Structural issues delay Wheeler Opera House re-opening |

Structural issues delay Wheeler Opera House re-opening

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Construction workers continue working through delays to get the Wheeler Opera House open January 8th, three weeks later than initially planned.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

The grand reopening of the historic Wheeler Opera House has been pushed back three weeks to Jan. 8, the theater announced Thursday.

As a result of the delay, the Wheeler has canceled a New Year’s Eve concert by the Slambovian Circus of Dreams and relocated its slate of late-December events to Harris Concert Hall.

The Wheeler has been dark this fall as it undergoes a $4 million renovation. It was originally scheduled to reopen with a performance by Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox on Dec. 19. Over Thanksgiving weekend, structural engineers from Carbondale’s KL&A Inc. discovered a need for unforeseen structural repairs to an existing masonry wall on the first floor. The issues required additional engineering and structural supports as well as tearing out some plumbing that already had been installed. Those repairs — the need for which was peer-reviewed by engineers from a Denver firm — are underway.

“We’re not pointing any fingers,” said Wheeler Executive Director Gena Buhler. “There’s really no one to blame but some 126-year-old masonry.”

The city-owned Wheeler is moving events impacted by the delay to Harris Hall through an arrangement with the Aspen Music Festival and School. Those include the Postmodern Jukebox show, Kevin Smith on Dec. 20, Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings series from Dec. 22 to Jan. 2 and Crossroads Church’s Christmas Eve services.

“Gena and her Wheeler team are going out of their way to ensure Aspen Film patrons have the same world-class experience at Harris Concert Hall as they would have had at the Wheeler,” Aspen Film Executive Director John Thew said in the announcement. “While we are disappointed the Wheeler will not be ready for this year’s Academy Screenings, we are pleased to return to Harris Concert Hall, which many of our patrons will remember was home for Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings as recently as the 2011-12 holiday season.”

Buhler and her team opted to cancel the New Year’s Eve show because the Wheeler’s liquor license doesn’t transfer to Harris Hall.

“To do it without a champagne toast and the bar just wouldn’t be right,” she said, adding that Slambovian Circus has agreed to come ring in the 2017 new year at the Wheeler.

Harris Hall’s 500-person capacity is slightly larger than the Wheeler’s standard seat configuration, so the move won’t impact ticket availability and will slightly increase potential revenue. Tickets are on sale at the Wheeler Box Office, which is located temporarily at 312 Hyman Ave. and is still scheduled to reopen in the Wheeler on Dec. 16.

The cost of the new construction work and additional time will be covered by contingency dollars already included in the construction budget, according to Buhler. Renting Harris Hall and bringing in equipment for films and concerts there, she said, is expected to cost an additional $20,000 to $30,000.

The delay is a setback for an organization that has built buzz this fall. Buhler took over as executive director in May and announced the theater’s eclectic winter lineup and new membership program in a splashy presentation to a standing-room-only crowd at the Limelight Hotel on Nov. 19.

Buhler said the Music Festival and people across the local arts community quickly came together this week to help out and ensure the Wheeler could pull off the relocated events.

“Everybody has come out and said, ‘What can we do to help?’” she said. “It’s awesome that everyone has come together. People could have been yelling and screaming at me, but that didn’t happen.”

Charles Cunniffe, lead architect for the renovation, stressed the importance of preserving the 126-year-old building and getting this project done right.

“Great care has been taken to respect not only its past, but its future,” he said in the announcement. “It is imperative that the structural and historic integrity of the Wheeler Opera House is honored as well as the overall guest experience. The additional time ensures the intent to structurally safeguard the building for generations to come.”

The first event in the renovated Wheeler will be Charles Ross’ “One Man Star Wars Trilogy” on Jan. 8, followed by screenings of Warren Miller’s “Streif” and “Chasing Shadows” on Jan. 9, and a free concert by singer-songwriter Seth Glier on Jan. 10.

The renovation targets the Wheeler’s ground-floor lobby, second-floor bar, and backstage area. It also will reconfigure the second-floor theater entrance through two staircases, build new rest rooms and overhaul its air and ventilation system. Originally budgeted for $3.4 million, the theater — which is funded by a city real estate transfer tax — increased the price tag to upgrade its elevator. The project is the last of three major recent renovations for the Wheeler, which underwent a $2.8 million upgrade in 2011 and a $3 million facelift for its theater chamber in 2013.