Ralph and Marian Melville Interview-12/03/2008

Ralph Melville, the founder, builder and operator of the Mountain Chalet, first came to Aspen in 1951.  He found the town overbuilt from the 1950 FIS races. He returned in 1953 and broke his ankle skiing. He considers this his lucky break because he found himself stuck here with nothing to do but wander around and look at real estate. With real estate agent Jim Moore, Ralph looked at the lot where the St. Regis now sits.  It was seven lots and was initially offered at $4000, which was too much. They came back asking $4500 and Ralph felt that was really overpriced. As an alternative, Mrs. Salisbury owned two lots (1200 square feet) on the corner of Mill and Durant. Ralph bought this property for $2000 in February 1953.

He began building in August 1954 and was ready to open at Christmas-time with three usable rooms:  2 bunk rooms (each with 4 beds) and one room with two twin beds.  Over the winter he finished six more rooms.   In 1957 he bought Billy Zaugg’s two lots from Mrs. Towne, and bought Mrs. Swearringen’s lot after she died in 1963 or 1964.

In the spring of 1956 Ralph began two floors of the east wing, at the same time he built Ed’s Beds and a house for Madge Soderstrom.  He had three guys working with him.  This east wing section was finished in the winter.

Ralph made $1900 the winter of 1954-55 and lost it all the summer of 1955 trying to run it as a regular lodge.  So in the summer of 1956 Ralph started providing housing for music students in town for the Music Associates of Aspen. They leased the whole lodge for 9 weeks.  This continued every summer until the Marolt Housing was built.  With these low-maintenance guests at the lodge, Ralph would do other projects.  Some years they would go to New Mexico to work on the railroad, or sometimes there were houses to build for people around Aspen.

Marian met Ralph in June 1956. She had come to Aspen in 1955 with Dottie Keleher whom she had met at Mont Tremblant, Canada in 1954; they were in the same American Youth Hostel group with Charlie Patterson. She spent her first winter in Aspen skiing and working at the Holland House and the Sundeck.

Marian and Ralph first met formally at a picnic at Chapman Dam up the Frying Pan River valley.  She and her then-boyfriend caught a ride back to Aspen with Ralph, but the boyfriend had so much to drink he fell asleep on the trip.  With the boyfriend out of the picutre their relationship moved quickly.  They were engaged in July and set a wedding date of August 18, 1956.

On August 5, 1956, just before they were to be married, Ralph was climbing North Maroon Peak of the Maroon Bells when he fell quite a distance. (His ropes were in his backpack!)  It was a very serious fall:  He broke his right knee and tore all its tendons and ligaments, displaced the kneecap to about 8 inches up the leg, broke the left arm, and four ribs, cracked three or four vertebrae, plus the jaw was broken and dislocated.  In addition there were multiple cuts and bruises on his head and his left eyeball was totally reddened. The fall necessitated a full-length leg cast.  Also his jaw was left dislocated and unwired because he couldn’t move it.

Marian, already in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to prepare for the wedding, heard this and came back to Colorado to help Ralph.  They released him from the hospital to her care, and they went straight to the lodge, got his suitcase, and left for the wedding.

She came home from the wedding to find out what life with Ralph would be like when she found the bedroom was the boiler room. Eventually, after trying a house off premises when Julie was a baby, the family moved into guest rooms at the hotel.  At the peak family size, with seven children at home, the Melvilles resided in what are now apartments 130 and 230.

There were many additions to the Mountain Chalet:

1954 First section opened – completed in 1955

1956 First two floors of the East Wing

1958 Third (and final) floor of the East Wing
1959 Basement of main building
1960 1st floor of main building
1962 2nd floor of main building
1963 3rd floor of main building
1964 Started and finished three floors of the West Wing through an SBA loan pushed by Charlie Patterson
1966 Started the apartment section:  excavation and structure
1967 Built the Mountain Chalet Snowmass:  Broke ground Memorial Day, ready by Christmas – 48 rooms
1969 Finished four floors of the apartments and changed zoning rules (because he had approval to build 8 stories high)
1972 Built the swimming pool
1978 Melvilles moved out of the Mountain Chalet
1989 Dean Street Addition:  garage, conference room, workout area
2003 Finished 4th and 5th floor addition

There were eight additions to the Melville Family:

1958 Julie Melville born
1960 Frank Melville born
1961 Nancy Melville born
1963 Susan Melville born
1965 Karen Melville born
1967 Craig Melville born
1968 Riley Pond accepted as foster child
1981 Kaiulani Ginter accepted as foster child