History Gets a New Face in Aspen
The organization dedicated to Aspen’s past is pondering its future.
The Aspen Historical Society is at a crossroads ” struggling with its finances and its identity, uncertain of its role in the local culture and unsure of the community’s regard for the institution.
At the same time, a newly overhauled board of trustees is optimistic that the society is getting back on course after several years of internal turmoil and declining membership. It is trying to lure back grass-roots support from a public alienated by the organization’s brief lapse into pretentiousness ” epitomized by a name change to the enigmatic HeritageAspen.
Early this year, the board took back the organization’s original name, risking a new slew of jokes about the “hysterical society.” There hasn’t been time or money to change the sign in front of its headquarters, or even its letterhead, but the board was anxious to make the change.
The society dropped its annual February fund-raiser, the Silver Barons Ball, this year after declining proceeds from the event last year but will debut “Celebrate History Week” on March 15-19 in its ongoing effort to reconnect with Aspenites.
Lately memberships have climbed to about 470 (in a town of 6,000-plus residents) after dwindling to 317 ” a low that society Executive Director Georgia Hanson hopes to double by the end of March. A membership is $50 per person or $125 for a family of three or more.
Still, the society ended its fiscal year last October about $120,000 in the red. Its budget has been cut, and then cut again. Positions have gone unfilled, and it will take years to dig out of the financial hole.
For Hanson, who took the society’s turbulent helm a little more than a year ago, ensuring there’s money in the bank to meet payroll is an ongoing and all-consuming worry. It’s one that hampers the society’s staff and its board’s ability to pursue creative ideas, but it hasn’t stopped them from dreaming.
“We have a marvelous vision for this place, and I want to be acting upon it,” Hanson said.
Instead, the society is treading water these days, according to Hanson, a longtime local resident who calls the historical society post the toughest job she has ever held. She feels the pressure to “fix things” but admitted some of the stress is self-inflicted.
The society’s struggles were hardly a secret when Hanson took the post in October 2002. The board had parted company with two directors in two years. Some members were suggesting the society, headquartered in the Wheeler/Stallard House museum, shut its doors.
“A lot of people said to me, ‘That place is doomed, don’t take that job,’ ” Hanson recalled.
So far, she concedes, it has been tough going.
“I don’t want to cry wolf, but at the same time, I do want people to understand that we’re not making it,” she said. “There are a lot of expectations for us to produce without having the funding.
“The majority of people in town just sort of take us for granted,” Hanson surmised. “A lot of them think the city pays for it.”
A museum is one of those amenities a community expects will be there on the rare occasion when they need it. Many give it little thought until they need to access the archives or have guests in town who want to view its exhibit.
For someone coming into town on Highway 82, though, there’s not even a sign to let a visitor know there’s a museum in the neighborhood to their left, observed one incredulous downvalley resident.
Hanson suspects many in the community don’t realize how much the organization does with its annual operating budget of about $400,000 or that only about 7 percent of its budget is funded by local government.
“You cannot support what we’re trying to do on a $6 admission to the museum,” added board member Bunny Harrison.
Hanson would like to put the society on sound financial footing, with about one-third of its revenues coming from government support, a third from earnings from use of its facilities and one-third from membership contributions. Right now, membership fees make up 77 percent of the pie.
The Wheeler/Stallard House property, which occupies nearly an entire city block of valuable West End real estate, could be subdivided. Selling off a couple of homesites would generate a healthy endowment fund ” an idea that has surfaced before.
“Is that what we’re supposed to do?” Hanson mused, before vowing, “Not while I’m here, if I can help it.”
More promising is the prospect of selling historic TDRs ” transferable development rights the city recently created, allowing owners of historic properties to sell off their right to further development to other homeowners looking to boost the amount of floor area they’re allowed to build.
The society has also mulled the pros and cons of a tax district with a mill levy devoted to the historical society’s operations, Hanson said. That’s something voters in the district would have to approve.
Or museum operations could be limited to the summer months.
“Does anybody care if we’re closed? It’s very expensive ” we could cut the budget in half by being open four months a year,” she said. “We really need to understand what the community wants and needs, and is willing to support.”
More than a museum
The historical society manages the Wheeler/Stallard House and grounds, as well as Aspen’s historical archives, located on the same property. In addition, it operates the Holden-Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum and oversees management of the Ashcroft and Independence ghost towns in partnership with other organizations. A ski museum at Willoughby Park, the site of the original Lift 1, is in the society’s future plans.
