In these times of chaotic, frenetic and seemingly unstoppable growth in downtown and near downtown, how can we save, preserve and revitalize our remaining historic structures?
To understand what it takes, let’s take a look at the process that culminated in the demolition of the Burns Opera House (later the Chief Theater) in March 1973, 61 years after it opened in 1912.
Built by Cripple Creek millionaire (and former Colorado Springs plumber!) Jimmie Burns, it featured an extraordinary white facade of glazed terracotta tiles and a spectacularly lavish interior. Architects also incorporated expensive and sophisticated design techniques; for example, the stage floor was made up of hundreds of twos by fours, placed end to end and wedged seamlessly on a concrete floor.
“The 80 x 50 foot expanse accommodates elephants for the productions of the Queen of Saba», Writes Marion Vance in the archaeological and historical publication, KIVA, in 2001, “and a huge conveyor belt for the chariot in Ben hur. The aesthetics of the theater rivaled its technical perfection. Polished Italian marble floors, high shining pillars, and marble staircases gave the foyer a sense of grandeur. The seats were rich wood trimmed with olive green velvet… the stage was framed with sculpted neoclassical figures. The bathroom fittings sparkled with marble and burnished brass.
Burns threw quite a party on opening night, May 8, 1912. As noted in the Evening telegraph“The theater looked splendid when it was populated with the Colorado Springs Society flower. Not only in the boxes but throughout the house, full dress was the rule … in honor of the occasion, the display of beautiful expensive dresses richly trimmed [sic] with lace and rare heirloom jewelry was extremely remarkable.
Jimmie Burns died in 1917. The opera house transformed into a movie palace, a popular downtown location where generations of Springs children enjoyed Jimmie’s princely gift to the town he loved. . I was one of them – I remember sobbing in terror when my older sister took me to see a Donald Duck wartime cartoon in 1944. I treasure this memory, as well as those hundreds of subsequent visits.
In 1965, the neighboring Exchange National Bank purchased a 99-year lease on the property that included a teardown option. Seven years later, the bank closed the theater and quickly announced that the icon would be demolished, citing structural damage and degradation that would be too expensive to repair. The Tories disagreed, but the Burns was private property – the bank had the right to demolish it.
A structural analysis commissioned by the Colorado State Historical Society found that the structural problems cited by the bank were easily repairable, and that the theatre’s flaws “are more than offset by excessive design and construction.” The theater has stood the test of time with no indication of structural failure.
Encouraged in this way, the Conservatives tried to find a way to raise $ 5 million to buy, renovate and reopen the old noble building. The Colorado Springs Symphony Association wanted no part of the deal because “the Burns does not meet the current or future demands of the symphony audience.” No private donor came forward, so the only preservation option was for city council to ask voters. On February 27, 1973, the council refused to do so.
The building fell, and after 48 years its old site remains a parking lot.
Destroying the building was a tragic mistake, a mistake we should never repeat. Our processes and prejudices have changed, and it is heartwarming to see businesses, philanthropists, elected officials, and leaders of nonprofits firmly on the side of historic preservation.
The Union Printers’ home is secure, and Linda Weise’s ambitious plans to renovate the city’s auditorium appear to be on track. Yet there are many important historic buildings in our city that should be designated as landmarks; for example, the downtown post office. What will we do when the Fed decide they no longer need it and put it up for sale to the highest bidder? It will be up for grabs, its fate uncertain and perhaps subject to the whims of an out-of-state mega developer. It might sound far fetched, wouldn’t it make a great boutique hotel? Sure, that would be a good use, but this city has always grown, changed, and destroyed old stuff. Saving old buildings may require early action, not last-minute desperation. Act now or cry later.
And yes, I still miss the Burns …
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected. Some dates and timelines were not exact. The CSBJ regret the mistakes.