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Aspen Historical Society retrenches for a new mission

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jim Paussa/paussa.comLeadership of the Aspen Historical Society includes Lisa Hancock, Georgia Hanson, Nina Gabianelli and Kip Hubbard.
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ASPEN – From stately buildings that date back to its 19th-century prominence as a silver producer to the remains of what was once the world’s longest chairlift, Aspen’s history rises from its streets.

Helping bring the town’s story alive in ever-more accessible ways is the Aspen Historical Society, an organization approaching its 50th anniversary with a new vision for its role – not in Aspen’s past, but in its future.

The official keeper of Aspen’s historic record is embarking on an ambitious plan to tell the town’s story where it’s already visible – all over town. At the same time, the historical society is launching the “quiet phase” of a $4 million fundraising campaign. The goal is to create spaces that better protect the society’s expanding collection of archives and artifacts, and provide new opportunities for the public to see those resources.



Add in plans to expand the society’s educational programming and find a successor to the woman who refused to let the organization lapse into irrelevance, and the society’s hands are full.

A decade ago, the Aspen Historical Society was in disarray. A name change – the organization was HeritageAspen for a few years – had done little to cement its identity or solidify its financial footing. In 2003, longtime local Georgia Hanson stepped in as the new executive director of a group the community had nicknamed the “hysterical society.”




“The board that hired me wanted to close the place down, but I didn’t think that was what the community really wanted,” Hanson recalled.

In early 2004 the organization changed its name back to the Aspen Historical Society, and an overhauled board of trustees backed Hanson and other key players who pushed for a property tax to give the society, operating in the red and running on a government bailout, a dependable source of income. In 2005, voters overwhelmingly approved a Historic Park and Recreation District to help fund the society’s operations and the organization launched efforts to re-engage with the community.

The tax, according to Hanson, was never meant to completely fund the society, which also collects fees for some of its programs, and seeks memberships, contributions and grants. This year’s $1.1 million operating budget reflects about $700,000 in tax proceeds, Hanson said.

But the money allowed the society to add staff, open its archives on a regular basis, offer guided history tours, enhance its museum displays, open its facilities to outside use and create the Aspen Character Project, inviting local residents to take on the roles of some of Aspen’s most memorable characters.

Last year, the society drafted “History Live! A Vision for 2020,” a blueprint to create an Aspen History Research Center, further expand the society’s efforts to tell Aspen’s story on the streets, and to forge new partnerships with organizations throughout the Roaring Fork Valley.

Early this year, the society staff reorganized, dropping from 11 people to nine; cut loose were Tom Egan, communications director, and Brad Moore, development officer. Hanson, formerly executive director, now holds the title of president and CEO. She oversees three vice presidents – Kip Hubbard, in charge of marketing and development; Lisa Hancock, curator of collections; and Nina Gabianelli, handling programming and education – who are each assigned to pursue elements of the Vision for 2020 plan.

In 2013, the 50th anniversary of the historical society, Hanson is herself an element of the detailed plan. She will be 70 years old and, then in her 10th year at the society’s helm, intends to step away.

The transition at the top, however, is but a small part of a detailed agenda that divides the next decade’s worth of work into three phases.

Generating interest in history can be challenging, given that about 5 percent of the general populace will actually visit a museum, according to Hanson, quoting a statistic offered up at an industry conference.

“It’s like pulling teeth to get people who aren’t passionate about history to understand that it can be fun and interesting,” she said.

Nonetheless, the historical society currently oversees four sites – the Wheeler/Stallard Museum and Holden/Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum, plus the ghost towns of Independence and Ashcroft – and could be operating another museum, devoted to Aspen’s modern/ski history, before the decade is out.

Its first order of business, though, is a plan to revamp its archives, where Aspen’s paper history is stored. Located in the basement of the Carriage House, the small building behind the Wheeler/Stallard Museum, the space is slated for improvements that will better protect the items stored there.

The $1.5 million project will protect Aspen’s archived history from fire, water damage and the like by sealing the storage area from those elements. All plumbing and electricity, for example, would be located outside the firewall-protected archives. Construction could begin this fall, if fundraising efforts are successful.

The society is also planning to create an underground vault for its large objects, a vast collection that is currently spread among six downvalley storage units, tucked in barns and crammed into the ground floor of the Carriage House. The collection includes everything from the “boats” that were part of Aspen Mountain’s boat tow, predecessor to its first ski lift, to a snowscrew, a screw-propelled vehicle designed to travel on snow.

The vision is a 4,000-square-foot concrete space that will allow the society to not only store its collection in a controlled environment, but allow the public to see the items.

The vault could go beneath a planned new museum at Willoughby Park, site of the original Lift One that served Aspen Mountain, but that museum hinges on the fortunes of a lodge development proposal. If the Lift One Lodge doesn’t move forward (developers would provide the museum and vault as part of their project on South Aspen Street), then the society contemplates building the vault on the Wheeler/Stallard grounds.

