From 10th Mountain Division equipment to Andy Mill’s Olympic uniform to Elizabeth Paepcke’s lavender shoes and gardening hat, the basement archive of the Aspen Historical Society is a treasure trove of local life.
On a recent tour, archivist Anna Scott showed off the scenes depicted in a recently acquired collection of 1,500 glass plate photograph negatives, capturing Aspen from 1900 to World War I. Poking through the archive, one might find the town fire chief’s helmet from the late 1800s, Hilder Anderson’s accordion, Albert Schweitzer’s piano, or all of the legal briefs from Whip Jones’ legendary U.S. Supreme Court battle with the Aspen Skiing Co.
While this stuff is priceless, the price of properly protecting it is about $1 million.
The society is making a fundraising push to raise the money to do that, as the centerpiece of a larger $3 million capital campaign. The remaining $2 million would also give the society a general endowment, which is does not currently have.
The archive collection boasts more than 24,500 photographs, 6,500 objects, 5,900 written items and documents and 1,000 books. Longtime Aspen Times photographer Mary Hayes recently agreed to give the society her 65,000 photograph collection.
A professional analysis of the overflowing basement archive found it is undersized and outdated, with inadequate, precarious protection from fire and flood, falling below current museum archive standards.
Among the archival no-nos in the current set-up: a downstairs bathroom pumps waste up to ground level, moving it through a ceiling above the archive room; lights and plugs in the room serve as ignition sources and raise fire risk; there’s no cold storage for film and negatives, and no firewalls.
“We’re stuck in the ’70s down here,” Scott said.
The new design would add 35 percent to the storage capacity — without adding to the building or basement’s footprint — by moving the archivists’ desks upstairs and otherwise rejiggering the downstairs. The work would also provide firewalls on all sides and remove any possible fire-starters.
“We want to protect our archives, because they are extraordinary,” society President Georgia Hanson said. “The fact is that they are at risk and we want to reduce every occurrence of risk. ... Water is a huge fear. Fire is a huge fear.”
Dorothy M. Atkins/Aspen Daily News
Aspen Historical Society’s President Georgia Hanson opens the late Hildur Anderson’s accordion, which is one of many items in the organization’s archive. Anderson, a member of the Aspen Hall of Fame, was a longtime local who was known for the many accordion lessons she gave to children in the area. Anderson died in 2002.
As is, staff members each have a “red book” emergency binder. It carries instructions for what to do in case of an archive-threatening emergency, and has a list of what items firefighters should prioritize pulling out of the archive first.
After the renovation, Hanson said, the risk of catastrophic loss would be greatly reduced, and the archives would be brought up to the standards of the American Alliance of Museums.
The new plan was developed with the help of national archive expert Walter Crimm, who has worked for the Smithsonian Institute and History Colorado. Crimm provided his services in exchange for ski passes. The architectural design is by Steev Wilson of Forum Phi Architecture.
The $999,500 project would renovate the entire carriage house on the Historical Society’s West End grounds. Built in 1976, the three-story carriage house hosts five society employees as well as its rich archive collection.
Along with the archive renovation, and included in the $1 million price tag, the nonprofit is aiming to remodel the upper floors of the carriage house, which are currently over-run with piles of items from the archive. Without expanding the building’s footprint, the plans would revamp the upstairs offices and add a public research area, a meeting room, and include an energy efficient retrofit. The attic, currently used for overflow storage, would be renovated into office space for the society president and other staff. The conceptual plans show the interior crafted in Bauhaus style, in tribute to Herbert Bayer, with flourishes of “Bayer blue.”
“We are not trying to get bigger,” Hanson said. “We are trying to fulfill our responsibility to preserve these archives.”
The collection, noted Scott, is used by locals as well as researchers and people with local interest from around the world.
“We get used by people all over the world and the nation,” she said.
Hanson is hoping to complete the overhaul by the end of next year, which marks the society’s 50th anniversary and is also the time of her planned retirement. She wants to leave the archive safely protected, she said, and the organization with an endowment assuring its financial well-being.
A voter-approved property tax has helped support the society since 2006, levying about $2.38 for every $100,000 of property value. It brings in about $575,000 per year. Last year the tax funds accounted for 72 percent of the society’s operating budget. The rest comes from donations and program fees, according to the society’s budget.