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Aspen Times Weekly Features Sam Caudill

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

"Coondog: Aspen's First Architect is Still Going Strong"

Volume 122 | Issue Number 21 | May 26 - 27, 2001

A Presidential Honor for Coondog

He was Aspen's first registered architect, he's designed a host of major local architectural build­ings, he had a hand in overseeing the Glenwood Canyon highway - and now he's been given an award by the president of the United States. Jennifer Davoren looks back over the long, productive life of the man who likes to call himself Coondog Caudill.

By Jennifer Davoren

Aspen Times Staff Writer

Sam Caudill has left his mark in Aspen, in Glenwood Canyon... and in Washington, D.C.

The room was crowded with impeccably dressed men and women clamoring to get a glimpse of the president of the United States.

Each White House guest, includ­ing representatives of every branch of the armed forces, had done their very best in order to greet the commander-in-chief. They stood patiently, often adjusting their jack­ets and ties, as they waited for the president to make his appearance.

Just as he often does around his hometown, Aspen's Sam Caudill stood out in the crowd.

"They must have thought I was from Timbuktu or something," Caudill said. "The president of the United States and his wife and all those other high-level officials, all dressed up in their blue-striped suits, and here's ol' Coondog Caudill... I was the only one dressed like a Westerner."

Dressed simply in a brown turtleneck and looking like I'd just come in from Ute Ranch," Caudill was ready to represent the West at the 2000 Presidential Design Awards in December. The former architect and lifelong environmen­talist called his meeting with Bill Clinton one of the highlights of his extended career.

This highlight, however, won't mark the end of Caudill’s career.

Coondog Comes to Aspen

A descendant (he claims) of Daniel Boone, Samuel Jefferson Caudill was born in Tulsa, Okla., in 1922, but spent most of his child­hood in Kentucky.

After attending school in Ken­tucky and Tennessee, Caudill went on to Cornell University in the fall of 1940.

The college freshman quickly picked up the nickname "Coondog Caudill" from his East Coast friends. It's a nickname he still enjoys.

Caudill's schooling was inter­rupted by World War II. After a short stint at the cavalry school in Fort Riley, Ka11., he went on to serve as a second lieutenant with the Army's Office of Strategic Ser­vices. The OSS brought a bit of adventure - a secret mission sent Caudill to Illiang, China, where he and his unit helped train guerrilla fighters in preparation for a possible invasion.

After the war, Caudill returned to Cornell, where he pursued a degree in architecture. After graduating in 1946, he got a message from a col­lege friend touting a small ski town in western Colorado. The friend, an employee at the Hotel Jerome, encouraged Caudill to join him in Aspen. He arrived just in time to see the opening of the city's ski area.

Caudill's move to Aspen also made him the valley's first licensed architect. The marks of Caudill's architecture career are spread throughout the valley -Aspen's middle and high schools, the Pitkin County Library, the Aspen Art Museum, the Pitkin County Jail, the Silvertree Hotel and the Snow­mass Conference Center are just a few listings on his resume.

Caudill said his designs are usually inspired by the out­doors and borrow some of the same elements as the mountains which frame the valley. The exterior of Aspen High School, for example, has very few right angles and is instead defined by a curved outer wall.

"It was designed to provide space for a whole new teaching program," Caudill said of his design. "The curves affected the size of the classrooms."

Caudill's designs brought many awards, both local and national. The Colorado Society of Architects honored him with a community service award in 1976 and then elected him president in 1983. That same year, Caudill earned a fellow­ship at the American Institute of Architects. The honor of Colorado Architect of the Year came in 1992.

While making a name for him­self as an architect, Caudill man­aged to branch out into other areas of service. President of the Aspen Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the Pitkin County Design Review Board, and member of the first Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission are just a few of the titles Caudill has held over the years.

An appointment to the Colorado Wildlife Commission, cour­tesy of former Gov. Richard Lamm, helped Caudill put his love for the outdoors to good use. He served on the commission for eight years, serving as its chairman in 1978.

