Remodeling History: Wheeler/Stallard Museum takes on a historic wallpaper job before reopening

Charlie Hopkins cuts a strip of wallpaper to be applied to the walls of the Aspen Historical Society’s victorian Wheeler-Stallard Museum on W. Bleeker St. in Aspen on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Step into the parlor of the Wheeler/Stallard Museum this summer and you’ll experience what the industrialist Jerome B. Wheeler might actually have seen there in 1888 when he built his family this Queen Anne-style Victorian home.

The Aspen Historical Society, headquartered on the grounds of the historic property, is now on the tail end of an extensive and deeply researched project to wallpaper the first floor of the Wheeler/Stallard in a historically accurate manner.

“This is an opportunity for us to produce a Victorian interior that’s authentic,” Aspen Historical Society curator Lisa Hancock said. “So you’re walking into this time capsule.”

Though it would seem a simple wallpapering job, Hancock and her team dug deep into local history and the decorative arts of the Victorian Era to make the project — years in the making — a historically accurate reality. The paper was made using the same hand-printed production technique that would have been de rigueur in Aspen’s mining boomtown years.

There are few, if any, interior representations of Aspen’s Victorian era left here. As any passerby can attest, the exterior remodels and additions to so many of Aspen’s West End Victorian homes are crimes against history and good taste. The interiors have largely been modernized with little of the ornate Victorian aesthetics remaining.

None that Hancock knows of has taken on a historically accurate decorating job such as the one she and her staff are completing. So it was in keeping with the nonprofit’s mission to present an authentic Victorian interior, to give visitors a true sense of what an Aspen home might have looked like in the 1880s.

So Hancock picked schemes and patterns that would fit the era’s intricate and elaborately adorned aesthetic, one for the parlor room in a green-on-gold fern leaf pattern and in the dining room a Japanese pattern popular at the time (though the fad only stuck around with the so-called “American aesthetic movement” from roughly 1895 to 1890, it would been a hip pick for Wheeler in 1888).

There are no known existing photos of the Wheeler/Stallard home from the era — the Wheelers never actually moved in, the Stallards lived there from 1905 until the 1940s – but Hancock and company consulted other comparable homes’ photos from the era.

“At the time, this was the biggest, fanciest house in the city,” she said of the house.

The Historical Society had one small swatch of the house’s original wallpaper. But it wasn’t big enough to reproduce, so the team used it to inform their aesthetic choices for the new job.

New wallpaper and trim was added to the walls of the Aspen Historical Society’s victorian Wheeler-Stallard Museum on W. Bleeker St. in Aspen on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The wall had been painted before as part of a long-ago remodel, which always grated on the Aspen Historical Society team because it was historically inaccurate – no Victorian house would have had painted walls, they all had wallpaper.

“It was always part of our interpretive plan to take it back to a more appropriate Victorian interpretation,” Hancock explained.

It took years to raise the money for the project, budgeted at $55,000 and supported by two dedicated endowments for restoring those two rooms: from the Hodges family and from Apex Security.

The Historical Society consulted with conservator Natalie Feinberg Lopez to find a wallpaper company in England that uses a Victorian-style hand press to print historically accurate wallpaper from the era. Each layer of imagery on the paper is placed with ink on a silkscreen-like process.

“That would have been appropriate for the age of this house, and how they would have done it,” Hancock explained.

On the ground this spring, it’s being installed by a wallpaper specialist from Aspen Painting.

The freshly wallpapered parlor room is the gem of the Wheeler/Stallard’s interpretive sites. This is where visitors can see an original William Henry Jackson panoramic photo of Aspen from 1893 – the only one of its kind – and the piano that Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer played on his historic 1949 visit to Aspen (still functional and the centerpiece of holiday sing-alongs at the Wheeler/Stallard) that came from the Paepcke family’s house, and curios like the collection of small elephant sculptures brought back to Aspen by the lumber barons in the Koch family on a world tour in the 1890s.

“We do our best to make it look like a Victorian home of the time would have,” Hancock said.

Like nearly every other Aspen cultural institution, the Historical Society is preparing for a busy post-vaccine summer following the long closure and quiet period of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Visitor will be able to see the newly wallpapered walls when the Wheeler/Stallard Museum opens June 15. The Aspen Historical Society is also planning a grand reopening party at the Wheeler/Stallard and its annual hoedown at the Holden/Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum for mid-June.

[email protected]