Analysis: Exhibit highlights junction of art, advertising

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The Art and Facts of Business, a delightful exhibition that opened last week at the Pioneers Museum, brings vivid life to the vanished enterprises that once graced Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region.

There’s a glowing illuminated sign from the Burns Theater, a saddled, full-size plaster horse that once stood before Bingo’s Saddle Shop downtown, a 1950s-era sign from downtown cleaner Couture’s (founded 1904) and hundreds of period photos, artifacts and advertisements from past businesses.

Any Colorado Springs resident who has ever started a small business, worked for a small business or patronized a small business will thank museum curator Leah Davis Witherow for the memories. And happily, some of the historic businesses featured in the exhibition have endured.

Lorig’s, relocated from downtown to the east side and now located in Old Colorado City, still sells traditional Western wear.

An 1880s photograph of “Olson the Plumber” shows a burly, muscular young man with a handcart — he’d no doubt be pleased to know that five generations of his descendants have nurtured and expanded his modest vision into a dominant regional enterprise.

To those of us of a certain age, downtown’s past is ever visible. We can’t look at the empty lot bordered by Pikes Peak, Cascade and Colorado without recalling the careless demolition of the Burns Theater in 1973, while the drab Gazette building at Pikes Peak and Tejon brings back memories of the elegant red sandstone building that once graced the site. Fragments of both remain, saved from the wreckage by mourning scavengers.

Some of those fragments are displayed in this exhibition, artifacts from times that haven’t entirely vanished. The Art and Facts of Business is about the complex intersection of art, business, identity, design and memory in the long history of Colorado Springs. Consider downtown as a built environment that is continually refreshed and reimagined. Buildings and businesses change and disappear — but traces linger, like an ancient manuscript written over by a later scribe.

Downtown’s zenith may have occurred in the mid-1950s. All the glorious buildings of the Cripple Creek era still stood, often altered to accommodate new uses. Gorgeous multi-story neon signs designed and crafted by local artisans illuminated the night, as half a dozen movie theaters crowded Pikes Peak Avenue. Contemporary photographs show a rich and colorful environment, one of businesses jammed together competing for attention.

Art wasn’t an option for these businesses — they had to create identity through artful signs, window displays and external design elements. We don’t know much about the artists who created these dazzling streetscapes. Most of it has disappeared, as have the businesses that displayed their work.

Yet the past persists.

Take a look at the graceful little 1895 one-story building at 206 N. Tejon St., now the home of the Boulder Street Gallery. The building’s façade is still ornamented by a fanciful antique lamp bearing the name “Handy’s,” a confectioner that occupied the building in the early 20th century.

A block to the south, the kitschy 1950s sign for Michelle’s Chocolatiers has been dark since the business closed nine years ago. It probably won’t be around much longer, unlike the wonderfully sculpted head of a Native American chief that adorns and advertises the 1901 Cheyenne Building at the northeast corner of Pikes Peak and Cascade avenues. The once-derelict building narrowly avoided the wrecker’s ball 20 years ago, thanks to Denver brewpub owner (and present Colorado governor) John Hickenlooper, who acquired the building from a local bank and transformed it into a brewpub/pool hall/meeting place in 1993.

Will the Cheyenne Building last another 115 years? It’s safe for a while, but change may be the only constant in downtown’s dynamic space. We’re losing Old Chicago and a dreary bank drive-through, but we’ll gain new businesses and new buildings. And like their predecessors, they’ll need artful displays, artful signage and artful space — perhaps more so than ever.

Consider some recently established downtown businesses.

Joe Campana’s Bonny & Read, a downtown seafood restaurant located on Kiowa Street between Tejon Street and Nevada Avenue, skillfully integrates design and fine art. Blue awnings extend along the establishment’s half-block street frontage, while tall windows flood the interior with light. Inside, local artist Phil Lear’s fanciful renditions of the restaurant’s pirate namesakes decorate the walls.

Conceived by Kathy Loo and Darsey Nicklasson, Blue Dot Place is downtown’s first new apartment complex since the 1960s. It’s a far cry from the dreary functionalism of that era. Balconies, inventive exterior colors and an exterior mural by Jerome Lapham and Jana Bussanich enliven the 33-unit building.

Campana, Nicklasson and Loo understand what the owners of Bingo’s Saddle Shop understood in the 1930s — art and advertising are inseparably linked. That may be why Bingo’s, established in 1929, is still in business 87 years later at 418 S. Eighth St. — featuring an artfully designed website instead of a plaster horse.