"I walked into my first Citizen's Advisory committee meeting, and· Sam stood up and said he was going to kick my ass if I screwed the canyon up." - Ralph Trapani, Glenwood Canyon highway engineer

Caudill's contributions to the valley also come through his fami­ly. In 1952 he married Joy Maxwell, one of the founders of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop and a native of Denver, and the Caudills went on to raise five chil­dren in the valley.

Jody Cardamone, the Caudills' eldest daughter and co-director of the Aspen Center for Environmen­tal Studies, said her parents' pas­sion for the outdoors shaped her entire life.

"What really made our growing up here special is the outdoors and my parents focus on the outdoors," she said. "I just always had this great love of the outdoors. It had to do with the way I am, and then my family just really reinforced that over and over again. They gave me these opportunities that I'm so grateful for."

Jody and her siblings Julie, Boone, Robin, and Anne were brought up with an appreciation of the wilds of Colorado. The Caudill family spent every warm weekend they could on camping trips as all five blue-eyed, red-headed children joined their parents for three days of hiking, fishing, and climbing.

"That was the focal point of our summer," Cardamone said. "It was a very idyllic, special way to grow up."

To this day, Caudill is hard to miss when he walks the streets of Aspen. looking like an appari­tion straight out of the Old West, an authentic Mountain Man. Many locals recognize the bolo tie and rounded black hat and the vast bushy beard that frames a smiling face.

Caudill's local recognition became official in 1997 when he and Joy were named to the Aspen Hall of Fame.

"It was a great honor - we were just tickled to death about it," Caudill said.

Keeping the project on track

"The highway is a wonder of human engineering that provides an esthetically pleasing framework from which to view the canyon's magnificence." - excerpt from the 2000 Presidential Design Awards program.

Caudill got involved with the Glenwood Canyon I-70 project in the late '70s at the request of Pitkin County.

The president of the United States and his wife and all those others high level officials, all dressed up in their blue-striped suits, and here's ol' Coondog Caudill." - Sam Caudill

Above: Sam Caudill In his moment of glory with President Bill Clinton. Photo courtesy Sam Caudill. Below: One of Sam Caudlll's best-known and most honored designs: Aspen High School. Aspen Times photo.

The Colorado Department of Transportation's 'plans to run a four-lane Interstate highway through the canyon had spun-ed users and lovers of the area, includ­ing Aspen's own John Denver, to protest. If CDOT wants, I’d to expand the highway to a safer, speedier four lanes, it would have to seek comments from citizens who were concerned about the future of a magnificent canyon.

CDOT created the Citizen's Advisory Committee, whose seven members would represent the resi­dents of Eagle, Mesa, and Pitkin counties at all design and planning meetings. As an architect and envi­ronmentalist, Caudill was a natural choice to represent his county as a member of the committee.

'There was an incredible amount of citizen input that you don’t see on most projects," Caudill said.

The Citizen's Advisory Com­mittee was able to affect every stage of the highway's design and construction, and its members were never timid about speaking their minds, Caudill said.

'We were trying to keep the project on track. We weren't wor­rying about what people thought of us," he said.

Caudill's fierce love of Glenwood Canyon around him a few friends among project organizers. CDOT program engineer Ralph Trapani said he was quickly introduced to Caudill when he came on board in 1980.

"I was a young engineer who had just taken the project over," he said. "I walked into my first Citi­zen's Advisory Committee meeting, and Sam stood up and said he was going to kick my ass if I screwed the canyon up."

Ass kickings were avoided. The citizens helped CDOT select two designers for the I-70 project. Caudill said he approved of CDOT's choices and knew the designers would do their best to pre­se1ve the canyon's natural beauty.

Every consideration was taken when working with the canyon's fragile environment, Caudill said. Many sections of the highway were built from above using cranes to avoid disturbing the riverbed.

"Everything was done with kid gloves," Caudill said. 'There was a lot of skill there."

The river and its flora and fauna were the main concerns, Caudill said. Certain trees and shrubs were "flagged" as con­struction progressed, protecting them from bulldozers and construction workers with chainsaws. If a flagged item was uprooted despite warnings, the worker responsible received a hefty fine.

"We held their noses right to the grindstone," Caudill said of the system. "They had to do it or they were fined."

The Glenwood Canyon I-70 project, almost 20 years in the making, was officially completed in 1992. The final result was a 12-mile stretch of highway that hugs the canyon's rock cliffs rather than plowing through them.

