The Wheeler Opera House is located at the corner of East Hyman Avenue and South Mill Street in Aspen, Colorado, United States. It is a stone building erected during the 1890s, from a design by Willoughby J. Edbrooke that blends elements of the Romanesque Revival and Italianate architectural styles. In 1972 it became the first property in the city to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the second in Pitkin County. The upstairs auditorium hosts a number of events every year, ranging from nationally prominent music and comedy acts and some of the Aspen Music Festival's events to productions by local community groups.
The Wheeler is located on the northwest corner of the intersection, located roughly in the center of Aspen. To the south and east Hyman and Mill have been closed to vehicular traffic; both are now planted with shade trees and serve as pedestrian malls. The surrounding neighborhood is densely developed with a mixture of modern and historic buildings, none taller than two stories, giving the Wheeler unchallenged domination of the skyline. To the west is a vacant lot. The terrain is level, with the lower slopes of Aspen Mountain and the ski area's base facilities several blocks to the south.
All the windows on the first floor have round segmental arches, sandstone voussoirs and awnings. Above them a small continuous cornice sets off a plain frieze with the word "Bank" in relief above the door on the corner facade. Another, larger continuous cornice atop the frieze sets off the second story. Its windows are all trabeated single-pane double-hung sash with Granite lintels and a broad plain surround; all except the center bays on the south are set in slight recesses that rise to an arched top on the third story. Those middle bays are set with three single windows in a larger recessed area. On the third story all the arches are blind with triple-hung single-pane sash, accentuated by contrasting lighter stone. On the west end of the south facade, and the second and third from the south on the east facade, the upper window panes are blind as well. The northernmost bay on the east facade is set with a smaller oculus. The arches have smooth finishes.
Inside, the first story is given over to storefronts and the box office. The second story has back stage dressing rooms and the theater lobby, painted in Venetian plaster with a mural showing the building. Both interiors have been extensively renovated. In the rear is a fire stairway and elevator to make the theater accessible. A stairway with red carpeting and imitation wood balustrade leads from the entrance to the auditorium. On display is the walk-in safe Jerome Wheeler bought for the bank he had founded that once occupied the first floor.
The history of the Wheeler parallels that of Aspen. Established with much fanfare during the city's initial boom years in the late 19th century, it fell into decline along with much of the rest of Aspen's buildings when the silver market crashed. Restoration efforts began in the mid-20th century, as Aspen became established as a ski resort town, and the affluence that attracted in turn produced more money for further restoration efforts.
1888–93: Initial construction during Silver Boom
First established in 1879 as Ute City, a rough settlement of log cabins on a plain high in the Roaring Fork Valley, Aspen grew quickly when silver was found in abundance in the nearby mountains. During the Colorado Silver Boom of the 1880s, its population soared and it soon incorporated as a city. One of those attracted to the city was Jerome Wheeler, a Civil War veteran who had married a Macy's heiress. For a few years in the late 1870s he ran the department store chain after several major partners died. In 1883, the Wheelers moved to Manitou Springs, Colorado, to ease Mrs. Wheeler's ill health with mountain air. Jerome Wheeler heard about the silver strikes in Aspen, across the Continental Divide, and invested in four of the mines. By 1888 he was so involved in mining that he sold his Macy's interest and moved to the boomtown.