Preserving historic buildings, neighborhoods, land uses and landscapes is often difficult in Colorado Springs. Most of us grew up somewhere else, maybe in the stifling heat of the South or the sunless winters of the Midwest. Whether we came here for the weather, for the mountains or for economic opportunity, we were focused on building new lives.
And that’s why the population of Colorado Springs has grown tenfold since 1950, increasing from 45,000 to 456,000.
Our political and business leaders tend to be utilitarians, unsentimental folks who see little benefit in clinging to the past. If a building is functionally obsolescent, either fix it up or tear it down and build anew. Cities can’t thrive by being static monuments to the past — they have to welcome, embrace and encourage change.
Preservationists (and I’m one of them) think a little differently. We believe that the past should be preserved, honored and treasured. Cities and neighborhoods can constantly renew themselves, and move forward through time, just as downtown Colorado Springs has done in recent years. The senseless destruction of iconic downtown buildings during the 1960s and ’70s will, we hope, never be repeated.
Yet preservation can’t be passive. It’s often difficult, unrewarding and tedious work, whether it involves keeping a 120-year-old house habitable at reasonable cost or saving a decrepit downtown building from the wrecker’s ball.
So how are we doing? What have we kept and what have we lost?
Beginning in the 1920s, every American city was enlivened by what came to be called liquid fire — the glowing neon signs that advertised roadside attractions of every kind; bars, restaurants, motels, campgrounds, car dealers, pawn shops and strip joints. Neon signs lined all the gateways to the city, including East Platte, North and South Nevada, and Colorado and Manitou avenues. Colorado Springs may never have rivaled Las Vegas, but our signs were wonderful. Despite sporadic efforts to preserve these fiery 1950s artifacts, most have disappeared. Of the 20-plus interesting signs that illuminated our nights 15 years ago, four remain.
In effect, it’s as if an entire historic neighborhood had been slowly demolished, leaving a handful of occupied houses. We should have established our own little neon museum, moving the orphaned signs to a downtown lot — but it didn’t happen.
Next challenge: the City Auditorium. Designed by Thomas McLaren, funded by a voter-authorized bond issue, construction was completed in 1923. From the city’s website, “maximum seating capacity of 2,655 represented more than 10 [percent] of the city’s population. The final cost of $424,910, included all the furniture, fixtures and stage equipment.”
It’s one of the defining historic structures of Colorado Springs.
It was beautifully built, so much so that city budgeters for decades have gotten away with skimping on maintenance and capital improvements. Everyone professes to love the old Aud, but not enough fix it up.
“We’re issuing an RFI [request for information] for the auditorium,” said Nina Vetter, a senior financial analyst/project manager for the city. “It’s not a request for proposals, but we’re hoping that organizations with creative ideas for managing the auditorium will come forward.”
In the best of worlds, some suitably deep-pocketed savior would come to the city’s rescue.
“We have facilities such as fire stations across the city that need expensive repairs and renovation,” Vetter pointed out. ”It’s a terrific asset for the city, but we’re using general fund dollars on it, and we think we should explore a continuum of options.”
Preservationists, pay attention! This isn’t a drill.
In contrast, Pueblo is moving forward with an innovative plan to repurpose its historic downtown power plant as a baseball stadium and youth sports center. Earlier this week, the Pueblo County commissioners approved a $59,954 contract with the Matrix Design Group to begin the planning process for the facility. Funding will come from a $60 million revenue retention ballot issue, which voters overwhelmingly approved last November.
Think about it: Pueblo is on its way to building a downtown ballpark while preserving an iconic 1920s building, and Colorado Springs can’t afford to maintain a civic treasure. We can do better.