During these times of chaotic, frenzied and apparently unstoppable Downtown and near-Downtown growth, how do we save, preserve and revitalize our remaining historic structures? 

To understand what it takes, let’s look at the process that resulted in the demolition of the Burns Opera House (later the Chief Theatre) in March of 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 façade of glazed terra cotta tiles, and a spectacularly lavish interior. The architects also incorporated expensive and sophisticated design techniques; for example, the stage floor was made of hundreds of two-by-fours, set on end and wedged seamlessly together on a concrete floor. 

“The 80 x 50 foot expanse accommodates elephants for productions of the Queen of Sheba,” wrote Marion Vance in the archaeological and historical publication, KIVA, in 2001, “and a huge treadmill for the chariot in Ben Hur. The aesthetics of the theater rivaled its technical perfection. Polished Italian marble floors, tall gleaming pillars and marble staircases gave the foyer a feel of grandeur. The seats were of rich wood trimmed with olive-green velvet…the stage was framed by sculptured neoclassical figures. Lavatory fixtures sparkled in marble and burnished brass.”

Burns threw quite a party on opening night, May 8, 1912. As reported in the Evening Telegraph, “The theater presented a splendid appearance when peopled with the flower of Colorado Springs Society. Not only in the boxes but throughout the house full dress was the rule … in honor of the occasion, the display of handsome costly gowns lavishly garnitured [sic] with rare heirloom laces and jewels was an exceedingly notable one.”

Jimmie Burns died in 1917. The opera house morphed into a movie palace, a much-loved Downtown venue where generations of Springs kids enjoyed Jimmie’s princely gift to the city 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 that memory, and those of hundreds of subsequent visits.

In 1965, the neighboring Exchange National Bank bought a 99-year lease on the property that included a teardown option. Seven years later, the bank closed the theater and soon announced that the icon would be demolished, citing structural damage and decay that would be too expensive to remedy. Preservationists disagreed, but the Burns was private property — the bank had the right to tear it down. 

A structural analysis commissioned by the Colorado State Historical Society found that the structural problems cited by the bank were easily fixable, and that the theater’s shortcomings “are more than compensated for by sheer over-design and over-construction. The theater has withstood the test of time without any indication of structural failure.” 

Thus encouraged, preservationists tried to figure out how to raise $5 million to buy, renovate and reopen the noble old building. The Colorado Springs Symphony Association didn’t want any part of the deal, because “the Burns doesn’t meet the current or future requirements of the symphony audience.” No private funders stepped forward, so the only option for preservation was for city council to put the question to voters. On Feb. 27, 1973, council declined to do so.

The building fell, and after 48 years its former site remains a parking lot. 

Destroying the building was a tragic mistake, one that we should never repeat. Our processes and prejudices have changed, and it’s heartening to see businesses, philanthropists, elected officials and nonprofit leaders firmly on the side of historic preservation.

The Union Printers Home is safe, and Linda Weise’s ambitious plans for renovating the City Auditorium seem to be on track. Yet there are many important historic buildings in our city that ought to be designated as landmarks; for example, the Downtown post office. What will we do when the Feds decide they don’t need it anymore and put it up for sale to the highest bidder? It’ll be up for grabs, its fate uncertain and perhaps subject to the whims of an out-of-state mega developer. That may seem far-fetched — wouldn’t it make a great boutique hotel? Sure, that’d be a fine use, but this city has always grown, changed and ripped down old stuff. Saving old buildings may require early action, not last-minute desperation. Act now or mourn later.

And yeah, I still miss the Burns…

 

Editor's note: This story has been corrected. Some of the dates and timelines weren't accurate. The CSBJ regrets the errors.

 

John Hazlehurst, whose great-grandfather came to Colorado in 1859, is a Colorado Springs native. He has worked as a reporter/columnist for the Indy since 1997 and the Business Journal since 2006.