"Instead of just putting the highway straight through the canyon without any feeling for the environment, they followed its contours," Caudill said.

A hiking and biking path was also included along the Colorado River, allowing residents to enjoy the area CDOT had worked to protect.

Caudill said the highway pro­ject eventually became an easy one, once planners embraced the idea of protecting the canyon from construction.

"Everyone from the lowest worker clear up through the con­tractors, everybody who worked on that project got the feeling they wanted to do a magnificent highway without harming the environment," he said.

Trapani agreed that the project became a model for transportation officials all around the country.

"The final result speaks for itself," he said. "Not only does the project look good in terms of reveg­etation, it also received many, many awards.

"Everyone from the lowest worker clear up through the contractors got the feeling they wanted to do a magnificent highway without harming the environment." - Sam Caudill

''It raised the bar for environ­mental preservation."

Two decades of cooperation concluded during the highway's opening ceremony in 1992. The day's most popular speech was made by an ecstatic Caudill, who thanked CDOT for its environmen­tal conscience and concluded his time at the podium with his trade mark coyote howl.

"You can't go any better than that"

"Through the skill and creativity of designers, the dreams of our nation have been transformed into reality and the visions of our people made manifest. " - Former President Bill Clinton

Caudill said he was surprised to open his mailbox last July and find an envelope bearing the Presiden­tial Seal.

The letter inside informed Caudill that ·a panel of artists and architects had selected the Glen­wood Canyon effort as one of nine projects to be honored at the 2000 Presidential Design Awards. The idea behind the design awards, the letter said, was to "represent the millennium-year White House theme of honoring America's past and imagining its future."

As a key contributor to the pro­ject, Caudill was invited to the White House for a special awards ceremony in December.

"An award from the president - you can't go any better than that," he said of the honor.

Caudill's whirlwind day in Washington was "a dream come true." After checking in with the White House social secretary, Caudill was whisked away for a holiday tour of the White House. He spent most of his day talking with the 79 other Design Award recipients about their various projects.

When the time came to meet Clinton, Caudill said he was happy to congratulate the president on his environmental efforts while in office.

"I thought he was a great environmentalist and a marvelous pres­ident," he said. '"He was a strong supporter of the environment and protecting our natural resources, which is not being clone with our current administration."

The Clinton meeting produced a few of Caudill's favorite photos, including one that captures the for­mer president and the first lady lis­tening to Caudill's tales of the canyon. Caudill is his usual, ani­mated self in the photo as he enter­tains the Clintons.

"He was ecstatic. It was the crowning glory of his career," Cardamone said.

The bolo tie, walking stick and weathered hands of Sam Caudill give insight into a man of many tales.

Caudill was also able to spend time with his collaborators on the Glenwood Canyon project, people he hadn't seen since the completion of the highway expansion. The trip was a good opportunity to thank again those responsible for the pro­ject, Caudill said.

"The way everyone worked together to meld engineering and nature, to meld the highway into natural terrain while protecting the natural environment, was mar­velous," Caudill said.

After the Awards

Caudill could sit back and enjoy retirement in the home he built on the banks of the Roaring Fork River, but he prefers to spend his days working with a favorite pas­time Colorado history.

Spurred by his wife to find a hobby, Caudill turned his attention to a book he has titled "Colorado: The Wild Years." Over 10 years in the making, the book records Caudill's interviews with many of the state's "Oldtimers." Conducting some 50 interviews with authentic Western pioneers has kept Caudill busy over the years, but now the book is completed - lacking only a publisher.

"I interviewed some very inter­esting people," he said. "Even if nothing happens and it never gets published, I'd still do it again."

Cardamone said she loved see­ing how much fun her father had with his history project.

"Whether it's published or not, it's been a great experience for him," she said. "As we distance ourselves from pioneer Colorado, it becomes more important all the time that we record our history."

Caudill said the project had become a personal mission when he realized that most of the men and women who populated the West just after the tum of the century would soon pass away.

Aspen local Sam Caudill lets loose a shrill "coyote call" from his Jeep in the Winterskol parade. Aspen Times photo.

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