The merchant and investor Jerome B. Wheeler (1841–1918) built the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen in 1889, making it the third-largest opera house in Colorado at the time. As Aspen declined after the Panic of 1893 and the demonetization of silver, the Wheeler struggled along until arson shuttered it for good in 1912. A series of renovations after World War II have restored the opera house to its former Victorian glory, and sustained funding and community support allow it to continue to stage performances or show films almost daily.
Aspen was founded in 1879 as a mining town. The mines did not produce any real returns until Macy’s president Jerome Wheeler arrived in the early 1880s to inject some much-needed capital into the mining infrastructure and the Colorado Midland Railroad. By the late 1880s, the town was booming. In seven years it produced $112 million in ore, and in the early 1890s it even overtook Leadville as the leading silver producer in the state. The town’s original log cabins came down, and grand new brick and stone buildings went up.
In 1888 Wheeler sold his interest in Macy’s and focused on his Aspen investments, which included a bank and the Aspen Mining and Smelting Company. That year he also financed two major building projects in town: the Hotel Jerome and the Wheeler Opera House. The opera house, located two blocks south of Main Street, was to house the offices of Wheeler’s businesses on the lower floors and have a large public hall for performances on the upper floors. To plan the building Wheeler hired the architect W. J. Edbrooke, who had previously designed the Tabor Grand Opera House in Denver.
Construction on the Wheeler Opera House began in June 1888 and took less than a year. It opened in April 1889. Made of local peachblow sandstone, it rose sixty-seven feet, making it the tallest building in Aspen. The whole building had steam heat and electric lighting. Wheeler’s J. B. Wheeler Bank occupied the first two floors, and his Aspen Mining and Smelting Company shared part of the second floor. The theater occupied the top two floors of the building. It had an ornate interior, with seats of Moroccan leather, an azure ceiling studded with silver stars, and a central chandelier with thirty-six lights.
For the opera house’s opening night, on April 23, 1889, the Conried Opera Company staged The King’s Fool, an English comic opera. Tickets cost $2.50 each. The Wheeler saw a steady string of high-quality performances over the next few years thanks to the “Silver Circuit,” a loose association of theaters across Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming that could attract talented performers with reduced travel expenses.
Arson and After
After half a decade of booming silver production and new brick buildings, Aspen quickly went bust when the Panic of 1893 brought the American economy to a halt and the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act made silver nearly worthless. The town lost several thousand residents as miners and investors fled for secure jobs and better returns elsewhere.
Jerome Wheeler shut down most of his businesses. The opera house itself lost most of its touring business. Even local productions nearly dried up. The opera house limped along for two decades, showing the occasional silent movie and enduring several changes of ownership.
The opera house came close to destruction in 1912. Several hours after a silent-movie screening on November 12, ushers and stagehands discovered a fire in the building. The fire department drowned the fire before it caused much damage, though the water drenched the offices on the lower floors. The opera house was still in good enough shape to show another movie the following night.
Nine days later, on November 21, another fire broke out. This one raged for two hours in the middle of the night, burning much of the opera house’s interior. Evidence revealed that the fire started in three separate locations—clear evidence of arson, rather than an accident. The owners apparently wanted to rid themselves of the opera house and collect the insurance money. The theater was boarded up and stood vacant for decades, a charred ruin in the center of town.
In 1918 the city of Aspen acquired the whole building for $1,155, the amount of back taxes owed on the property. The retail spaces on the lower floors had suffered less damage from the fires and remained occupied during these years. The ground floor held a grocery store (Beck’s, then Beck and Bishop) from the 1910s until the 1960s.
Reopening and Initial Renovations
A new era opened for the Wheeler Opera House and for Aspen as a whole after World War II. Skiing and Walter Paepcke began to revive the sleepy mining town. Paepcke set up the Aspen Company to renovate the town and remake it into a resort. In 1947 the Aspen Company leased the old opera house from the city of Aspen for twenty years, promising to restore and maintain it.
Paepcke brought in the Bauhaus architect Herbert Bayer, who performed a minimal restoration of the opera house in 1949. Bayer’s renovation did not do much—benches were used for seating, and the ceiling was still open to the charred beams—but it made the theater usable again after nearly four decades of silence. Soon the Wheeler Opera House was hosting concerts by Burl Ives and radio broadcasts by Lowell Thomas.
The Wheeler continued to operate in its minimally restored state for more than a decade before Bayer completed a full renovation in the early 1960s. His new interior for the opera house mixed the original ornate Victorian design with midcentury modern Bauhaus simplicity. The ceiling was restored—no more charred beams—and the theater got new seats. The space still had structural and safety problems, however, so even after the renovation the theater’s offerings remained limited outside the summer season.
Full Restoration and Ongoing Renovations
In the second half of the 1970s, the Wheeler Opera House building continued to be used for a variety of purposes. The opera house itself occupied the upper floors. The Aspen Chamber of Commerce had its offices on the first floor, and the second floor housed several different businesses and nonprofits. A bar and restaurant called the Pub operated in the basement.
Starting in the mid-1970s, the Music Associates of Aspen, which operated the Aspen Music Festival and School, began to push for a complete structural renovation of the Wheeler Opera House building. In 1979 the city of Aspen enacted a .5 percent Real Estate Transfer Tax on all property sales within city limits to pay for the renovation and continued maintenance of the opera house.
In 1982 the city acquired a vacant lot next to the Wheeler to allow for an expansion of the opera house. The city gave the contract for the opera house’s redesign and expansion to two architectural firms: William Kessler & Associates of Detroit, and Roger Morgan Studios of New York. Their charge was to peel back the midcentury Bauhaus layers and return the opera house to its original Victorian look while also updating and enlarging the structure and facilities for the late twentieth century.
Delays and budget problems soon jeopardized the expansion part of the project, which died for good when the architects unveiled a modernist design that engendered strong opposition. The restoration of the original building, however, proceeded on schedule. For the first time, the entire opera house building was put in service of the theater on its upper floors. The first floor became a box office and bar, and the second floor was turned into a lobby with a view of Aspen Mountain. The theater was restored to its original Victorian design.
The opera house held a grand reopening celebration on May 23, 1984, followed by a week of special performances and silent-film screenings. After the renovation, however, no funds remained to attract visiting performers. To fill that void, locals established the nonprofit Wheeler Associates to raise money to bring in performers and pay for new technical equipment. The opera house is now in use almost every day throughout the year.
The initial Real Estate Transfer Tax to fund Wheeler Opera House renovations was approved in 1979 for a twenty-year term, and it was renewed in 1999 for a second twenty-year term. The opera house received a series of extensive (and expensive) renovations in the 2010s: a first-floor remodel for $2.8 million in 2011, a balcony remodel and technology upgrade for $3 million in 2013, and a catch-all remodel for $4 million that was completed in January 2016 and provided a more spacious lobby, a larger bar, a new heating system, and an upgraded backstage area for performers.