Getting discovered
Durango Discovery Museum taps community for vision

SideStory: Dreaming & scheming

The future home of the Durango Discovery Museum takes shape earleri this week. An open house will be held this Thursday  for the public to view the progress of the museuem, and a “Dream and Scheme” workshop will be held Friday to solicit more ideas for the museum./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Will Sands

The Durango Discovery Museum is growing even more grassroots this week. As the historic power plant continues to transform before Durango’s eyes, the museum that will eventually inhabit the structure is looking to the local community for some inspiration.

“There was a community charette in 2003 when individuals with specialized skills and interests were invited to help with the initial planning for the Durango Discovery Museum,” said Liane Jollon, project director for the museum. “Now we’re looking at a broader scope, and we’re hoping to attract a wide spectrum of individuals and groups in the community and tap them for ideas.”

There will be two opportunities for the public to shape the future of the Durango Discovery Museum this week – a Durango Discovery Museum celebration on Thurs., May 18, and an all-day “Dream and Scheme” workshop on Fri., May 19 (see sidebar).

“We’re asking the community what they want the final product to look like and where everything should go,” said Paul Wilbert, Durango Discovery Museum board member. “There are bound to be great ideas out there that we’ll go for. We want this to be the coolest building and outdoor space in Durango.”

The museum was initially conceived as an expansion for the Children’s Museum, a hands-on learning center currently housed in a small space above the Durango Arts Center. That original seed has grown into an ambitious vision for transforming Durango’s historic power plant into a sustainable-education and community center that will serve Durangoans and visitors of all ages.

“Ultimately, it’s not going to be just a children’s museum,” Jollon commented. “It’s going to be a science and technology museum with an emphasis on energy in the past, present and future. I think it also makes a ton of sense for us to turn our historic power plant into a community center.”

Wilbert added that the museum should become a major component of Durango’s character and a major draw for visitors. “Downtown Durango’s anchor on the south end is the train,” he said. “This will be the anchor on the north end, and there will be a huge economic benefit. We’re estimating visitors will stay another half day in Durango because of the museum, and that’s another night at a hotel and more meals at restaurants.”

Faris Good coils cable inside the Discovery Museum as work finishes up Monday afternoon./Photo by Todd Newcomer

Anyone who has passed the corner of 14th Street and Camino del Rio in the past few years has witnessed the steady transformation of the Durango power plant. The white stucco finish has been stripped to reveal the building’s original brick. The giant gas plant that used to cover the building’s west end has been removed. Much of the building’s roof has been reconstructed and rebuilt to match the original. Windows, towers and fascia have been restored to historic specifications. Inside the building, the original boilers and generators have been cleaned and opened up to make way for the future. As much progress has been made and money has been spent – $1.3 million to date – a great deal of work still remains before the targeted opening date of September 2008.

“We’re learning as we go with this project,” Jollon said. “But we can say that we’ve done a third of the work that needs to be done, and we’ve successfully funded a third of it.”

When open, the museum’s 1.7 acres will also feature an outdoor river-front plaza and café. The existing smokestack will be the plaza’s center and become a giant sundial. A science and technology center will be constructed, and the plaza will also feature a carousel of native animals.

Inside, the power plant will be restored to its original design with a modern twist. The current goal is to have the old power plant, the oldest surviving alternating current, steam power plant in the world, go back into business. The boilers won’t be firing up and coal smoke will not appear from the museum’s lone stack, but Wilbert explained that one goal is to have the museum generate its own electricity through alternative fuels and energies.

“We have a goal of making it a net-goal power facility through new technologies,” he said. “How can we make those technologies really interesting and engaging as exhibits? I’m hoping we get some really good answers or ideas this week.”

Older technology will also be showcased in the museum. Two alternating current generators sit freshly cleaned into the building’s largest room. A stack of boilers still stands, seemingly ready to fire up again, in an adjacent room. Water preheaters, pumps and hand-painted dials all offer glimpses into Durango’s past.

And as the powerhouse moves through its remaining two years of restoration, the Durango Discovery Museum is looking to the Durango community for guidance.

“It’s a perfect time for us to be enlisting the community to participate in this project,” Jollon said. “In 1890, Durango pinned its future on this unknown technology known as electricity. It’s 2006, and it’s all coming around full circle.”

Looking back at the progress that’s been made on the restoration, Wilbert said he is excited to unveil the work that’s been done on the Durango Discovery Museum.

“This is one of the cooler buildings in Durango and on Thursday we’re really just throwing a party and getting people in here for an unveiling,” he said. “The fact is that the powerhouse nearly got demolished five years ago and only survived by a Durango City Council vote of 3 to 2. I think that makes what we’ve done here all the sweeter.” •