Energy — Past, Present, and Future

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?

Early Western Innovation

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.

Long Service to the People of Western Colorado

The plant provided power to Durango through the town’s early development. It soon became part of the Western Colorado power grid. Reflecting the West’s changing emphasis on raw energy sources, it was converted from coal-fired to gas-fired in the mid-1940s. Its size and adaptability made it useful long after other early power generating plants had been torn down and replaced. It eventually became part of Western Colorado Power, which provided electricity to Colorado’s Western Slope.

Shut Down and Unused

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 eventually was 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 the Powerhouse

By 1999, the Children’s Museum of Durango, founded in 1994, had outgrown its 1,100 square foot attic facility. Needing space to serve older visitors and accommodate yearly growth, the science center prepared a comprehensive business plan that proposed converting the Powerhouse and its site to an interactive science center. In 2002, the Durango City Council passed a resolution supporting the rebirth of the Powerhouse as the Powerhouse Science Center.

Restoration of the Powerhouse

The Children’s Museum of Durango established the Powerhouse Science Center as a project managed by a separate board while it continued to operate in its cramped quarters. Beginning in 2002, Powerhouse Science Center volunteers obtained grants for historical renovation, asbestos removal, and site cleanup from the State of Colorado. The cleanup, renovation, and restoration of the exterior of the building were completed in 2006, and the building has since experienced a phased transformation into the Powerhouse Science Center.

Riverfront Revitalization

Imagine a riverfront park alive with children climbing outdoor exhibits, adults sipping espresso, and friends bicycling in to share a picnic lunch. A musician strums a banjo, and children frolic. In the evening, pedestrians stroll beneath Victorian street lamps shimmering along the river. It’s a beautiful way to wrap up a day in downtown Durango. This vision ties Main Avenue to the riverfront and establishes the science center as an anchor for downtown, attracting tourists and locals alike.

Inspiring Invention and Discovery

The old Powerhouse prompts us to examine the role of power in our lives and asks, as it did more than a century ago: “Are you ready for the future?” Visitors will experiment with the foundation sciences that make electrical power generation possible, learn about locally mined energy products, operate hydrogen powered race cars, and explore building techniques that result in low utility bills without sacrificing comfort or convenience.

Phase II

Late in 2010, the science center exceeded its phase II fundraising goal. It’s a good thing too, since phase II construction was well under way at that time. The science center opened to the public on February 23, 2011 and had its grand opening (complete with robot ribbon cutting) on July 17, 2011. And what do you suspect comes after phase II? Phase II.5 and phase III, of course. It is an ever-evolving, and involving story…