Far View Center at Mesa Verde could become a science museum

Tuesday, July 3, 2018 5:21 PM
Speakers at the Far View Center symposium on Saturday outline their plans for the vacant building. From left: Patrick Kociolek, Christine Madrid-French and Jane Crisler.
The Far View Center, which sits empty near the Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde National Park.

In a symposium Saturday in Mesa Verde National Park, a scientist, a historian and an architectural designer outlined a possible future for the long-empty Far View Center.

The building, formerly the Mesa Verde visitor center, has been vacant since 2014. The Denver-based Form+Works Design Group recently finished a structural analysis of the building that revealed it is in relatively good condition and could potentially become a museum once again. At the symposium, Patrick Kociolek, director of the Natural History Museum in the University of Colorado Boulder, said the university is interested in supplying the exhibits a museum that could focus on the biological research its scientists are doing in the park.

Architectural historian Christine Madrid-French started the sparsely attended symposium with a presentation on the history of the building, which began construction in 1965 as part of Mission 66, a federal program that resulted in about 100 new visitor centers in state parks across the country. She said Far View stands out among those buildings because of its circular, kiva-like shape.

“It’s kind of a unique shape that you only see in the ’60s,” she said. “It still attracts attention.”

Madrid-French contributed to early research into whether Far View could qualify as a national historic landmark. Unlike the park as a whole, the building is not listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, but Jane Crisler, of Form+Works, said she hopes to change that.

Crisler said her company’s survey of the building, which has been going on since October 2017, showed its structure has a “clean bill of health,” but would need renovation in order to comply with modern accessibility and safety codes. The priority, she said, will be getting rid of gaps in the building’s outer shell that could allow water to leak inside.

“It’s a really special building,” she said. “We’re really excited that the Park Service is willing to have these conversations, to see that it has a future.”

Kociolek gave a few hints as to what that future might hold. He and several other CU scientists have been studying the park’s smallest plant and animal life this year, with the intent of learning how symbiotic relationships work between species, how the park’s biosphere is adapting to climate change and other knowledge.

On Saturday, he said the museum plans to continue that research, and he hopes to convert Far View into a museum with rotating exhibits on the park’s biodiversity. It could also be a central hub for the ongoing research projects, he said.

“In my view, if there was an appropriate, adaptive reuse of the space, this seems like it would be a good one,” he said.

He said he was encouraged by Crisler’s report on the building’s structural soundness, but he added that nothing about the plan is set in stone. There is no set timeline for when the museum will be finished, if it is constructed at all.

The next step toward reusing the building will be for Form+Works to complete a cost estimate study determining the price tag of its recommended repairs. Crisler said she expects to receive cost estimates from contractors by the end of the month.

Kociolek said he doesn’t plan to move forward until the report is ready, but the museum will continue to work with the park on other projects.

Findings from this year’s CU research will contribute to new Mesa Verde-themed exhibits at the Natural History Museum, he said. A CU museum intern is working at the park over the summer as part of a requirement for graduation. The park and museum plan to offer several joint educational programs in the coming year, starting with a learning kit for fourth-graders scheduled to be unveiled in the fall.

It will likely be some time before Far View opens to visitors again, but Crisler and Kociolek said they’re determined to get it done as quickly as possible.

“You might not imagine anything that would take more time than the federal government and a large public university working together to make something happen,” Kociolek said. “The relationship that we’ve had with the park here ... suggests to me that that would go amazingly fast by the standards in place.”

He said his museum plans to continue its partnership with Mesa Verde no matter what happens to the building.