Wheeler Opera House wins preservation award from the city

Workers install scaffolding around the Wheeler Opera House building for their restoration project in Aspen on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The Wheeler Opera House will take a star turn Tuesday with an award from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission at the City Council session.

The Wheeler Opera House is a three-story theater building with additional commercial space constructed in 1889, blending the Italianate and Romanesque Revival architectural styles. 

The building recently underwent a multi-year exterior restoration that included investigation of its historic materials, replacement of sandstone where needed, and tuckpointing. 

The landmark was made with local peach blow sandstone from the Frying Pan Valley. Its architectural style, opulence, and performances facilitated by the Silver Circuit Association gave the mining town of Aspen a sense of prestige and community. It was originally financed by Jerome B. Wheeler, a New York investor who figured prominently in the Aspen area in the late 19th century. 

Designed by W. J. Edbrooke, it was the third largest opera house in Colorado at the time that it was built.

The awards have been given for over 30 years to recognize projects that have made an outstanding contribution to historic preservation in Aspen, and to thank those responsible. 

The local historic preservation expert on the project was Sara Adams, AICP, of BendonAdams. 

“My role was to make sure the project complied with Aspen’s historic preservation regulations and design guidelines,” she said. “I helped the Mills + Schnoering, who are based in Princeton, New Jersey, with restoration decisions including paint and material selections to keep the project moving forward. It is a highlight of my almost 20-year historic preservation career to work on this iconic building.”

Roger Moyer, the owner of Aspen Painting, said, “The most iconic aspect is not only the building but the history of the events that have taken place during its longevity and also the past restorations completed after fire damage. The building and its history is the history of our wonderful community and maintaining its presence is of utmost importance.”  

There were numerous challenges the restoration team overcame throughout the process, such as finding limestone replacement, since the original stone was from a now-closed quarry up the Frying Pan Valley.

“Since the stone was no longer available, stone was procured from another state, and due to the inherent difficulty of cutting and carving this material, much more stone was ordered than estimated. The other challenge was the mortar itself and matching what was used 130 years ago was of utmost importance,” Moyer said. 

It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and was designated a local Aspen landmark in 1981 for its architectural significance and its contribution as a cultural center in Aspen. 

“The decorative sheet metal cornice is iconic to the Wheeler Opera House. Other iconic buildings demonstrate Aspen’s version of Italianate or Romanesque styles with arched windows and large sandstone blocks, but the decorative cornice atop the Wheeler is unique,” Adams said.

“It’s an honor to get to work on a building with a history like the Wheeler and I’m proud of the restoration work the team completed,” said Robert Schober, the city’s director of asset management.

Recognition for this project is given to the city of Aspen; Summit Sealants; Concept One Group; Mills+Schnoering Architects; Forrest Painting; KL&A; Built Environment Evolution; and BendonAdams.