Its programming also includes winter and summer lectures, guided West End walking tours, a summer series for youngsters and programs for schoolchildren.
This spring, however, the museum will close for six weeks to save on payroll. Hanson vows it will open with regular Tuesday-through-Sunday hours this summer. Now it’s open two afternoons a week and at other times when a staffer is there.
Those hoping to use the archives are currently limited to two afternoons a week, by appointment only.
For the variety of individuals conducting research of all sorts, the archives are invaluable, said board President Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, a local historian and member of the society almost since its inception in 1963.
“It’s the repository of all the history of Aspen,” she said. “I see it as an invaluable asset to the community.”
“Our whole responsibility is to take care of the collection, take care of the archives,” Hanson said. “Whether they’re going to be generally accessible is a community decision.”
The society should have a full-time archivist, she said, but the position has been left unfilled since December. Curator Sarah Oates has been filling in.
Membership in the historical society is now on an encouraging upswing after several years of dwindling grass-roots support that Hanson attributes to several factors, including, oddly, developments that were actually beneficial to the organization.
For example, Ruth Whyte donated a West End home to the historical society, which was sold for $1.7 million to finance a much-needed renovation of the Wheeler/Stallard House.
The gift, however, left the public with the misperception that the organization didn’t need financial assistance. In addition, both the Wheeler/Stallard House and Holden-Marolt barn were closed for renovations and were out of the public eye for a period of time.
When the museum reopened in 2001, its $171,649 inaugural exhibit, the “Spirit of Aspen,” missed its mark, Hanson contends. The expensive, upscale display failed to convey the town’s messy vitality, though a revamped version continues to offer a comprehensive overview of Aspen’s history for those who peruse it thoroughly.
The original exhibit included panels that blocked windows and darkened the front parlor but offered nothing in the way of Victorian furnishings, even though the Wheeler/Stallard House is a stately 19th-century mansion.
Instead, talking aspen trees ” “Hi, I’m summer” ” represented each season. There were canned bird songs, but savvy visitors recognized some of the warbling as coming from Eastern songbirds.
Hanson made some changes but maintains there is much to the exhibit that is wonderful.
“A lot of Aspen people who remember it the way it was haven’t seen how good the museum is,” said board member Harrison. “I think it captures the history of Aspen very well.”
Hanson would like a revolving exhibit in part of the museum, giving visitors a reason to return periodically. It saw 704 visitors last year. But that will have to wait until the society can ascertain exactly what the community wants it to be.
“I don’t think that we are entitled to anything,” Hanson declared. “I do think we deserve community support, and there’s a difference.”
In coming months, expect a community outreach effort as the historical society gauges what Aspenites expect it to be. An archive? A museum operator? A sponsor of lectures and tours? All of the above?
When the society better understands Aspen’s expectations, then its long-term mission and budget will assume a new shape. Said Hanson: “My feeling is we’ll need three or four years of big donor support while we figure out what we’re going to be when we grow up.”
Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is email@example.com
Stories from the Aspen Historical Society vault
For history buffs, venturing into the basement archives in the carriage house behind the Wheeler/Stallard House is an adventure. You never know what you’ll find.
Like most researchers who use the archives, writer Paul Andersen admits his attention is often diverted from the task at hand. Looking through folders of old photos, it’s difficult for him to resist studying every fascinating image, even if they’re not what he was seeking.
Andersen has spent considerable time in the archives recently, doing research for a pair of books that are going to the printer.
“Power in the Mountains” will be a history of Aspen’s municipal electric utility.
The subject may sound droll, he concedes, but until 1958 Aspen was “off the grid.” All of its electricity was generated locally through hydropower. The town was one of the first west of the Mississippi to light its streets and businesses with hydropower.
“It is a story of innovation and necessity on the frontier,” Andersen said.
Andersen has also been at work writing “A Tale of Two Valleys” ” a natural history of the Castle and Maroon Creek valleys. David Hiser was in charge of the photographic research, though Andersen, too, donned the white cotton gloves required of those who touch the old photos.
“It’s almost like a medical procedure ” you auger the past through these incredible photographs,” he said.
The archives are a repository for the real artifacts of history.
“To see an original mining stock certificate in its original form ” it’s a great conduit to the past,” Andersen said. “To hold it in your hand makes it tangible and real. It makes research a real adventure.”
