Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Somewhere in all the historic hairdo magazines is that one article that will remind Ethel Gomez how to build a beehive. Here, under the candy dish? There, by the invoice for the faux Titanic jewelry sitting in the display case next to the Kewpie dolls that double as air fresheners? Or in that stack of papers resting precariously on the burnt-orange vinyl hair-dryer chair?

Oh, who knows. And who needs instructions, anyway?
"Oooh, girl," Ethel says, encouraging herself. "I haven't forgotten how to do this big back-combing thing. Not at all. And when you get tired of that, you can wear your hair in this Seventies gypsy shag. I used to love that gypsy shag. Very nice. I can do these hairdos, girl. I am stuck in time!"

But in fact, Ethel is just as adept at creating the thoroughly modern "look at that--they don't even comb it" hairdos of today as she is with the giant ratted towers of the late Fifties that she's been doing ever since she graduated from the Bon Ton Beauty School in 1956, having paid $135, total, in tuition. "I had long hair myself and just wore a pageboy every day with pin curls in the front that made a swoopy wave down across my forehead. Girl," she says, looking into the mirror at her prospective beehive installee, "you could have that, too."

She has worked out of this shop on West Mississippi for about a year and has yet to fully unpack. Family pictures lean against the wall. Curling irons lie scattered about, as if flung from above. But there's no need to organize, because one day soon, curators from Lakewood's Heritage Center will be by to cart much of it away to their facility, where it will be catalogued, then reverently displayed in the very building that Ethel and her husband, Gil, occupied on West Alameda Avenue from 1961 to 1994--a building now thought to be a shining example of the International Style. Or Art Deco. Or Art Moderne.

Museum types have been happily wallowing in those architectural distinctions for a couple of years now. But while her hairdos may be structural marvels, Ethel herself is more of a common-sense/inner-beauty type, and she has trouble with the concept of her own past, and the building that housed it, as history.

"Did I ever think I'd see that?" she asks. "Never! We never saw anything special about the building. The rent was reasonable, is all. And Gil and I were just starting out. We were on a budget."

Halfway through its restoration, the Gil and Ethel's building today sits where it landed seven months ago, on a bare patch of earth at Lakewood's Heritage Center, a multi-building museum complex located on the former site of May Bonfils's Belmar mansion on South Wadsworth Boulevard.

Until two years ago the facility, then known as Belmar Historic Park, was a modest repository for whatever stuff Lakewood citizens had amassed, then donated--old farming equipment, filing cabinets crammed with hats and shoes. Occasionally the park would offer a Colorado-themed exhibit, and it still hosts an annual fall apple-harvest festival, but usually things were pretty quiet.

"It lacked focus," says Deb Ellerman, who took over as administrator in 1996. "I had to figure out what it should or shouldn't be. Part of the problem has always been the sense that we have nothing old in Lakewood."

For that matter, the notion of Lakewood itself was rather amorphous, since it started as a series of unrelated rural enclaves. After World War II, the area began its transformation into one of those amorphous western suburbs, full of car dealerships and four-lane arteries and lacking even the most rudimentary downtown. More recent developments have obliterated much of what had gone before--which meant that sometimes, the only historic artifacts in Lakewood were the people who remembered how things used to be.

Ellerman's assignment wasn't exactly an archaeological dig, but she found herself fascinated. The best way to display and illuminate the collections of stuff she'd inherited, she thought, was to declare that the newly renamed Heritage Center was now a museum of the twentieth century. "It's easy to discount this kind of history because it's so recent," she says, "but we decided to go ahead. And then we thought, wow, what a concept--a twentieth-century museum in a place where things are being destroyed all the time. This stuff seems like yesterday, but when it's gone, it's gone. It doesn't have to be--"

"--so we're proactive," explains Kris Anderson, who, as collections curator, oversees the center's 30,000 twentieth-century objects, "from old paper and textiles to buildings."

When Anderson and Ellerman arrived--both from the same Rockford, Illinois, museum--the facility already operated several buildings as tourable attractions: a calving barn, a one-room schoolhouse, a 1920s-era Russian Jewish dairy farmhouse. But Ellerman and Anderson were sure there were other "collectible" buildings, as well as other worthy artifacts, lurking in Lakewood. So Ellerman drew up a five-year plan to turn her charge into a twentieth-century showcase and started hunting for funding as well as historic, if not particularly old, items.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff

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