Powering Up
Durango Discovery Museum readies for Feb. 23 opening

SideStory: Members only

Volunteers and wokrers busy themsleves preparing the itnerior of the Durango Discovery Museum for its first official guests, this Saturday. The Museum, almost 12 years and more than $3 millionin the making, will open to the public Feb. 23./Photo by Steve Eginoire

by Missy Votel

Jonesing locals will get their long-awaited chance to run, play, jump and explore the pow in coming weeks. This weekend and next, the Durango Discovery Museum (aka the Powerhouse, or “Pow”) makes its highly anticipated debut with a soft-opening for members and special guests. The museum will open to the general public on Feb. 23, followed by a grand opening in June.

“It’s our way of saying we’re powering up,” Museum Marketing and Communication Director Haz Saïd said of the museum’s bright yellow power symbol, which has been visible from the outside of the museum for several weeks.

This weekend’s “soft opening,” for members and other invitees, represents almost 12 years and millions of dollars in the making, not to mention more than 100 years of history. Now on the Register of National Historic Places, the 1893 power plant, which once powered Durango via coal-fired steam, fell into disrepair in the early ’70s. Slated for a date with the wrecking ball, the Powerhouse, which sits on city-owned property, was saved via City Council decree in 1999.

“This was almost razed,” Saïd said from inside the Powerhouse’s newly refurbished boiler-room-turned-theater. “It’s pretty cool all this got saved, and the city really is to thank.”

The Powerhouse, which is the last remaining coal-fired, steam-generated A/C power plant of its kind, and its surrounding 6 acres, will be leased from the city for $1 a year. And while the city saved the structure from doom, it was the community that dragged it from the ashes, turning the dilapidated structure into a state-of-the-art exhibit space.

Nearly a decade ago, the museum, then the Children’s Museum of Durango, started looking for a new home, having outgrown its space at the Durango Arts Center. The Board of Directors proposed converting the Powerhouse, then a seemingly insurmountable task. However, when Colorado Preservation Inc. and the State Historical Society got on board, a plan to restore the building was made new home, having outgrown its space at the Durango Arts Center. The Board of Directors proposed converting the Powerhouse, then a seemingly insurmountable task. However, when Colorado Preservation Inc. and the State Historical Society got on board, a plan to restore the building was made.

“It took $1.3 million just to clean up,” said Saïd. “There was everything from asbestos, to radioactive material to the droppings from the thousands of pigeons that lived in here.”

It took another $2 million to get the museum doors open, and a recent $1 million grant from the Southern Ute Tribe will ensure the doors stay open for some time to come.

And just what can you expect inside those doors? Nearly a dozen exhibits await visitors, from a hydrogen-powered ping pong ball launcher to heliostat-fueled solar mirrors that harness the energy of the sun and a giant climbing tree, that reaches two stories. There is also a rolling ball-and-chutes sculpture by famous Chicago artist George Rhoads. Titled “Good Time Clock,” it is a much larger version of the popular clanking, musical kid attraction at the Durango Community Recreation Center. “We are working to convert the switch so you can power it with a stationary bike,” said Exhibits Manager Debra Moseley.

In addition, there is a piston-driven carnival mirror, where visitors have the option of everything from “indigestion” to “thin and fat,” as well as a simulated rain shower. There will also be a separate learning area for toddlers and preschoolers.

The “Good Times Clock,” a ball-and-chutes sculpture like that at the Rec Center, is one of the many exhibits awaiting visitors inside the converted powerhouse ./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

For more inquisitive visitors (museum staff is careful not to talk in terms of age, preferring to say the exhibits are for “kids of all ages”) there is the Mensch Spark Shop, where tinkerers can work on electronics, robotics and advanced Legos, and the “Magic Planet,” a giant video globe where inspiring geographers can link up with NASA via wifi and simulate climactic and weather events, from rising sea levels to global disasters. “You can type in ‘Hurricane Katrina’ and watch how it developed,” said Community Outreach Manager Ashley Hein.

All the exhibits were the result of a brain-storming session held in 2009 with exhibit experts from similar science museums in L.A., Tucson and Albuquerque. “They helped us establish the theme ‘energy: past, present and future,” and from there we aligned the exhibits,” said Saïd. “We worked from the basics on up, from plants and photosynthesis, which would explain the climbing tree, on up to solar, geothermal and nuclear.”

But reaching out to families and weekend scientists is not the Museum’s only mission. There is also a historical component, said Saïd, and the Museum hopes to draw on visitors interested in these aspects as well. “People coming here to ride the train will be interested in this. Some of them might want to come just to see an old power plant.”

For these visitors, the bowels of the Powerhouse have remained intact, including three massive boilers, which were fed via men shoveling coal directly from the train. In addition to being able to see the boilers from a short distance, there will be guided tours behind the scenes of the plant’s inner workings. “It is our hope to one day be able to open up one of the boilers so you can climb inside,” said Hein.

While the museum’s roots are firmly planted in energy’s dirtier past, there is a strong nod to its cleaner future. A converted garage, which now serves as the museum’s offices and meetings rooms, sports a solar array on its roof, installed by Shaw Solar and paid for with grants from the Governor’s Energy Office. Using inverter boxes, the panels tie back into the electrical grid, providing not only power to the buildings, but other local power users as well. A geothermal ground-source heat pump was also installed in the Powerhouse to heat the floors, and a micro-wind project is in the works as well.

“Who knows what’s next? Nanotechnology, making energy from air?” Saïd mused.

One thing that’s for certain, is that none of this would be possible without the Discovery Museum’s donors and the community that bought in on the idea. “There were so many aspects to this project, it interested such a wide variety of audiences, from economics to education to history,” said Saïd. “That’s why it kept its momentum for all these years.”

As for museum staffers, they still can’t quite believe their eyes when they see the transformation. “I can barely imagine the way it used to be now when I walk in here,” said Dawn Jose, who worked at the Children’s Museum’s former home in the Arts Center.

Indeed, you could say the change has had quite a powerful effect. “I brought a woman, completely unrelated to the museum, in here the other day,” said Hein, “and she burst into tears when she saw it.” •



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