Update on Astor House and Colorado Beer Museum Feasibility Study

Built in 1867, Astor House has stood sentinel at the corners of 12th and Arapahoe Streets in downtown Golden for 150 years. They building is symbolic not only of the city’s pioneer past, but also for the community’s historic preservation movement. In 1972, Astor House was purchased by the City of Golden from the Downtown Improvement District after a public referendum. The building was spared the wrecking ball, but purchased without a designated use. The City entertained a number of ideas from housing the Chamber of Commerce to serving as a restaurant. Ultimately, it was turned into an historic house museum, as was commonplace in the years leading up to the nation’s 1976 bicentennial.

Astor House Museum, cherished by many for its homey illustration of boardinghouse life in the 19th century, was challenged by an inability to grow audiences, maintain solvency, and address persistent ongoing capital maintenance needs. After management under two separate nonprofits, the City of Golden assumed operations of the facility in 2010. Visitation remained paltry and physical limitations such as the out-of-code kitchen and non-accessible second floor forced cancellation of once popular programs like teas. At the same time, engineering studies revealed a critically weakened and endangered building. Overloaded joists, eroded foundations, and structural deficiencies necessitated limiting public access to the building.

Astor House closed in 2015 to undergo major structural rehabilitation. While closed, staff reassessed the interpretive model and examined potential uses for the building that upheld four central assumptions: 1) the historic integrity of Astor House would be maintained, 2) the building would be operated as a public museum, 3) the museum content would connect to Golden’s history and be widely appealing, and 4) the museum would be self-sustaining. The idea that fulfilled all four criteria and showed the greatest potential for viability was the Colorado Beer Museum.

Golden History Museum first assessed public favorability for the concept. While there was some vocal opposition, the vast majority were excited about the idea and favored undertaking a feasibility study to examine the viability of a Colorado Beer Museum at Astor House. A small group of citizens helped the museum review proposals and selected M. Goodwin Museum Planning of Los Angeles, CA to undertake the study.

During the study process, staff and consultants met with dozens of stakeholders including brewers, historians, educators, tourism experts, and local business owners. A concept with an educational mission, governance structure, visitation studies, and operating and space needs emerged. The consultants priced capital needs, created a business plan and pro forma budget. The study was completed in August 2017 and analysis of the results yielded three important findings (read entire report here):

1. Colorado Beer Museum would be feasible and very popular. The study found broad support locally, statewide, and throughout the brewing and tourism industries. Because the appeal is so broad, there appears to be strong audience and donor potential. Limitless partnership opportunities exist, specifically within the industry, local businesses and higher education. The pro forma budget indicates strong ability for the museum to sustain itself without municipal subsidy with annual surpluses between $50,000-$500,000. This does not include any return on initial capital investments.

2. Astor House by itself is an insufficient and inadequate space for a successful Colorado Beer Museum. With approximately 3,000 net square feet of usable space, Astor House is simply too small and inaccessible to service the functions necessary to maintain successful museum operations. In order to provide enough space for basic museum functions like programs, exhibits, rentals, and gift shop, an addition would be required. The consultants envisioned a conservative addition to the building that would expand the square footage from 3,000 to about 10,000. The estimated cost for such an addition would require a capital investment between $5-7 million. Even with such an addition, the space would be the bare minimum that the museum would need to thrive. And, while there are thousands of examples around the country—even in metro Denver—showing that such an addition could be done in an historically sensitive manner, staff believes that such an addition would not serve the long term interests of the building, the Beer Museum, or the community.

3. Astor House is ill-suited for ANY standalone museum to sustain itself. After a full analysis of the building, it is of little wonder why the museum endured ongoing cycles of crises since its creation. Simply stated, the building is too small and limiting to enable a museum to sustain itself. A lack of multiuse public space, restrictions on floor loads, inaccessibility for disabled persons, lack of parking, and insufficient exhibit space limits the ability for any standalone museum to earn revenue from rentals, gift shop and admissions. To be successful, any museum would require additional and modernized space to operate with any modicum of sustainability over time.

During a study session presentation on August 10, 2017, members of council largely agreed with the findings and analysis of the study. Council members expressed some willingness to explore private options for development of the Colorado Beer Museum by sharing the feasibility report and providing some staff time with interested parties. The idea of locating the museum out of downtown, perhaps in the 6th & Colfax-to-Heritage Square corridor was discussed. Museum staff will work with Economic Development staff to share information about the project. Members of council also agreed that Astor House was not well suited as a standalone museum. They affirmed the building’s historic importance to the community and agreed that it should remain a city asset not to be divested for private use.

Museum staff presented an alternative use for Astor House to renovate and repurpose the building as an annex for Golden History Museum. The modernized space could accommodate the museum’s burgeoning Hands on History Summer Camp, lectures, programs and special events. It would also serve as a venue for private weddings, meetings, and receptions, giving the Museums division another potential revenue stream for cost recovery. The feasibility study indicated that a base restoration of Astor House would likely require a capital investment between $500,000-$1million. Council has not endorsed a specific direction nor authorized funds for Astor House renovation at this time. Until a decision by Council is made, the building will remain closed.

While GHM no longer seeks to reprogram Astor House as the Colorado Beer Museum, staff is analyzing whether and how to provide beer heritage programming to fulfill the demand discovered during the feasibility study. As ever, the Golden History Museum is committed to preserving Astor House and all of the historic assets under its care for the people of Golden as well as to operate the museum in a forward-thinking, audience-focused and sustainable way. More information about Golden History Museums, the digitized collection, and educational programming can be found at www.GoldenHistory.org.