If the society builds the vault on its Wheeler/Stallard property, it is an estimated $1.5 million investment.

“I absolutely feel that’s the taxpayers’ mandate – for us to protect all of this to the best of our ability,” Hanson said.

Improvements to existing historic sites under the society’s oversight would use the remaining $1 million of the $4 million that is the campaign’s goal.

Whether the society will also operate a third in-town museum, at Willoughby Park, is the haziest piece of its future vision.

The park, above Dean Street, borders what remains of the old Lift One corridor at the base of Aspen Mountain. Lodge development plans call for the relocation of one of two former Skiers Chalet buildings for use as a museum devoted to Aspen’s modern history, including the ski era.

If it comes to pass, Hanson doesn’t envision a museum collection gathering dust behind velvet ropes.

“It’s not going to be dioramas and ‘don’t touch,'” she said.

Rather, Hanson would like the first floor of the building to feel like an apres ski setting, where visitors can sit at tables from a previous iteration of the venerable Red Onion beneath the name-etched ceiling that was saved from the old base bar at Aspen Highlands.

At the very least, the society’s Vision for 2020 includes a self-guided interpretive experience at Willoughby Park and the adjacent Lift One Park – one in which modern technology would, for example, allow visitors to trigger a recording of local icon Klaus Obermeyer’s signature yodel as they walk beneath a tree, Hanson said.

The Willoughby Park experience is but one aspect of the society’s plan to take Aspen’s stories to the streets, to reach the 95 percent of the populace that isn’t likely to venture into a museum.

The vision encompasses 21st-century technology – using a cell phone to conjure an image of a downtown Aspen building as it existed 100 years ago, Hanson offers as an example – to tell Aspen’s history all over town.

In some ways, the society is already doing exactly that.

The closing of the Crystal Palace, one piece of Aspen’s history, paved the way for two of the Palace’s singer/actors to join the society staff. Both Gabianelli and Michael Monroney have taken on first-person roles as historic characters and have coached other locals who have done the same.

Bike tours, West End walking tours, tours of the Hotel Jerome and the “Aspen History Coach” are among the society’s offerings. The latter features a two-plus-hour drive around town in an electric vehicle, with tour guide Monroney at the wheel offering an array of interesting tidbits, and stops at both museums. There’s also a historic ski tour of Aspen Mountain, focused on the mining history that preceded the present-day ski slopes.

In addition, Gabianelli, Monroney and volunteer Lee Sullivan have taken to telling Aspen’s history – all of it – in a whirlwind, Vaudeville-style performance, “A Briefly Complete History of Aspen,” for local schoolchildren and anyone else interested in hosting the troupe. Monroney gets the credit for the script, which covers 130 years of local history in 45 minutes.

For Gabianelli and Monroney, the historical society is but one outlet for their theatrical talents in the post-Crystal Palace era. It’s a natural fit for Monroney, who says he has always been fascinated by history.

“I’ve always been a museum-goer,” he said. “I love to look for the story behind the places I visit.”

Both actors have been involved in the society’s Aspen Character Project, which challenges locals with a theatrical bent to thoroughly research a character from Aspen’s past and develop a first-person presentation, in costume and in character.

The presentations have been incorporated into the society’s Time Travel Tuesdays series, attracting exponentially larger audiences. When local entertainer Jeannie Walla donned the persona of former Crystal Palace diva Joan Metcalf, the Wheeler/Stallard parlor wasn’t big enough for the crowd.

“We had to turn people away,” Gabianelli said. “We’ve definitely outgrown our space here, but that’s a really good problem to have.”

For other Time Travel presentations this winter – a Hunter S. Thompson documentary screening, a presentation on the ski gangs of Aspen and a talk on last year’s fossil finds near Snowmass Village – the society has turned to larger venues to accommodate the turnout.

Future plans on the educational front include developing a program and possibly a museum exhibit focused on Aspen’s first inhabitants, the Ute Indians.

“The Ute presence here is pretty much ignored,” Hanson said. “I find that unconscionable and embarrassing.”

Other ideas on the lengthy Vision for 2020 list include greater involvement in local schools, establishing a stronger presence in Snowmass Village, producing moveable exhibits that can be set up in empty storefronts and hosting traveling exhibits from other museums.

Planning the society’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2013 is on the list, too. The theme, at least at this point, is “History Live and in the Streets.” The observance will cap the first phase of the 10-year vision plan and, according to the timeline, showcase the completion of the archives facility project.

On the cusp of a campaign to raise funds for the capital components of its vision, Hanson reasoned, the society is about to find out if its goals are in sync with the community’s desires.

“I guess if we don’t raise the money to do this, the community will have spoken,” she said.

janet@aspentimes.com


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