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Remodeled museum reopens

Janet Urquhart

The Wheeler/Stallard House itself will be on display during today’s opening of the first exhibit at the newly remodeled museum.

The stately Bleeker Street mansion that serves as Aspen’s museum and headquarters for the Aspen Historical Society has been a construction zone since last August. With a private reception last night and a public gathering today from 6 to 8 p.m., the renovated museum officially reopens after a long closure.

And gracing its freshly painted walls will be “Then and Now: Colorado; 1870-2000,” an exhibit featuring the much-talked-about photographs by William Henry Jackson and John Fielder. Through side-by-side photos of Colorado scenes taken by Jackson in the 1800s and recently recaptured by Fielder, viewers are presented with the changes – and in some cases, the striking consistency – in Colorado’s landscape over the course of 100-plus years.

The exhibit, now traveling the state under the auspices of the Colorado Historical Society, is currently split between the Wheeler/Stallard House and the Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction.

The Aspen exhibit will continue through May 20 and contains one of Jackson’s original photographs, which happens to be part of the local museum’s collection.

Many of the photos chosen for display in Aspen are from the central mountains and southwestern Colorado, according to Eric Paddock, curator of photography for the Colorado Historical Society.

“I think that’s what people are going to be most familiar with and most interested in seeing,” said Paddock, who worked with Fielder, a Denver photographer, on the Then and Now project.

Though many people have seen the Jackson/Fielder photos chronicled in a popular coffee-table book, the photographs on display at the museum will offer the advantage of size, Paddock said. They average two feet in width, he noted.

“You see a lot more detail that’s not accessible in the photos in the book,” Paddock said.

Those who tear their eyes from the images on the walls will notice the museum’s newly refurbished interior. In fact, the change will be noticeable for Wheeler/Stallard House regulars the minute they step through the front door.

“There used to be black wallpaper and red shag carpet in the foyer. That’s gone,” said Kathy Hansen, interim director of the historical society. “There’s a definite, noticeable difference when you walk in.”

The $1.2 million renovation, overseen by project manager Bonnie Murry, was funded though the sale of a West End property donated by benefactor Ruth Whyte. The extensive work included replacement of all the plumbing, wiring and heating systems in the 112-year-old house and the installation of a fire-sprinkler system.

Outside, the roofing has been replaced and other repairs made. An exterior elevator, handicap-accessible door off the kitchen and an accessible first-floor bathroom have also been created.

New oak flooring has been installed, historic light fixtures have been rehung and new track lighting graces the ceilings of exhibit rooms. In addition, ceilings that had been lowered over the years have been returned to their original heights.

In all, it’s a cleaner, brighter space, Hansen said.

“Now it’s going to be more of an exhibit space – like walking into a gallery,” she said.

The remodeling effort was not without its surprises, Hansen added.

When workers opened a wall between two upstairs rooms to create a doorway for better traffic flow, they discovered that an opening between the adjoining rooms existed before, but had been covered over. Evidence of a dumbwaiter was also uncovered. It has been turned into a conduit for mechanical equipment.

Generations of wallpaper were revealed, as well. Samples have been preserved, and next to the newly reopened doorway, the patchwork of wall treatments uncovered behind the plaster remain exposed to view.

During the removal of ceiling plaster on the second floor, historic artifacts dating back to the home’s early occupants came tumbling down. The Wheeler/Stallard House was built in 1888.

The walls, ceilings and attic floor yielded such treasures as canceled checks signed by Edgar Stallard, a handpainted picture, old postcards, a Christmas ornament, an antique glass Mason jar and bottles. All of the items have been added to the museum’s collection.

The formal inaugural exhibit for the refurbished museum is slated to open this summer. The “Spirit of Aspen” display, still in the planning stages, will focus thematically on the character and spirit of the Aspen community throughout its history.

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