The Wheeler Opera House was constructed nearly 130 years ago, built by dozens of craftsman out of sandstone quarried from the Frying Pan River. Today, preserving its historic character takes science and a little bit of detective work.
People walking by the Wheeler Opera House might glance in the front windows to check out upcoming shows. Alison Agley, however, is more interested in what’s happening on the outside of the building.
She’s a project architect at Rowland and Broughton and is heading up this new round of maintenance and improvements on the Wheeler. She squints into the bright sun as she looks up at a section of the building’s facade.
"We have the protective netting up there just as an extra level of caution. It’s probably not totally necessary, but we just want to be safe because, obviously, small pieces of stone falling off a building aren’t good for PR,” she said.
Standing with Agley is the city of Aspen’s historic preservation officer, Amy Simon, who points out that Aspen’s freeze-thaw cycle is tough on historic buildings. She says a lot of people simply paint over deterioration.
"There’s quite a few brick buildings downtown that have been painted like that. It could be hiding really serious damage that we need to know about," she said.
To analyze if the Wheeler Opera House had any serious damage, a team of consultants was called in to perform a series of tests earlier this fall.
To check the section of water-damaged sandstone, special stonemasons tapped lightly on the building with rubber hammers, fracturing the stone very slightly.
Sarah Yoon is the city of Aspen’s historic preservation planner.
“When they did the sounding tests and they took out the pieces, they were kind of more flakey pieces than chunks, and that's good. That's what we want," she said.
Those little flakes went to another consultant, who basically gave the stone a diagnosis.
"He would take the little pieces of stone, pour water on them and he could tell us exactly what may or may not have been placed on the stone at one point and how going forward we should treat the stone, or not treat the stone, for it to last," said Agley.
There’s not a lot of wiggle room in historic preservation. Contractors can’t just run down to a hardware store and get new bricks, because, Simon says, its about authenticity.
"We’re not looking for people to replicate the past. We really want to preserve the original material and craftsmanship as much as we can," she said.
But there’s not a sandstone quarry up the Frying Pan anymore. Instead, bricks can be removed, one by one, and flipped, so the less-damaged surface faces the exterior. Sometimes materials can be salvaged from other sources in town. Simon says if new stone is necessary, it will be quarried as close as possible to where the original stone was from.
"There are quarries within this region that might have something of a similar character," said Simon.
Historic preservation can be a painstaking and expensive process. But Simon says there’s not a question in her mind that it’s worth it.
"Just the materials, the energy, the craftsmanship that already exists in this building can’t be replicated. You know, there’s a lot of turnover in Aspen, buildings don’t necessarily have such a long shelf life here. This ones already served for 125-ish years, and has many more to go, so I think it’s a great investment," she said.
Sarah Yoon has lived in cities in Asia that are tearing down historic buildings at a rapid rate in order to replace them with modern ones, something she says made her see how irreplaceable the past really is.
"I think history is something you can’t make with money," said Yoon.
The Wheeler is in pretty good shape for how old it is. Agley feels confident in the building’s future.
"The Wheeler’s going to be here for a very long time," she said.
The project continues this spring. While over time, interior improvements will be made to accommodate modern audiences and performers, the hope for the Wheeler will stay the same: Preserve what’s there and protect history.