Aspen’s Historic Opera House Gets Its Finishing Touches

The final phase of an elegant $4.2 million makeover brings the storied Wheeler Opera House into the 21st century.

By Elizabeth Nix Photography by Dan Bayer May 1, 2016 Published in the Summer 2016 issue of Aspen Sojourner

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This 19th-century safe now has a prominent place in the Wheeler’s upstairs lobby.

In January, it took six strong men to haul a large metal safe from the basement of the Wheeler Opera House up to the box-office lobby. The heavy lifting was part of the recent $4.2 million renovation at the Aspen landmark, and the 19th-century safe, now on display in the revamped lobby, serves as a link to the building’s early days, when it housed a bank, a barber shop, and other businesses on the lower floors, along with the performance venue above.

Constructed by business tycoon Jerome Wheeler, the venue was considered state-of-the-art when it opened in 1889, during Aspen’s mining boom. But by the turn of the 21st century, the Wheeler—which had survived a 1912 fire and later underwent several remodels, the last major one in the 1980s—was in definite need of an upgrade. A 2011 renovation targeted the building’s restaurant, retail, and basement office spaces, while the auditorium’s balcony was redone in 2013. The most recent, and final, phase of work focused on the theater’s first- and second-floor lobbies and backstage area, all of which “looked dated and didn’t match the high-caliber performances we were presenting,” says Gena Buhler, the Wheeler’s executive director, who took over last May.

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Victorian-style circular benches welcome ticket buyers in the newly enlarged box-office lobby.

Enter Charles Cunniffe Architects. The Aspen-based firm was responsible for the final renovation phase of the Wheeler—owned by the city since 1918—and approached the project by seeking input from various stakeholders, including community members, the Wheeler staff and board of directors, and nonprofits that use the theater. “We asked what everyone thought about how the space functioned and what they wished they could change,” says David Rosenfeld, senior project architect. As design plans took shape, the project became a “spatial reimagining” that combined “historic character with modern efficiency,” according to the firm’s principal, Charles Cunniffe, who has extensive experience with historic renovation projects locally, including the Hotel Jerome, the Isis Theatre, and the Ute City Banque and Aspen Block buildings. “We wanted to revitalize the Wheeler as a community gathering place, one that enhances the social fabric of Aspen,” he adds.

In order to make the box-office lobby feel more spacious, a thick wall between the main stairs and the ticket counter was removed and replaced with two columns surrounded by cushioned circular benches. Digital signage was added near the ticket counter to advertise upcoming shows, an environmentally friendly move that reduces the need to print posters; brochures and maps that once took up shelf and counter space around the lobby were relocated to a moveable visitor-information desk near the front doors. In a nod to historical appropriateness, patterned wallpaper was added behind the ticket counter as well as in the second-floor bar area. (Aspen’s Historic Preservation Commission, which was actively involved in the renovation, advised that in the late 19th century an opera house like the Wheeler would’ve opted for wallpaper rather than exposed brick, notes Buhler.)

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The redesigned upstairs lobby promotes community gathering, and the bar now opens an hour before shows.

Another goal was to make the Wheeler’s public spaces more cohesive. A coffered ceiling and a pair of chandeliers were added to the box-office lobby to mirror those same elements in the auditorium. New carpeting on the main staircase and in the second-floor lobby echoes the red color of the auditorium carpeting, while the custom-made wool carpet on the stairs also features a patterned trim inspired by painted details on that historic safe.

On the second floor, the redesigned space is more welcoming, with better flow. The bar (which now opens an hour before every show) was reconfigured; restrooms were remodeled and fitted with sleek brushed-aluminum stalls, marble floors, and textured wallpaper; and a coat-check station replaced the former hang-at-your-own-risk coatrack. A new, retractable stage across from the bar can be used for smaller-scale performances, such as cabaret nights and poetry slams, with seating for up to 85. And large historic photos of Aspen are displayed throughout. In line with the Wheeler’s enhanced community focus, Buhler plans to take advantage of the spectacular views afforded through the second-floor lobby’s tall windows—now that the former drapes have been removed—and host community viewing parties for holiday fireworks and events such as World Cup ski races.

The renovation also included a face-lift for the backstage dressing rooms and a new system for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. “Before, the building was either too hot or too cold,” says Buhler. “Comfort level is so important when you see a performance, and now we’ll be able to properly control the temperatures.”

Unsurprisingly, renovating the 127-year-old Wheeler was not without challenges. For example, existing building plans only went back as far as 1981, says Rosenfeld. “There were a lot of discoveries as we made our way into the bones of the building,” he recalls.

One thing that wasn’t uncovered—a souvenir like a long-lost journal, love note, or stack of cash. “I was sure we’d find something and was so disappointed when we didn’t,” Buhler says with a laugh. But she’s definitely not disappointed with the overall results. “The renovation has given the opera house the status it deserves,” she says. “The minute people walk in the door, they say, ‘Wow.’” Especially coming from Aspen’s discerning audiences, that moment of awe befits the Wheeler’s legacy as one of our town’s most beloved buildings.

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