History museum on the move: Denver diorama gets kid-glove care

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As the Colorado History Museum prepares to move from its outdated home, curators and staff are going to extraordinary lengths to pack and protect the fragile displays and exhibits.

Perhaps none are more fragile than the diorama.

The 75-year-old model of early Denver is a 12-foot-square plaster depiction of the first settlement along Cherry Creek and the South Platte River in 1860. Some 350 tiny structures dot the display, complete with brown-resin troughs depicting the creek and the river.

Although the diorama has no street names and virtually no recognizable buildings, it's possible to guess fairly accurately where today's landmarks first sprung up. For instance, Larimer Square, in its embryonic stage, is fairly well recognizable because of its proximity to Cherry Creek, with early Auraria emerging to the south.

The diorama was built on a heavy wood frame supporting several layers of thick plywood, over which was poured plaster about an inch deep...

... The diorama was built in the early 1930s as part of the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933, a federal stimulus package during the Great Depression that hired millions of unemployed Americans to build roads, dams, schools and even art projects.

The diorama is the largest of the museum's 78 dioramas built during the Depression. Designed by Edgar McMechen, it took six months to build at the scale of A/af to 1 inch, which makes streets about as wide as a thumb. The structures all are wood, while the figures were first carved in wood, then a plaster mold was made and they were cast in lead.

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