ASPEN - The Aspen City Council on Monday quietly endorsed plans involving a renovation of the balcony and technological improvements at the 123-year-old Wheeler Opera House.
The city has identified numerous problems with the balcony area, including seats that are too small and uncomfortable, antiquated projection technology and safety issues. During a council work session, consultant Michael Schnoering, of Mills and Schnoering Architects LLC, of Princeton, N.J., talked about the issues and how his firm, which specializes in historical-preservation projects, would tackle them.
"This project is primarily about the balcony and renovations to improve patron experience, to be safer and more comfortable for the patrons," he said. "That includes a technology upgrade for digital cinema projection, a seating upgrade and some structural upgrades."
The existing projection booth in the balcony, which some refer to as "The Whale," currently includes 35 mm projection equipment and two control stations for lighting and video operations.
By downsizing the booth and streamlining it with high-tech equipment, more space can be freed up to allow a project that will include wider seats and other comfort-oriented amenities, such as greater leg room.
One of the firm's design options, which has met the approval of the Wheeler board and staff, calls for no change in the number of balcony seats, Schnoering said. Current capacity is 137 seats in the balcony and 368 at the orchestra level, for a total of 505 seats.
There's also the problem of a sagging balcony.
"As you may have noticed, part of the balcony ... is sagging a bit," he said. "At some point in the past, we think in the 1970s, there was an additional column put in to brace the balcony.
"So as part of this project, we think it is prudent to fix the structure or upgrade the structure to current codes."
He said part of the balcony would have to be dismantled, but as much of the railing as possible would be salvaged.
Schnoering also spoke of a few lighting improvements for the facility and the need to take down and clean its chandelier.
Officials said the work shouldn't have any effect on the building's acoustic quality.
Council members posed questions to Schnoering and Wheeler executive director Gram Slaton but didn't express many reservations about the scope or cost of the project at the end of the discussion.
In December, the council unanimously approved a design and engineering contract for Mills and Schnoering. The firm will guide the rehabilitation of the Wheeler Opera House balcony, for which $2.9 million has been included in the city's 2013 budget.