During much of Colorado Springs’ history, times of prosperity and growth have often brought sudden and unwelcome change.
From the late ’60s to the early ’80s, new buildings replaced old throughout central Downtown. We built the Pikes Peak Center, the Holly Sugar building, the sleek new Antlers hotel and a couple of medium-rise office buildings, all in the name of urban renewal. We ripped down half a dozen irreplaceable historic buildings and scores of lesser Victorian structures, many in perfectly good shape. Reminders of our folly still disfigure Downtown’s heart, where parking lots are the unmarked graves of the Chief Theater, the Burns Building and many others.
Era-defining buildings like the Chief and the second Antlers hotel were razed because they were no longer economically viable. Their owners believed it would have been too expensive to bring them up to modern code, preservationists loved them but couldn’t afford to buy them and local philanthropists weren’t interested. The symphony needed a new home, but Bee Vradenberg and Charles Ansbacher wanted a modern concert hall, not a crumbling Downtown movie palace.
After decades of relative stagnation, Downtown has suddenly exploded with medium-rise hotels, massive apartment complexes, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum and Hall of Fame, Robson Arena at Colorado College and Weidner Field.
Preservationists have worried about the City Auditorium and the Union Printers Home. It’s impossible to overstate the historic significance of either one — and yet both were vacant, dilapidated and economically problematical. It looked like 1970 all over again, but today’s Colorado Springs has grown, learned and evolved. The men and women who lead our business, political and philanthropic community aren’t people who sit idly by and smile at the wrecking ball — they stop it!
That’s what happened when a dozen local business owners, philanthropists and family enterprises joined together and acquired the Union Printers Home and 25 adjoining acres for $18 million in an all-cash deal. Every participant put up at least $1.5 million, with a single overriding goal: preserve the buildings and grounds, and make them useful and accessible to the community.
That’s what will happen if Colorado Springs Conservatory founder Linda Weise can realize her ambitious proposal to save, restore and modernize the City Auditorium. It’s a complex deal that expands the building and updates the theater/auditorium, preserves its historic façade and artwork and utterly reactivates it. It will become once again a center for the arts, community events, creative endeavors and fun stuff. It won’t be a snooty place catering to the elite, but a place for all of us. Weise, who took the Colorado Springs Conservatory from idea to community icon, is an absolute firecracker, a person who gets things done. This may be our last and best chance to save and restore our beloved Aud — so go Linda!
And here’s yet another worthy project, this one headed by former County Commissioner and Colorado Springs native Jim Bensberg, who still resides in the modest Cheyenne Canyon home that his parents built in 1955. Once unfashionable and out of the way, the neighborhood is one of small houses on tiny lots, bordered by Cheyenne Creek. A lengthy stretch of the south side of the creek is undeveloped wilderness, home to birds, butterflies, bears, native plants and mature trees. Once a part of Winfield Scott Stratton’s Cheyenne Park, the property has belonged to a charitable nonprofit, the P.E.O. Sisterhood, since 1965. For many years, the organization operated a small now-shuttered retirement community on the eastern end of the property. The organization has decided to sell the entire property, but has yet to hire a broker or determine a price.
Should the city acquire it with revenue from the Trails, Open Space and Parks tax? It’s out of the way and likely expensive, but absolutely unique. There are no other pristine riparian corridors available for preservation within city limits. There’s an overgrown footpath that winds gently along the creek, as well as paved parking next to the one-time P.E.O. chapter house (formerly Stratton’s dance/music pavilion). Find a worthy nonprofit lessee for the historic pavilion (e.g., the Rocky Mountain Field Institute), improve the foot path and that’s it — no multimillion dollar park development costs, very low maintenance costs and an intimate natural experience for visitors.
So let’s wish Jim and Linda well, and celebrate the magnificent men and women who saved the Union Printers Home from demolition. What a difference half a century makes — we can still mourn the Chief and the Antlers, but let’s rejoice in our suddenly luminous present.