If Lisa Purdy had millions of dollars, she swears she would spend it indexing the back issues of The Aspen Times, kept in bound volumes at the Aspen Historical Society archives.
Much work has been done ” indexing subjects so a researcher knows exactly where to look for news articles in papers that date back to the 1880s ” but there’s much more to be done.
Purdy is a Denver-based historic preservation consultant. She occasionally visits the archives to research the history of properties for local clients.
“I know they’ve cut back on the times I can go into the archives, which is unfortunate for me,” she said. “It’s a wonderful resource.”
She’s currently researching the background of two Red Mountain homes for owners who are interested in having them included on Pitkin County’s inventory of historic properties, as well as a Carbondale ranch that’s already on the inventory. The ranch’s owners would like a written history of their property.
The Aspen Art Museum will celebrate its 25th anniversary this summer with the publication of a book chronicling the many significant artists who have come here to work over the years.
“What this book is going to tell people is going to knock their socks off,” promised Dean Sobel, the museum’s executive director.
It’s a history gleaned in large part from the archives of the Aspen Historical Society. In fact, Sobel found the title for the book during the course of his research there.
Aspen and Pitkin County went on daylight-saving time in the early 1960s, ahead of the rest of Colorado ” a fact Sobel discovered in an Aspen Institute conference brochure, which reminded attendees to reset their watches.
“I read that and I thought, ‘perfect,’ ” he said. “The title became emblematic of the whole project we were undertaking.”
The book is titled “One Hour Ahead: The Avant-Garde in Aspen, 1945-2004.”
It will feature photographs from the collection maintained in the archives and information Sobel found in back issues of The Aspen Times and the Illustrated News, both kept in bound volumes there. The society also possesses “Aspen Magazine in a Box,” a highly collectible series edited by the likes of Andy Warhol. The Museum of Modern Art in New York also has a full set of the now-defunct magazine.
“To have them steps away was very helpful and a luxury,” Sobel said. “I don’t quite know where else we would have gone for bound volumes of the newspapers.”
– Janet Urquhart
Celebrate History Week
Aspen Times Staff Report
The Aspen Historical Society is offering residents and visitors a chance to bone up on history during the week of March 15, which has been declared Celebrate History Week.
Programs are planned each day, as are free guided tours that will begin at 1 p.m. daily at four locations: the Wheeler/Stallard Museum, the Holden-Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum, the Hotel Jerome and the Wheeler Opera House. Anyone who needs transportation to Holden-Marolt can call the society at 925-3721.
Also on the schedule are:
” March 15: “Highlights from the Ballad of Baby Doe” at 8 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House. The program features highlights from the opera in two acts. Tickets are $55 for patrons and $35 for regular admission; they’re available at the Wheeler Box Office.
“March 16: “Skiing Legends, Center Stage” at 7 p.m. at the Wheeler. The program includes a sneak preview of “Man on the Medal,” a new film about Dick Durrance and early skiing in Aspen, plus a screening of “Power of Four,” the Aspen Skiing Co.’s promotional video.
Moderator Bob Beattie will lead a panel discussion with such “skiing legends” as Durrance, Klaus Obermeyer, Casey Puckett, Dave Stapleton, former Red Onion owner Johnny Litchfield and others.
A silent auction begins in the Wheeler lobby at 6 p.m. After the presentation, a patrons-only reception and autograph session with the skiing legends will take place in the lobby. Tickets are $50 for patrons and $10 for regular admission.
” March 17: “Visions of the Founding Fathers: Reactions to 21st Century America” at 5:30 p.m. in the Aspen Institute’s Paepcke Auditorium. Hear how George Washington, John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and others would critique the current state of our republic, as discussed by historians Joseph Ellis and Gordon Wood. Admission is free.
” March 18: “How to Trace Your Genealogy” workshop from 1 to 3 p.m. in the society’s archives, located at the Wheeler/Stallard carriage house, 620 W. Bleeker St. Space is limited; the fee is $10. To register, call 925-3721, ext. 109.
” March 19: “One Hour Ahead: Artists in Aspen, 1945-1979” at 3 p.m. at the Wheeler/Stallard House. The free lecture about Aspen’s connections with the international art scene will be offered by Dean Sobel, director of the Aspen Art Museum.
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Local public health officials don’t think that large numbers of visitors to Aspen and Pitkin County this summer will result in sky-high numbers of COVID-19 cases like it did in the winter.