The story of Colorado is composed of the rise and fall of boom towns. What had been a gentle westward migration changed into a breakneck race for riches with the discovery of gold in California in 1848. Overnight, boom towns sprung from mining camps, and then turned to ghost towns, often in less than ten years. In Pitkin County there were three such stories, as prospectors in Independence, Ashcroft, and Ute City all hastily threw up log cabins after silver was discovered. Of these three towns, Ute City, the furthest away from any mountain pass, was given the slimmest odds for survival. Then Ute City renamed itself Aspen, silver ore was found in massive amounts, and a lone visionary staked his fortune on the future of the town.
The early days of Aspen can be tied to a tiny handful of names: H. P. Cowenhoven, B. Clark Wheeler, Charles Hallam, D.R.C. Brown, and Jerome B. Wheeler (no relation to B. Clark). The first three of these were involved with the proper structure of the town, transforming it from a wild-west camp to a city with a real street grid, formal deed and claim ownerships, paid police, a volunteer fire department, churches, a school, and that elusive quality called respectability. Jerome Wheeler, the last of these city fathers, was arguably the most important of them. A third cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wheeler served during the Civil War, survived to marry into the Macy’s Department Store family, and within a few years came to run the entire business after the sudden deaths of both its male heirs. Due to his wife’s own frail health, in 1883 the couple moved to Manitou Springs, Colorado. It didn’t take long for Wheeler to hear stories of silver strikes over the Great Divide in Aspen, and he purchased interests in four promising mines. So enamored was he with this dream of his own riches that Jerome Wheeler sold his interest in Macy’s in 1888, and turned his attention entirely to Aspen.
Jerome Wheeler was a solver of other people’s problems. Wheeler (and his fortune) helped fund the construction of the Midland Railroad into Aspen, as well as help unlock a solution to a local smelting works. His investment in various mines gave them the funds to carve into fantastically rich veins of ore. In 1889, he built the four-story sandstone Hotel Jerome, and as a sister project two blocks away he built a proper bank which included a gift to the community: a public hall on its top floors with a fine proscenium stage, seats in rich Moroccan leather, and an azure ceiling studded with silver stars.
It was quite an impressive collection of services in the building known simply as the Wheeler Opera House. Located in the center of town, the Wheeler Bank occupied the choice corner position at street level, and encircling the bank on the south and east sides were Louis Weinberg’s Haberdashery and (by separate entrance) The Ladies Palace of Fashion. The Aspen Mining & Smelting Company shared the second floor with the bank’s offices, as did an attorney’s office and a dentist. The basement housed Aspen’s finest “tonsorial parlor,” also known as a barber shop.
All this paled in comparison to the sumptuous theatre located in the highest architectural reaches of the town. As impossible as it seems today, the construction of the building took less than a year, starting in June 1888 and finishing in less than eleven months, in April 1889. It was a state-of-the-art assembly space, with clean steam heat and electric lighting (reflecting Aspen’s accomplishment of being the first city west of the Divide to be wired for electricity). The central chandelier featured thirty-six lights, giving off a luminescence unheard of in this age of kerosene and limelight. A dizzying buzz surrounded the Wheeler for weeks ahead of its Grand Opening Celebration. A demand for fine millinery so overwhelmed local merchants that they resorted to newspaper ads declaring “We can take no more orders today, as it will tax our whole force to the utmost to complete engagements.”
Opening night, April 23rd, 1889, had something for everyone. If one didn’t care for the plot of the Conried Opera Company’s performance of “The King’s Fool,” a little patience would get you to a spirited swordplay exhibition by a squad of Viennese women fencers. The air was thick with the scent of white rose water – the satin programs had been perfumed several days before being distributed to all the ladies in the audience. “The citizens of Aspen are to be congratulated in the possession of so grand a structure as the Wheeler Opera House” raved the Aspen Daily Times.
But behind the scenes chaos was brewing. Aspen now had a beautiful stage befitting the silver capital of the United States, but that stage was still in a town with one road in and five long months of winter. Fortunately, Aspen’s situation was not unique, and it joined into a touring route known as “The Silver Circuit,” where a show would start in Denver, move on to Colorado Springs, then up and over to Pueblo, Trinidad, Salida, and Leadville before crossing the peaks to Aspen and west to Utah, playing Provo City, Salt Lake City, Ogden, Park City, then up to Rock Springs, Wyoming, and ending in Cheyenne, thus bringing traveling Shakespeare companies, minstrel shows, vaudeville, burlesques, concerts, lectures, and even boxing matches.
Ironically, Aspen became a victim of its own success. Because Aspen and other towns mined so much of the precious metal, suddenly the U.S. Treasury was flooded with silver. In 1893, Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Act and the metal collapsed to true market rates. The boom had ended; Jerome Wheeler shut down his businesses, and eventually went bankrupt. For the Wheeler Opera House, the crash meant a dead stop to having the world at its stage door. The hall that only four years prior the Aspen Daily Times had declared “a perfect bijou of a theatre” was on its way to oblivion.
