Aspen’s historic Wheeler Opera House will get facelift during pandemic shutdown
Anticipating that there will be no live performances at the Wheeler Opera House for the rest of the year due to COVID-19 concerns, Aspen’s elected officials agreed Monday to allow a high impact exterior masonry project to occur this summer and fall.
The project was scheduled to begin in the spring of 2021, with multiple closures over multiple years, according to Nancy Lesley, interim Wheeler Opera House executive director, and Rob Schober, project manager in the city’s asset department.
Because public health orders limiting gathering sizes to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus put theaters in the “high density and extended time” category for possible exposure to the contagious disease, the Wheeler may not be able to open for groups of 250 people for several months, City Manager Sara Ott acknowledged in a memo to Aspen City Council.
“This uncertainty to when and how the Wheeler can open up, along with what we are learning from many other performing arts centers canceling entire seasons, lead me to recommend using this time for this extensive exterior maintenance work,” she wrote.
Although disappointed that the Wheeler will not be available to the community, council members agreed during Monday’s work session that executing the masonry project is the best use of time and money at this point.
“It’s a good plan to move forward with this now,” Councilman Ward Hauenstein said. “The Wheeler Opera House unfortunately is going to be dark for a while, so we might as well use this opportunity to take care of the facelift, or the wrinkle removal, Botox of the Wheeler Opera House.”
Schober said the sandstone is cracking and bricks are being displaced on the facade of the historically designated 130-year-old building, which requires specialty masonry contractors for restoration.
Because the work will be visually and audibly impactful with lots of dust, the significant aspects of the project will begin in late August or early September to give businesses and restaurants a break from the work during the summer season.
The timing also allows Aspen Public House Restaurant and Valley Fine Art, which are located in the opera house building, to remain accessible.
The non-impactful work, like getting ready and staging next to Wheeler will happen in July.
The project, which will be staged from the back parking lot and involves scaffolding around the building, is expected to be complete in December.
Staff plans to monitor construction, current Pitkin County public health orders, evolving industry-specific guidance and the status of the COVID-19 global pandemic this summer and make determinations on October and November bookings closer to those dates, according to Lesley.
“Staff believes keeping some of the smaller events and allowing a slower, more cautious entry back into the Wheeler in late fall or early winter is the correct way to move forward, if public health orders at that time will allow,” according to her memo to council.
Wheeler officials are, however, working with partners and vendors to determine if there is any appropriate live programming this summer, which would be outside of the actual building.
Due to the building closure, the opera house’s summer series — Sunset Sessions in The Vault, as well as Aspen Mountain Film Festival — are both canceled this year. A decision about the fall’s On the Rise series is still being considered.
The Shining Mountain Film Festival also will not be held at the Wheeler this fall.
Staff also is moving forward on booking the December through March 2021 calendar and working with the Wheeler’s agent, Performance Festival Management, as well as Belly Up.
Final costs and timeline of the masonry project will come back to council in July after officials vet it with contractors.
“I support this proposal,” Councilwoman Ann Mullins said. “It makes sense economically, and in these uncertain times this is something that could be certain.”
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