by Silvia Pettem (published in the Daily Camera, November 11, 2007)
The late Muriel Sibell Wolle once stated that she was “not a historian nor a writer, but an artist gone slightly berserk.” Long before most people thought about historic preservation, she sketched Colorado mining towns to create a pictorial record of their often-decaying buildings before many of them disappeared.
If the former artist and University of Colorado fine arts professor were alive today, she probably would be sketching her namesake –the Sibell Wolle Building on the CU campus. The nearly 90-year-old structure was most recently used for fine arts and will soon be demolished to make way for the new Visual Arts Complex.
The red brick building originally was the “shops” for engineering students who contributed to its design. Light filtered through a modified saw-tooth roof considered state-of-the-art at the time.
Muriel arrived in Boulder by train, in 1926, when the building was only eight years old. The West was new to the petite and energetic New York native. Single and 28 years old, she had studied advertising and costume design, then came to Boulder to teach art at CU. After a visit to Central City, she stated that she felt challenged and stirred by the echoes, memories, and history of the nearly deserted gold mining town.
During the school year, Muriel taught in the classroom. She never learned to drive, but every summer eager students chauffeured her around in the mountains where she made rough pencil sketches. She drew quickly, on the scene, then took her sketches home where she completed them with black crayon and occasionally water colors.
Her finished drawings were representative rather than detailed. Her intent, she wrote, was to “catch the mood and quality of the town… with a sympathetic and dramatic interpretation.”
Although Muriel’s first objective was to get the deteriorating buildings down on paper, she realized that she needed to record the towns’ histories, as well. Her first book, titled “Ghost Cities of Colorado,” depicted the towns of Central City, Black Hawk, and Nevadaville. The next year she published “Cloud Cities of Colorado,” primarily on Leadville.
Muriel married Francis Wolle (a CU English professor), then wrote, under the name of Wolle, her most popular book – “Stampede to Timberline.” It was first published in 1949 and has become the “Bible” of Colorado ghost-town books. It’s still in print today and covers much on Boulder County.
By the time of the book’s release, Muriel was the head of the Fine Arts Department, a position she held until her retirement in 1966. Within a year of her death in 1977, she was honored by the University as one of three “alumni of the century.”
Muriel Sibell Wolle is not likely to be forgotten. The bulk of her collection of drawings are in the Denver Public Library. Also, some of the materials in the Sibell Wolle Fine Arts Building will be recycled in the building which will replace it. But for those who want to remember the building as it is, they will have to sketch it themselves or quickly take some photos.