Aspen slipped into “The Quiet Years.” What had been a city of 12,000 slowly declined to only about 700 souls. Silver was still mined, but barely paid for itself. Buildings only a few years old caved in or caught fire during the long winters. As bad as all of this was, it got much worse for Aspen and the Wheeler during one dreadful week in 1912. At approximately 10:30 pm on November 12th, hours after a silent movie screening, a fire was discovered between the stage floor and the dressing rooms underneath. The fire was snuffed out, with only massive water damage to the retail offices and grocery located below. Ironically, the theatre was relatively untouched, and even went back to business-as-usual the next night with another movie screening.
Nine days later, on November 21st, a second fire broke out. Started about 2:00 am in three different locations (the box seats, the locked ushers’ room, and the scenery onstage), this time the cause was clearly arson. This second fire burned with such intensity that steel cables melted. The reaction of Aspenites was swift and vengeful. “Fiendish Firebugs Again Rampant in Our City, Wheeler Opera House Partially Destroyed, the Prettiest Little Structure of Its Kind Between Pueblo and Salt Lake City is Sacrificed to the Venom of a Degenerate Unfit to Remain Upon Earth” ran the headline in the Aspen Democrat Times. The Wheeler Opera House, just 23 years old, was boarded up and written off as another Aspen ruin. Only the retail spaces on the first and second floors remained occupied.
In 1918, the City of Aspen purchased the Wheeler Opera House for $1,155, or the amount of back taxes owed on the property. Cultural events, in limited supply, took place only at the Isis Theatre or Armory Hall (now City Hall). As the Quiet Years continued, ranching and potato farming became the main businesses of the Roaring Fork Valley, and not much else changed for Aspen, or the Wheeler, for the next three decades.
Aspen’s revival is tied to two developments in the 1940s: the cross-Divide training of the 10th Mountain Division, and the love affair between the tumbledown little town and Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke of Chicago. The intersection point of these two major forces was skiing — the Paepckes helped create the Aspen Skiing Company with Europeans that had been essential to training the 10th — but where the Paepckes built a legacy was in a state of mind called The Aspen Idea. The Aspen Idea espoused the combining of healthy mind, healthy body, and healthy spirit in order to create a full person. In Walter Paepcke’s own words, he envisioned “… a community of peace … with opportunities for man’s complete life … where he can earn a living, profit by healthy physical recreation, with facilities at hand for his enjoyment of art, music, and education.” This led to the 1949 Goethe Bicentennial Convocation, which not only birthed the Aspen Institute and Aspen Music Festival, but also brought the Paepckes to discover the sad hull of the old Wheeler Opera House. In 1949 their interest sparked a community effort to clean out the performance space, patch up the fire-damaged walls and floors, and replace the leaking roof. Acclaimed architect Herbert Bayer put together a spare design that included inexpensive Japanese lanterns strung across the bottom of the balcony and a bare-bones stage with simple orchestra shell. Benches provided seating and the coffered ceiling remained opened up with the fire-charred beams still exposed. It was sufficient for limited productions, including radio broadcasts by Lowell Thomas and an impromptu concert by folk music master Burl Ives.
As the 1950s brought more visitors to Aspen, the Wheeler’s scratched-out renovation proved less sufficient. Finally as the 1960s began, the Paepckes forced the next chapter in the Wheeler’s history. Again with Herbert Bayer as architect, they steered the Wheeler in a new direction, mixing the period Victorian look with a mid-century Bauhaus design. The box seats were revived as draped side-stages, the benches were replaced by used movie seats, and the walls were painted a rich red with gold fleur de lys. A gold velvet curtain masked the stage, and the coffered ceiling was fully restored. It was a look totally in keeping with the new Kennedy era, but it was a long way from Mr. Wheeler’s house.
Still, despite these make-overs, the Wheeler was a long-neglected building closing in on its first centennial, and structural concerns and other safety issues limited the non-summer use of the hall to the screening of classic films. The theatre had been taken as far as it could without a comprehensive renovation. The lingering question was how to finance it.
In the mid-1970s, the Music Associates of Aspen, the corporate body of the Aspen Music Festival, led the effort for a complete structural overhaul of the Wheeler Opera House. The evidence that Aspen’s new cultural life — one of the richest and fastest-growing in the nation — could clearly benefit by a thorough rethinking of the historic venue was overwhelming. Music, theatre, dance, lectures, film — the town was bursting at the seams with a variety of arts organizations, with few spaces in which to present them.
The mechanism for funding the project was created by a visionary City Council: a one-half of one percent Real Estate Transfer Tax, or RETT, which assessed the tax to the buyers of property within the city limits of Aspen, and which was approved in 1979 for a twenty-year term beginning January 1, 1980.
