Bringing history back to life
The Durango Discovery Museumís transformation begins
Plans for the new Durango Discovery Museum call for a giant sundial, riverfront plaza, a cafe and a carousel./Drawing courtesy Durango Discovery Museum

by Ken Wright

"T he most common misconception is that the Children's Museum is just moving into a bigger space. It's a much bigger vision than that," says Jeff Vierling, project manager for the Durango Discovery Museum.

Right now, the Children's Museum, a hands-on science exploration center for kids, is crammed into a small space above the Durango Arts Center. That ambitious "bigger vision" is for transforming the Children's Museum into the Durango Discovery Museum, an education and historic center for Durangoans and visitors of all ages. The new museum will be set inside Durango's old power plant, along the Animas River, a living historic artifact that itself tells a little-known role of the San Juans and Durango in shaping the modern world. (See sidebar.)

"It will be a fun, family-oriented place where you can make discoveries on your own and learn about science and history on the way," says Vierling.

The "Children's" is being dropped from the museum's title because the Durango Discovery Museum will target all ages, kids through adults, as well as visitors to the area. "Tourists aren't going to visit just a small science museum, but they will visit something that's relevant to the area," adds Vierling. "It will also teach about the legacy of the development of power."

And more than just making a larger and better museum, that "bigger vision" includes a vital role for the Durango Discovery Museum in revitalizing Durango's river corridor. "It's a chance to capture everyone's imagination about what we can do with the whole riverfront," says Vierling.

"It's the coolest project in Durango right now," adds Paul Wilbert, a former Children's Museum board member and long-time advocate of the museum. Wilbert was involved in the museum's first look at the possibility of moving into the power plant in 1994. me a science center is one of the things that makes a great town, along with theaters, libraries, performing-arts centers, and good schools."

Slated to open in the summer of 2007, the museum's 1.7 acres will also feature an outdoor river-front plaza and caf`E9. The present unused smokestack will become a sundial, which will spill its time-telling shadow across the plaza. The plaza also will feature a carousel of carved native animals.

The museum itself, housed inside the old power plant rebuilt to the original design, will be constructed with state-of-the-art energy efficiency. "It will be combining the historic building with cutting-edge ideas," says Vierling.

That vision started on the road to reality in September, when restoration work began on the old power plant. As Durangoans now see it, the power plant is a small, innocuous, abandoned stucco building next to the fire station along Camino del Rio. The tall smokeless smokestack marks the site from a distance. A secondary building that was added on to the original power plant in 1949 was once connected to the smokestack, but that building was torn down by the city three years ago. The main plant itself barely escaped that same fate. However, the persistence of staff and friends of the Children's Museum convinced the City Council to give it a stay of execution while they worked on a business plan and explored the history of the power plant.

The main space inside the building is cavernous. In all, there is a 9,000 square foot usable space for the museum. Right now, though, it is an enormous, high, wide chamber with artifacts from its past life scattered about. Openings from the restoration work let in light - and rain - through the high ceiling. Bright blotches of fresh ceiling material mark progress, and the bigger holes are where four new light monitors - which were on the original building and are being rebuilt from old photographs - will be on the new roof, providing needed ventilation and light.

The floor is concrete and mostly empty, but at one time the room was full of loud, belt-driven machinery. In one place, 2-inch-thick copper wires still emerge from the floor where the control panel stood. That control panel is now in the hands of a private collector in Farmington, but Vierling hopes the museum can reacquire it.

On the south end of the room, two generators - enormous steel semicircular enclosures -still stand. One turbine is a gem: a 1906 500-kilowatt GE generator (there once was a sister generator, but it was killed by lightning.) In the 1970s, GE sent a team of engineers to inspect and acquire the generator for a museum back East, but Westinghouse turned them down since it was still in use. The other is a 750-kilowatt model from the 1930s.

Both of these artifacts will be on display in the museum, and will possibly be set up to function for demonstrations. "We want the machinery to come alive, so people can see and hear it in action," says Vierling.

The two generators stand over a 6-foot drop in the floor. This level once housed the water pumps, which cooled the turbines and provided access for servicing the turbines. Past this service area is the boiler room where three massive metal doors stand on the east side, set into a brick wall. "Utah Copper Company 1906" stands out in relief letters on two of the doors; "Risdon Iron Works," is emblazoned on the other.

Working this power plant was not a computer-generated, button-pushing experience - it was a physical exercise. Hand-painted dials mark switch settings with which the workers controlled the fire. For that control, wooden handles hang on chains, which would be pulled to let off steam pressure inside the boiler's belly. "It's not complicated, but if you made a mistake, you could blow the whole place up," explains Vierling.

This room is already, even without renovation, like a museum. On the north wall is a dark, tarnished tank - the water pre-heater - forged in 1892. The south wall reveals the brickwork that on the outside is hidden behind stucco. Partial and full arches are woven into the pattern, revealing, like geologic layers, how the building evolved as windows and doors were added and filled in over the years.

"It was a little like opening a treasure box or a time capsule, and you had to figure out what was going on," Vierling explains. "It's exciting to see the building come back to life."

The work being done now is funded by a matching-fund grant to the city from the State Historical Fund. This first stage of the work will replace the aged roof and shore up the internal structure of the building. The next stage will work on the exterior: the stucco will be removed to reveal the fine brickwork hidden underneath. "The stucco covers up so much of the architectural detail, the visual interest of the building," says Vierling.

Also, windows that were there when the building was first constructed will be restored to the original design. The north side of the building alone - now just stucco - will house 12 arched, two-pane windows. A small tower that once stood on the northwest corner also will be restored.

Vierling, a software designer who moved from Seattle to Durango seven years ago, volunteered when he heard of the Children's Museum's efforts to acquire it. He has two young girls of his own and is ecstatic that the city had the vision to preserve such a landmark. Once the renovation is complete, he hopes it can receive a National Historic Landmark designation, an honor the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad now bears. The Colorado State Historic Fund is backing and helping finance the designation application.

"The stories buildings tell are about the place and the people," he muses. "This one's got a hell of a story, a terrific story to tell about this area." n







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