The Red O is more than a local watering hole—it’s an important Aspen institution that needs to be preserved and protected.

onion collage

Clockwise From Top Left: Billie Holiday during Wintersköl in 1952; the facade of the Red Onion in 1958; University of Colorado racer Bill Pestalozzi in 1958; Wilbur “Breezy” Zordel and Bernie Popish drinking pints in 1947. 

 

Throughout history humans have constructed the most important buildings out of stone so they might survive conquering tribes, forces of nature and any pesky pigs that might huff, puff and blow the place down. Stone structures signify permanence and a shared perception that a place is worth preserving.

In Aspen during the silver boom of the late 19th century, as this town was etching itself onto the map, the first stone structures included the Hotel Jerome, Wheeler Opera House and the New Brick Saloon. This established the triumvirate of lodging, culture and hospitality that made the town unique and continue to drive commerce to this day.

Due to its crimson complexion and the fact the miners felt it was “something out of the ordinary or unusual; something the likes of which could not be found elsewhere on earth,” the New Brick Saloon was known colloquially as the Red Onion. The nickname became official when Johnny Litchfield—a 10th Mountain Division veteran and co-founder of the Aspen Ski School with Friedl Pfeifer and Percy Rideout—bought the joint in 1947.

Werner Kuster took over in 1953 and ushered in the golden age of the Onion. Kuster’s mash-up of diner, dance hall and public house helped establish the tiny town of Aspen as a cultural powerhouse. The stage saw Billie Holiday sing the blues, witnessed the debut of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” and, for better or worse, helped introduce the world to the wet T-shirt contest as the host of K2’s national T-shirt finals in 1971. (This is a longer story for a different day.) Thanks in part to the Red Onion, Aspen boasted a world-class social scene to complement its skiing.

Through it all, the Red Onion remained a true locals’ spot. As Aspen developed into a resort destination, the focus of many establishments began turning outward in order to attract visitors. The secret, however, is that people visit Aspen not for the luxury, but to live and party like the locals that dedicate their lives to the place. That was the Red Onion’s secret sauce: They always served the locals first and, in turn, attracted out-of-town guests.

It was also a hard-core ski bar. In Litchfield’s days, the 10th Mountain Division soldiers would line their skis along the exterior wall and drink away the war for a night. Before there was a ski-school building on Ajax, students would meet their instructors at the Onion and then skate their way to Lift 1A. The prime front-window booth, known as “Beer Gulch,” was Ski Patrol turf and would often be flooded with pitchers of Coors by adoring fans. More recently, your bartender or server was likely to be a pro athlete or mountaineer slinging drinks between filming segments for an upcoming ski movie. There was never any “après” scene—it was always just people drinking after skiing, which is what made it great.

The Red Onion has weathered all sorts of storms through its 129 years. Surviving the silver bust, the “Quiet Years,” and the massive development and corporate commodification of its surroundings. Its fate is uncertain once again. The taps ceased flowing this past December, and while it's rumored that it will reopen this fall, it is still unclear who will be at the helm. Regardless, it is imperative that the Onion remains—it is a foundational element of Aspen and this town’s last bastion of true ski-bum life.