Built in 1889 by Jerome B. Wheeler (1841–1918), the Hotel Jerome was Aspen’s original luxury hotel. After the 1893 silver crash destroyed the town’s economy, the hotel survived as a boardinghouse and slipped into comfortable shabbiness. When Aspen developed into a resort after World War II, the Jerome played host to movie stars and celebrities such as Hunter S. Thompson. In the 1980s the hotel received a full renovation that restored it to its original Victorian elegance.
Aspen was founded in 1879 as a mining town. The mines were not particularly profitable until Macy’s Department Store president Jerome Wheeler arrived in the early 1880s to inject some much-needed capital into the mining and transportation infrastructure. By the late 1880s, after the first railroads arrived to carry ore away from the mines, the town was booming. In seven years it produced $112 million in ore, and in the early 1890s it overtook even Leadville as the leading silver producer in the state. The town’s original log shacks came down, and grand new brick and stone buildings went up.
In 1888 Wheeler sold his interest in Macy’s and focused on his Aspen investments, which included a bank and the Aspen Mining and Smelting Company. That year he also financed two major building projects in town, the Wheeler Opera House and the Hotel Jerome. Two Kansas innkeepers, Bixby and Phillips, who had already built a large wooden hotel in Aspen called the Clarendon, originally conceived the hotel project. Wheeler donated a parcel of land called “Jacob’s Corner,” at the corner of Mill and Main Streets, and loaned Bixby and Phillips $60,000 for construction of the hotel.
Bixby and Phillips wanted their new red-brick hotel in Aspen to rival the Ritz in Paris. It was three stories tall, with ninety rooms and fifteen baths. The modern luxuries included steam heat, electric lighting, indoor plumbing (with hot and cold water), and the first elevator in Aspen. All of this did not come cheap, however, and costs soared to $125,000 for the building plus another $25,000 for the furnishings. Bixby and Phillips left just before construction was complete, leaving Wheeler with an unfinished building and unpaid bills. Wheeler saw the project through, hired a French chef for the hotel kitchen, and held a grand opening celebration for the Hotel Jerome on Thanksgiving eve 1889.
The Jerome was a thriving hotel throughout the early 1890s, as Aspen grew rich on silver. The town had more than 10,000 people and supported six newspapers as well as several dance halls and theaters and one of the largest opera houses in the state. The hotel changed hands several times during these years before being sold to Archie Fisk of Denver in 1892. The sale price of $125,000 made it the largest Aspen real estate transaction to date.
After half a decade of booming silver production, the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act (1893) made silver nearly worthless. Aspen went bust after the Panic of 1893 brought the American economy to a halt; the town lost several thousand residents, miners and investors fleeing for secure jobs and better returns elsewhere. In 1909 Fisk lost the Hotel Jerome for back taxes, and it became the property of Pitkin County.
In 1911 a local businessman named Mansor Elisha bought the Hotel Jerome. After Elisha’s death, his son Laurence took over the Jerome’s management until the 1940s. During these decades Aspen received few visitors, and the Hotel Jerome struggled to stay open. It operated as a boardinghouse, offering room and board for ten dollars a month.
A new era opened for Aspen after World War II, when it went from a sleepy mining town to a bustling ski resort. Walter Paepcke took a twenty-five-year lease on the Hotel Jerome starting in March 1946. He updated the hotel and reopened it in January 1947.
Paepcke hired Bauhaus architect Herbert Bayer, who also renovated the Wheeler Opera House at about the same time, to work on the Jerome. Bayer added new furniture and more bathrooms. Most notably, he painted the Jerome’s brick exterior white.
During these first few postwar years, the Hotel Jerome witnessed the founding of many of the Paepcke-backed institutions that shaped Aspen’s development in the second half of the twentieth century: the Aspen Skiing Company, the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Music Festival and School, and the International Design Conference. The Jerome started to welcome movie stars as tourism to Aspen picked up in the 1950s.
Despite Aspen’s growth as a resort town, the Hotel Jerome faced trouble in the 1960s. The building stood in need of repair: the roof leaked, and the plumbing and wiring needed to be replaced. Business declined, and the hotel closed for a few years.
In 1968 John Gilmore of Michigan bought the Hotel Jerome and reopened it. He tried to interest investors in restoring the old building but was unsuccessful. Several experts even advised demolition. Gilmore did neither a full restoration nor a demolition. Instead, he kept the hotel open and remodeled some parts of the building, adding shops on its east side.
During these years Aspen attracted hippies and counterculture types. Perhaps the most notable was the journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who made the Hotel Jerome’s J-Bar his office, spending long hours there sorting through mail and watching television. When Thompson ran for Pitkin County sheriff in 1970, he made the Hotel Jerome his campaign headquarters.
In the 1980s the Hotel Jerome attracted the attention of Aspen real estate entrepreneur Dick Butera, who saw the hotel as a wonderful example of old mining-camp architecture. Butera convinced his friend Jim McManus to join the project. They bought the hotel in 1984 and began a complete renovation and restoration of the hotel the following year. They stabilized the old building’s framework, reinforcing the foundation and adding steel supports. They also gave the exterior a facelift, removing layers of paint to reveal the original brick facade. Inside they rebuilt the interior walls and reinstalled the old light fixtures. Using furniture from the Herschel Bartlett Mansion in St. Louis, they restored the interiors to a late nineteenth-century look.
After twenty years under owners Butera and McManus, the Hotel Jerome changed hands rapidly in the turbulent real estate market of the early 2000s. It was sold to Oklahoma Publishing in 2005, to Elysian Worldwide and Lodging Capital Partners in 2007, and to DRW Real Estate in 2011. DRW brought in Auberge Resorts to manage the property, and in early 2015 the majority owner of Auberge Resorts, Dan Friedkin, bought the Hotel Jerome and associated properties for more than $70 million.
In the fall of 2012 the Hotel Jerome underwent its first major remodeling since 1985. The hotel reopened with new wallpaper, curtains, and carpet in all guest rooms as well as a new heating and air-conditioning system and revamped public spaces. At the same time, the hotel acquired the adjacent Aspen Times building. As of early 2015, the hotel was planning an expansion that would place a new three-story building behind the historic Aspen Times storefront and add a fourth story to the hotel’s west wing, bringing the total number of guest units to 103.