A Rock Star Retreat Gets a Welcome Makeover
Walking through the private covered bridge over Snowmass Creek to Mad Dog Ranch feels like entering another realm—a time from the past when mountain retreats were composed of big land and small cabins, not the other way around. The rushing water of spring runoff thunders below, amplified by the tin roof, while a soft light emanates from the end of the bridge.
The retro-style entrance makes a fitting introduction to this Old Snowmass property, which belonged to not just one but two world-famous musicians who came to Aspen to escape, create, and draw inspiration from a place where the sound of the river drowns out other noise. One of those musicians, Jimmy Buffett, purchased the original house and an adjacent small cabin in 1976; in 1991 Glenn Frey, who had been living in the house next door, bought the property.
Frey named the place Mad Dog Ranch and converted two log outbuildings that Buffett had built into a state-of-the-art recording studio. He recorded his own albums there and hosted other well-known musicians, too. When he moved to Los Angeles in 2010, he took his studio equipment with him.
The property sat vacant for six years, then went on the market. That’s when longtime local Julie Garside came along. “Everybody knows the covered bridge house,” she says. “I biked by it many times over the years.”
In summer 2015, she noticed a for-sale sign during one of those bike rides. But it wasn’t until she was laid up after knee surgery the following winter that she contacted a realtor to see Mad Dog Ranch. “I had been looking for a smaller project that might require some updating, like maybe a kitchen and bathroom,” she says. “But the first time I walked onto the property, it felt so good I got goosebumps. I knew this was the place. You could feel the energy of what had taken place here.”
Acquiring it took some persistence, though. Frey’s manager fielded many offers and wanted to be careful about selecting the right buyer. “A lot of people who were looking at it wanted to scrape it and start over,” Garside says. Eventually, all of the pieces fell into place. “It was one of those synchronistic things, which helps, because you don’t question yourself as much,” she notes.
She closed on Mad Dog Ranch two days before Frey passed away, in January 2016. Taking ownership marked only the beginning of her plans. A retired ski instructor with her own property management company, Garside had little practical experience in architecture or design, other than what she had learned by watching her mother (an interior designer), binge-watching HGTV, and poring over magazines. Armed with passion and vision, however, she began a massive renovation of the main house and guest cabin, which took more than two years to complete and posed a slew of unexpected challenges and hidden costs.
“Everyone told me it would be cheaper and easier to tear it all down and start over, but for me the whole point was to preserve the ranch’s history, uniqueness, and character,” Garside says. Along with Ryan Lee of Forum Phi architects, she started a lengthy process of problem solving. “There were many challenges to working with the existing structures,” concurs Lee, “but figuring out how to do that economically and sustainably while creating something contemporary was ultimately our goal.”
Keeping the buildings close to the river served as another incentive to remodel rather than rebuild. “With the zoning restrictions now, I would have had to move a new house so far back from the river that it’d be up against the hillside,” Garside says. She still had to undergo an arduous permitting process to rebuild on the existing footprint, as it was located within a floodplain. The creative solution to help safeguard against flooding? Permanently lifting up both structures, one section at a time (“like a car jack,” says Lee).
The guest cabin renovation came first so that Garside could reside on the property and manage the project day-to-day. “It was nice to begin with the smaller structure because there was such a steep learning curve,” she says. “I was able to take a lot of what I learned and apply it to the main house.”
The 400-square-foot log cabin got a new roof, which added enough height to accommodate a sleeping loft. Reclaimed barnwood siding now covers the upper part of the exterior, and an added support truss made from antique beams sits above the entrance. “We didn’t want to match the new construction with the existing cabin, but we tied it all together with the reclaimed barnwood,” Lee says.
The interior feels open and spacious, thanks to elevated ceilings and soft white walls. Garside combined affordable materials like vinyl flooring, prefabricated kitchen cabinets from Lowe’s, and inexpensive lighting fixtures purchased online with white quartz countertops and an island wrapped in reclaimed barnwood. A vintage-style vanity from Restoration Hardware and limestone and porcelain tiling in the large, glass-enclosed shower bring luxury touches to the bathroom.
At just a little under 3,000 square feet, the main house required an extensive overhaul to create a more open living space and better view lines. Says Lee, “It was a funky floor plan with a ton of angles, lots of walls, and low-sloping ceilings that were not very functional—you couldn’t even stand up all the way in some of the rooms.”
To take better advantage of the expansive views from the second-floor master suite, Lee popped up and reoriented the sloped roof and added a transom window above the doors that lead to a deck overlooking Snowmass Creek; the deck was refurbished, too.
On the first level, numerous walls were torn down, including seven in the kitchen alone, to open up the floor plan. A large folding glass door brings in more light as well as enhanced views of the river.
For a bit of a modern, industrial vibe in the living area, Garside and the project’s structural engineers designed scissor trusses with metal cable supports to replace heavy, low-hanging beams. A polished concrete floor, part of the house’s new foundation, adds to the contemporary style.
To keep the main living space from feeling too cold, however, Garside painted the custom cabinets in the now-open kitchen a bold shade of blue, which contrasts with the marbled white quartz countertops. And the furnishings have a bohemian bent (a nod, perhaps, to Buffett’s song “Gypsies in the Palace,” supposedly written at the house), with items like Balinese doors and Persian rugs adding color and warmth.
Throughout the demolition process, she wanted to salvage and reuse or repurpose as much material as possible from the original structure, not only for environmental and economic reasons, but also to preserve the property’s star-studded history. Buffett and Frey had left behind many treasures, from a curvilinear staircase and leaded stained-glass doors to a hand-carved wood door and the Cadillac of bathtubs.
The wood staircase, which serpentines up the wall to the second level like a helix, greets visitors on entering the house. “Glenn Frey’s caretaker told me that the staircase was made from the wood on Buffett’s boat,” Garside says. At the bottom of the stairs, several framed guitar picks from the Eagles adorn the wall, a gift to Garside from the former caretaker.
When workers tore the drywall from the low kitchen ceiling, the house’s original wood paneling and handmade log beams from Lenado—with bark still on them—were exposed. Garside kept them all in place, adding steel structural beams for reinforcement. She used salvaged wood to panel the ceilings in the master suite and in the entryway foyer. Likewise, many of the original doors remain, from stained-glass ones that Garside moved to the kitchen to the heavy teak doors in the bedroom and one with a hand-carved buffalo that leads into the master suite. A small log playhouse that Buffett had built for his daughter Savannah now houses a tool shed, and the enormous, ancient satellite dish bolted to a huge metal platform remains on the hillside.
But it’s Buffett’s freestanding bathtub on a polished wood base—as big as a small car—that Garside considers the most personal and special relic. “I designed the whole room around it,” she says of the master bath, where the tub now takes center stage after being relocated from a downstairs bathroom. “Buffett apparently loved his bath.”
And the iconic covered bridge? It got its own renovation, with a new roof, new planks, and the addition of steel reinforcement beams. As a partner in Mad Dog Ranch Studios, which includes the property’s recording studio that was refurbished in 2016, Garside hopes many more legendary musicians will travel the bridge, forging new creative paths at this magical locale.
In addition to being Garside’s home, Mad Dog Ranch can be booked as a place to stay for musicians, songwriters, and others using the recording studio. maddogranchandstudios.com
Forum Phi, Aspen
Viking Construction, Aspen (cabin)
David Lambert Construction, Aspen (part of the main house)
Evolve Structural Design, Carbondale
High Country Engineering, Glenwood Springs
Roaring Fork Engineering, Carbondale
H-P/Kumar, Glenwood Springs