New Mesa Verde visitor center set to open soon

Massive new facility will be just off Highway 160

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Sam Green/Cortez Journal Derrick Palmer rolls out modeling putty that will be used to build the rock surface for one of the exhibits at the new Mesa Verde Visitors Center.

Mesa Verde National Park is approaching one of the most anticipated moments since the park opened in 1906. The Mesa Verde National Park Research and Visitor Center will soon be open to the public. The official grand opening is scheduled for May 23, 2013.

The building, which has been under construction since the groundbreaking in 2010, has polished and strategically placed every exhibit, sculpture and fixture to completely modernize the facility. The new complex was architecturally designed to sit comfortably on the north ridge of the park just off of Highway 160, and includes wondrous views of the La Plata Mountains and Point Lookout no matter where a visitor steps.

At about 23,500 square feet, the space is substantially larger than Far View Visitors Center at 10,500 square feet. A third of the new building, about 8,000 square feet will be dedicated to public spaces such as the lobby, ticketing area, bookshop and exhibits. The remaining two-thirds will be for research and archival collections.

The entire facility was primarily built as a result of three substantial factors. First, the park wanted to have a visitors center closer to the entrance of Mesa Verde in hopes that it would attract more traffic.

Second, the collection of more than 3 million coveted artifacts lie dangerously close to Chapin Mesa, which is one of the most vulnerable spaces in the park for wildfires. To keep these archival pieces secure and out of the fire zone, the new facility was ideally designed to be a safe house for the artifacts.

The third reason was to make that same archaeological collection more accessible to researchers, archaeologists and historians.

Carol Sperling is the chief of interpretation and visitor services. She expects visitors will be pleasantly surprised by the exhibits and their accurate depictions of the Ancestral Puebloan life. There are about 15 exhibits of storytelling panels, geographical dioramas, Puebloan figures depicting daily life and a storytelling room.

"The old center did not tell the story of the people who lived here," Sperling said. "There was no connection with the landscape or no real-life depictions. This will be a taste of what they saw and the story behind it."

The life size figures used in the dioramas are special to the center. The hands and faces were cast from members of the tribal groups who advised on the development of the exhibits. They are replications of actual artifacts and scenarios that will help put people into the landscape by seeing how and why Ancestral Puebloans lived here.

There are 24 tribal groups with well-documented ancestral, geographical and cultural affiliation with the park. They also help advise and counsel park management on projects and programs within Mesa Verde.

The new center, however, was not created to promote a museum-like quality.

The interactive stations for their artifacts give visitors useful information into each item housed in their collection. They also offer a 360-degree viewing capability to see some items from all angles. There are four categories of archives and, at the moment, 30 items in each category.

The visitor center also contains a space that Sperling says will act as a reflective area. The room has three separate entrances and four walls of Puebloan artwork. In the middle, a sculpture of a grandfather storyteller is opening his arms to viewers. This section will provide ambient music overhead and an actual voiceover of a Puebloan storyteller.

The exhibits are informative but Sperling said the whole idea was inspired to spark an interest in visiting the park interior. With the new center's location being directly off of Highway 160, it could be a deterrent for park participation. But park officials remain hopeful that winter visits may incite curiosity so that people will plan to come back in the summer.

The gem of Mesa Verde remains the cliff dwellings inside the park

Sperling is excited and proud to have the new center ready to show off to visitors. She hopes people stopping in will gather more information from the facility and that will provide an even better park experience.

Visitors will be able to split the task of purchasing and browsing.

"Logistically, there is a bigger space for ticketing," said Carol Sperling, chief of interpretation and visitors services. "At Far View there was a very small space, no access for wheelchairs and it created a lot of congestion."

In fact, a good reason for the new visitor center is that Far View did not meet current handicap accessibility standards. Ramps were too steep and the area was too compact. To bring the building up to code would be a very costly expense.

Of course, the Far View Center will not all but dissipate into another park ruin.

Sperling said they will continue to keep up with maintenance and plumbing issues, as well as running the electricity to keep the building from decay. There are currently no plans for reuse.

The new research and visitor center will also be the new face for the annual arts and crafts festival the park hosts every year on Memorial Day. rachels@cortezjournal.com

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Sam Green/Cortez Journal Sherry Basham slides out maps that will be used to show tourists how to get to the different sites in the park.

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Sam Green/Cortez Journal The new Visitors Center offers computer exhibits to show pictures of some of the artifacts stored at the museum.

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Sam Green/Cortez Journal An Anasazi farmer is ready to be put into one of the exhibits at the Mesa Verde Visitors Center.

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Sam Green/Cortez Journal Floyd Green puts the final touches on one of the exhibits at the new Mesa Verde Visitors Center.

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Sam Green/Cortez Journal Laurence Thomas builds a cliff out of modeling clay where an Anasazi figure wrapped in plastic climbs. The sculptures of people were wrapped in plastic during construction so that they wouldn’t be damaged.

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Sam Green/Cortez Journal Carol Sperling demonstrates the touch screen for one of the exhibits at the new Mesa Verde Visitors Center.

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Sam Green/Cortez Journal Tourists will have a replica of the Balcony House tunnel to crawl through. Greg Morrow works on the exhibit.

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Sam Green/Cortez Journal Greg Morrow works on the Balcony House exhibit. A replica of the ladder lets tourists try it out to be sure they can handle the real ladder when they visit Balcony House.