In 1982, the vacant lot just west of the Wheeler was purchased for an expansion of the historic venue, and about that same time William Kessler & Associates, in partnership with Roger Morgan Studios, received the contract for architectural services. The goal was to return the venue to Jerome Wheeler’s original vision, with late 20th century amenities. The Wheeler had already received historic designation in 1976; now the job was to revive, update, and expand the venerable hall into Aspen’s cultural showcase … and all for just $4.5 million. Big dreams on a small budget.
It didn’t take long for reality to throw cold water over some of the grander plans for the project, and the western expansion was the first to go. In part because of a confusion of purpose, in part because of soaring construction costs, the expansion’s future tottered and then was done in by an incongruously modern design debuted by the Kessler architects infamously known as the “waving flag.” While other aspects of the building’s renovation had engendered lively debate in the community, the “waving flag” gathered all factions into a united whole — to make sure the “waving flag” never happened. An empty lot and incomplete opera house — which has stretched out to thirty years now — was deemed preferable.
Meanwhile, work on the 1889 building proceeded at great speed, and many of its original features — the box seats, the proscenium arch, even the Victorian-era fire curtain — were returned to their original grandeur. The second floor was, for the first time, established as the lobby for the theatre, wrapping the southeast corner and featuring the finest view of Aspen Mountain in town. The corner at street level was envisioned as a pre- and post-show theatre bar, and the space west of it was transformed into the Wheeler’s box office — also a first for the old building. The renovation also finally addressed the issues of public comfort and safety with an attached passenger elevator and, behind that, a fire stair tower with freight elevator to the stage. At long last, patrons with physical challenges could be serviced, and the ugly exterior fire escape was removed.
As the project’s completion neared, it was time to assess the benefits — and shortfalls — of the renovation. The backstage finally had real dressing rooms, but the spaces were spare and cramped with low ceilings. Performers now had an offstage crossover to stage left, but only in the form of an unattractive “bump” on the back of the building. The box office’s location meant that winter winds would sail down the mountain for a literally icy welcome to the venue. The second-floor lobby space was limited so that only half of the hall’s patron capacity could enjoy it. And finally, the vacant lot to the west was a constant reminder that the Wheeler expansion was a dream deferred.
All of the shortcomings were gladly overlooked in the triumphal Grand Re-Opening, on May 23, 1984. A week of celebration started with free tours, and featured performances by pianist James Levine and cellist Lynn Harrell, the Denver Repertory Theatre Company, dance troupe Momix, and — to underscore the long history of the great hall — a screening of the silent film classic The Wind, with live accompaniment from the new orchestra pit, and its now ninety-year-old star, Lillian Gish, in attendance.
Very quickly, the Wheeler Opera House once again became Aspen’s most beloved building. In use 350-plus days a year, the Wheeler could accommodate both Lily Tomlin as she spent six weeks fine-tuning her Broadway hit, “The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In the Universe,” and Aspen Community School’s annual production (one of which introduced another star, Kate Hudson, in all her adolescent glory). Texan Lyle Lovett came to the Wheeler at least once a year, and John Denver came by so often it was like a second living room for him. Renée Fleming’s brilliant soprano first rang out as a student of the Aspen Music Festival’s Opera Theatre program, and Harry Connick Jr. met his future bride after a Wheeler play. The HBO/U.S. Comedy Arts Festival settled in for a thirteen-year run, breaking such unknown talents as Lewis Black, Margaret Cho, Bill Maher, and a scrawny kid named Dave Chappelle. And on and on it’s gone, with friends from David Brenner to John Oates to Goldie Hawn.
But what’s next for the Wheeler? Thanks to the 1982 purchase of the lot west of the Wheeler, as well as a strong real estate market from 2002 through 2008, the Wheeler has (as of April 2014) $26 million in RETT monies and land to expand onto. Anything is possible, but will require the consensus of the community to make that “anything” happen.
It’s a great time for the Wheeler. The house is the envy of theatres big and small around the world. The Wheeler is privileged to partner with such internationally-renowned groups as the Aspen Institute, Aspen Film, National Public Radio, the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, National Geographic, Mountainfilm In Telluride, the Aspen Center for Physics, and of course the Aspen Music Festival and School.
For 125 years, the story of the Wheeler has been the story of the town. Through boom and bust and boom again, both building and town have proven a resiliency and tenacity that have defied the odds. Now, well over a century after the silver boom came and went through Colorado, one can tour the mining ghost towns, including Independence and Ashcroft, where only the bleached bones of so much promise remain. In the end, it’s the vibrancy of a culture that means the difference between survival and extinction. In Aspen, the heart of that culture has always centered on the corner of Hyman Avenue and Mill Street.