Durango Discovery Museum
The Story of the Powerhouse
It’s a story of rivalry and risk, of enterprise and innovation. How did the smelting town of Durango become the home of one of the earliest coal-fired alternating current (AC) electric plants in the world? How did this once-handsome 1893 power plant become an abandoned and blighted brownfield on precious downtown riverfront property? And what, after all, would become of it?In 1892, the Durango Light and Power Company embraced a fledgling technology known as AC power, the object of both marvel and derision. Outlawed as too dangerous in some Eastern states, the founders’ investment soon became the standard for powering the world. They installed this new technology in a building crafted with Mission-style architecture, the first known use of this style for a commercial building outside of California. Once built, the plant provided AC power for Durango street lights before AC was available in the great cities of the East.
In the mid-1970s, the Powerhouse was shut down, boarded up, and the site – which sits on the banks of the Animas River – became an eyesore. It was eventually acquired by the City of Durango. Unable to find a use for the building, the City considered tearing it down. Finding a viable use for the building was compounded by the daunting and expensive task of removing asbestos - not to mention the decades of pigeon droppings. The Durango Powerhouse was listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places and became one of Colorado Preservation, Inc.’s Most Endangered Places.
Rescuing and Restoring the Powerhouse
By 1999, the Children’s Museum of Durango, founded in 1994, outgrew its 1,100 square foot attic facility. Needing space to serve older visitors and accommodate yearly growth, the Museum prepared a comprehensive business plan, which proposed converting the Powerhouse and its site to an interactive science museum, which would use its historic role in energy innovation as the theme for the museum. In 2002, the Durango City Council passed a resolution supporting the rebirth of the Powerhouse as the Durango Discovery Museum (DDM).
From 2002 – 2009 Earthly Ideas participated in volunteer, pro bono, and paid capacities on a variety of projects and initiatives for the Durango Discovery Museum. Earthly Ideas co-organized and facilitated the 2003 Project Charrette. We provided sustainability input and oversaw the development of the project’s Architectural Program in 2003-2004. We registered the project with the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building certification program in 2003. We assisted in application for and implementation of a Kresge Foundation Green Building Initiative grant. We assisted with the implementation of a Rebuild Colorado High-Performance Design grant.
We served as the tenant liaison during the implementation of the City of Durango’s State Historical Fund Historic Preservation grant that replaced the building’s roof and restored the original light monitors. We assisted with the site’s Voluntary Cleanup Program implementation. We served as the DDM’s project manager during the implementation of its two State Historical Fund Historic Preservation grants that resulted in the startling exterior transformation of the Powerhouse. The grants provided funding to remove hazardous materials, remove the exterior stucco and repair the brick facade, restore and/or replace the windows, and refurbish and rebuild the building’s towers. We administered the Department of Local Affairs’ Energy Impact Grant that assisted and supplemented the historical renovation. We served on and coordinated various committees. We provided input on the sustainability features and shared our history on the project with new team members. In 2006, Michelle Reott was honored to receive the Boomerang Award from the DDM for her many years of dedicated service to the project. We continue to support this exciting and worthy project.
Inspiring Invention and Discovery
The cleanup, renovation, and restoration of the exterior of the building (Phase I) were completed in 2006. The transformation into the Durango Discovery Museum occurred during Phase II. In 2011, the POW opened to the public after nearly a decade of effort! We were thrilled to attend the Grand Appreciation Celebration Event for the community and see our work honored on the Donor Wall. The Museum’s mission is to spark curiosity, ignite imagination, and power exploration. The Museum’s vision is to be a leading science and educational center in the Southwest that brings together curious minds of all ages, inspires innovative learning, and unleashes human potential. Next time you visit Durango, please support and enjoy this fabulous resource, which is creating a new generation of budding scientists and energy literate youth!