetation and marked with vandalism, Ute Cemetery is now carefully preserved as a most unique historic experience blending the wildness of nature with the stories of Aspenís past (photo: Ron Sladek).

Here an existing grave is overgrown with vegetation before the restoration project. Many gravesites were completely obscured by understory vegetation, and were only discovered through a careful research and documentation process (photo: Ron Sladek).
The same grave now with selective vegetation removed and a nearby interpretive path (photo: Ron Sladek).
These are graves of over 30 Civil War veterans as they appeared before the restoration project. Many headstones were toppled and broken, and informal mountain bike paths crossed over many graves (photo: Ron Sladek).
The same Civil War veteran graves after restoration. Damaged headstones were documented, removed from the site for careful repair, and returned to the site. Informal paths that impacted grave sites have been revegetated to prevent further damage (photo: Ron Sladek).
GENERAL DESIGN AWARD OF HONOR

Ute Cemetery Restoration, Aspen, CO
BHA Design, Inc., Fort Collins, CO
City of Aspen, CO


"Responsible work . . . involves the community . . . a great story!"

— 2005 Professional Awards Jury Comments

Thoughts of Aspen, Colorado usually bring images of billionaires, movie stars, and snowboards. A place where carefully scrubbed denim, neatly frayed sweatshirts and T shirts carefully adorn the chests of hidden wealth; a place denoted by personal jets standing guard at the arrival to the city. But there is a secret there, one almost buried under an emerging forest, a place where the roots of the past intermingle with the roots of the land; a story of men with a history lost; a time and a place secluded on a forgotten slope. This is the story of Ute Cemetery, a pioneer’s burial ground.

As Aspen’s oldest graveyard, there are over 200 crusty early American souls thought to be buried here, more than thirty of which were veterans of the Civil War. Ute Cemetery is a simple hillside, buried in plants and mountain bike trails. In the late 1990s the City came under pressure from a group of local veterans who felt the City should honor its veterans and recover the grace of this historic setting. Ute Cemetery was an almost forgotten place until the City of Aspen retained a historic preservation consultant, a specialist in tomb restoration, and the landscape architect to recapture the genius loci or spirit of the place. With this designation came grants that enabled the City to retain the investigative team that restored the cemetery and brought it to its rightful place among the historic landmarks of Aspen.

All was not rosy at the beginning. To quote a letter to the editor from The Aspen Times on July 10, 2002, “The City has just started a major tourist-like project at the Ute Cemetery- gravel trails, and parking, stone gates, memorials, every inappropriate thing you can imagine. No popcorn stands, but I am sure they will follow.” The design team’s challenge was apparent from the beginning; respect the past, preserve the heritage, provide better public access and opportunity for interpretation, and maintain the natural environment.

Understand first what a pioneer’s cemetery meant. This was a location first used for burial in 1880 when a prospector died of “Mountain Fever.” With no established burial ground the prospector’s fellow miners buried him at the base of Aspen Mountain just outside of town. Ute Cemetery was a burial ground for the indigent and working class. Being such, it evolved over time in a haphazard manner. There were no rows, no symmetry, only random placement based on available ground. In fact the cemetery did not even have a name for years after its beginning. It was only later in its life that some of the graves were planned and aligned to resemble a cemetery. The total life of the cemetery spanned 60 years from 1880-1940. After 1940 only two burials occurred and the site began a cycle of decay with no one left to tend to the sites and maintain the landscape. It wasn’t until 2002 that the decaying state became an issue to the City.

The design team’s first step was to try and locate all of the graves possible; no easy task since there was no plan and no order to the burials. With the historic preservation consultant as the lead consultant, the landscape architect assisted with the initial inventory of the site and was responsible for vegetative analysis and selective removal, layout of a new interpretive path, fencing, and establishment of a new entry area with gateway and memorials. The landscape architect also helped prepare a maintenance manual and collaborated with the historic preservation consultant on the design of an interpretive manual.

The site, located about 8,000 feet above sea level, was home to an Aspen forest that was aggressively retaking the land and recovering the earth. On rocky slopes as steep as 26 degrees the work was a challenging investigation. Debris, shrubs, and forest covered the ground and effectively hid many of the sites. Adjoining neighbors also competed for the land, with many gradually expanding their property outward, encroaching upon the cemetery. After over a month of field work, many of the sites had been located. Searching for clues such as aligned stones, exotic plant materials, changing growth patterns, subtle markers, and in some cases old and worn fences and broken tombstones, the site gradually began to unveil itself to the team. In all, over 210 gravesites were discovered, although only 78 were marked with headstones.

To assist in the recovery, a major volunteer effort was undertaken. The consultant team together with the Aspen Community Development Department and Parks Department worked with volunteers from Aspen to help in the beginning of the recovery effort. With the assistance of the historic preservation consultant and the landscape architect gravesites were cleared of overgrown vegetation, litter and debris.

The City of Aspen wanted to identify the cemetery and yet keep a low profile. To accomplish this, the landscape architect designed a low brick monument sign reflective of the historic nature of the cemetery and yet small and circumspect in scale and image. Additionally the landscape architect created a series of small gravel pathways and established a manual for maintenance and operations in order to allow interpretation and to ensure the cemetery was properly maintained after the initial restoration work was completed. A small fence reflecting the character of the historic fence was also designed and installed to mark the site boundaries.

Lastly, a walking brochure was created by the landscape architect to provide an interpretive experience describing the history of the site as well as the rules for use of the property.

Mountain cemeteries are unique. Unlike cemeteries found on the plains, they have extreme terrain and a rustic mountain character. Long rows of gleaming white tombstones lined up like dominoes are seldom found. More typical are randomly placed plots with locations determined based on available topsoil and absence of bedrock. The result is a picturesque setting with a mystical quality. The Ute Cemetery project shows the value that landscape architects play in historic preservation. As a result, the Ute Cemetery project has set a unique precedent for preservation of cemeteries in the West.

Ultimately the project was highly received by the City of Aspen whose Historic Preservation Commission presented the design team a Preservation Honor Award in 2003. Through the efforts of the consulting team, city staff, and volunteers, the City’s oldest cemetery has been preserved from the ultimate fate of disappearance into the forest.

 

The restoration efforts are careful to preserve the mystical character of the burial sites. Many graves still contain seasonal bulbs and ornamental flowers likely planted with care by family members of the deceased over the long history of the site (photo: Ron Sladek).
New features added to the cemetery were carefully designed to fit within the natural character of the site. The soft interpretive path allows access through the site without impacting the quiet character of the woodland cemetery (photo: Ron Sladek).
Workers from Normanís Memorials carefully reset a monument after its painstaking repair (photo: Ron Sladek).
The neighborhood park is intended as an icon for the larger goals and concepts of the Lloyd Crossing area. It will provide a staging area for the wastewater treatment system, a local cafť, an outdoor living room for the neighborhood, and habitat for many species.
Ute Cemetery provides a one-of-a-kind experience for its visitors. As they walk along the quiet interpretive path, they not only find inspiration in the striking natural mountain setting, but encounter countless stories of struggle and hope in the history of early Aspen (photo: Ron Sladek).
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