719 Manitou Avenue – Antique Emporium and Swirl Wine Emporium
During the later part of the Victorian Era and throughout the Edwardian Era, most towns and cities in Colorado got their entertainment and held their civic-event gatherings in places called “Opera Houses.” Between 1860 and 1920, almost 150 Opera Houses were built, scattered throughout Colorado.
Jerome B. Wheeler was half owner of Macy’s Department Store in New York City, and a third cousin to Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was also a mining baron, a close friend of General William J. Palmer, one of Colorado’s prominent financiers, and a charitable benefactor. Jerome B. Wheeler moved his ailing wife to Colorado Springs. In the 1880s, they settled in Manitou Springs.
Begun in 1888 and finished in 1889, he built the Wheeler Opera House at 719 Manitou Avenue in Manitou Springs with contractor Peter MacFarlane. At the time, it was a three story brick and stone, stand-alone building. On the ground floor was the Wheeler Banking Company and a dry-goods store. The second floor housed nine offices, one of which was a school for physical culture, run by African-American boxer George Philip.
Wheeler Opera House was on the third floor, being the first true Opera House in Manitou Springs. For acoustical purposes, the ceilings were fifteen feet high, and it was a popular place for theater and balls. Disenchanted with the resort lifestyle of what was known as “The Newport of the Rockies” (named after the posh town of Newport, Rhode Island) Wheeler left Manitou Springs and traveled to Aspen to invest some of his fortune.
While many people in the latter half of the 1800s gravitated to Aspen to make their fortunes, Jerome B. Wheeler was already a very wealthy man, and merely added to his coffers by investing over half a million dollars of his own money into this mining town. He built a magnificent Queen Anne-style home in 1888 (what is now The Wheeler/Stallard Museum, which houses the Aspen Historical Society), built the Wheeler Opera House Building, finished a critically needed smelter to extract metals from ore, and built the Hotel Jerome.
However, because his wife, Harriet Macy Valentine Wheeler, refused to move away from her Windemere Mansion in Manitou Springs (located where the current Post Office is), the Wheelers never actually lived as a couple in Aspen. Mysterious fires destroyed much of the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen in 1912, but it has subsequently been renovated. Jerome B. Wheeler died at his Manitou estate in 1918. And over 122 years later, The Hotel Jerome in Aspen is still the epitome of fine accommodations.
During the Silver Panic of 1893 when many banks were defaulting, the Wheeler Banking Company in Manitou was no exception. Several years after the crash, Jerome B. Wheeler declared bankruptcy. The Wheeler Opera House in Manitou was converted into a small hotel called The Nyoda in 1900, and in later years they renamed it El Parque.
In the ensuing years, Manitou Springs became a run-down hippie town with no Chamber of Commerce. The stately Wheeler Opera House had been divided into ten or twelve ‘love nests,’ and this once-glorious building became apartments for those who were, at times, too stoned on drugs to not know better than to lean out of the windows and fall to their deaths. In the early 1970s, the Wheeler Opera House in Manitou was condemned.
Sometime during 1975, while driving through Manitou Springs, Charles Barsotti saw this once-proud building, envisioned moving his Meeker Antique Emporium Store from the Western Slope to Manitou Springs, and decided then and there to purchase the building. At the time, there was a Laundromat on the first floor. After Charles and Katherine Barsotti purchased the building, the people who were running the Laundromat on the first floor continued to live in one of the apartments on the second floor.
Charles was a staid and conservative ex-lawyer and ex-stockbroker, formerly of La Jolla, California. He and his wife, Katherine, lived in one apartment on the second floor while restoring the building. I can only imagine their surprise when the Chief of Police camped out in one room to stake out a band of local drug dealers operating out of Park Place a few doors down.
They opened the Antique Emporium sometime around 1976, which took up the entire first floor. It thrilled old timers to see the work progressing, and they would stand by for days, watching the scaffolds go up, and the challenging and transforming painting of the exterior of the building taking place. At one point, they brought a Cherry Picker in to help with the painting. With two men in the basket, a worker on the ground was mishandling the equipment (there might have been alcohol involved). The Cherry Picker crashed to the street, injuring the painters in the basket, one of them already dreadfully afraid of heights.
Charles was known to stand on the roof of the building and hold the ankles of an adventurous friend (Mike Seols) who would lean over the edge to paint the otherwise-impossible-to-reach spots or to make minor adjustments. At the same time, the Barsotti’s were spending their time restoring the third floor with its fifteen foot ceilings to some semblance of its original glory.
During the same period, they purchased the lots behind the building for parking, and put in a bridge and exterior stairs to cross from the back lots to the back of their building. They moved upstairs to their regal new dwelling, which was at one time the Wheeler Opera House, in the early 1980s.
The second floor has been converted to four apartments. Charles Barsotti passed away several years ago, but his family still lives on the third and fourth floors of this imposing old building. Swirl Wine Emporium opened for business in May of 2008 on the east side of the first floor. The bank vault from the Wheeler Banking Company is located in the store. The Swirl Wine Bar was added to the back of Swirl in July of 2010. The Antique Emporium, run by Michael Barsotti, is open occasionally now, but is always available by appointment.
Vignettes in this article were provided by Michael Barsotti.
Article written by Mimi Foster.