Columns » Public Eye

Tearing down the past


The Colorado Springs City Auditorium, designed in the Classical Revival style, was completed in 1923. The city recently hatched a secret plan to sell it to a developer without putting it out for bid. - COURTESY OF THE PIONEERS MUSEUM
  • courtesy of the Pioneers Museum
  • The Colorado Springs City Auditorium, designed in the Classical Revival style, was completed in 1923. The city recently hatched a secret plan to sell it to a developer without putting it out for bid.

Here's a plot to ponder: What sort of city government would seriously entertain giving away one of its architectural treasures, a building listed as a national historic site, to a land developer for a song?

What sort of city would then actually agree to spend taxpayer money on a favored developer to help him designate it as urban blight, secure massive tax breaks and low-interest loans and potentially tear down the architectural treasure?

What sort of city would enter into secret negotiations with one developer to sell a citizen-owned asset without putting the proposal out to bid, much less first asking the owners if they want to sell?

What sort of city would place itself in the humiliating position of having to shell out taxpayers' money to buy its way out of previous commitments to historical integrity?

And what sort of city would violate its own master plan -- which includes preserving what's left of its historical downtown core?

You're living in that city.

On Sept. 11, Colorado Springs City Manager Lorne Kramer sent a memorandum to the nine-member City Council detailing his secret negotiations to sell the 80-year-old City Auditorium to Nor'Wood Development Group. "Nor'Wood envisions converting the City Auditorium into a four-story residential building," he wrote.

All of the events currently held at the auditorium, Kramer wrote, could easily be moved to the Phil Long Expo Center in northern Colorado Springs near the Chapel Hills Mall.

In his memo, Kramer didn't raise the possibility of, at the very least, legitimately putting the City Auditorium on the open market, perhaps to sell to the highest bidder. Instead, the city manager's memo and accompanying documents -- which can be read online at -- detail the extent to which he has kowtowed to Nor'Wood and directed city staff to push forward this secretly hatched deal.

Kramer's memo also didn't mention the obvious: If the City Council really wants to fill a few potholes by selling off the City Auditorium, perhaps they should consider letting voters decide whether they want to sell their building.

This deal, sources say, is so far along that the city's Parks and Recreation Department was recently instructed to cut the City Auditorium from its 2004 proposed budget -- which means that Kramer plans to hand over the architectural treasure by the end of the year.

Sources say that Nor'Wood has offered to steal the property for its land value of $1.2 million and is floating the idea of turning the City Auditorium into lofts. However -- as any of the hundreds of groups that have used the auditorium this year alone can attest -- the building has hardly any windows. So if Nor'Wood were to buy it, and actually turn it into lofts, they would have to punch out windows. Which would alter the architectural appearance of the building. Which would violate the terms of a recent grant from the Colorado Historical Society and endanger the building's status as a nationally designated historic site.

You would have thought the city learned its lesson from the appalling debacle of its Urban Renewal demolition frenzy of the 1970s. Then, our leaders razed the exquisite Burns Opera House on the corner of Cascade and Pikes Peak. It is now a parking lot. (The opera house's 1928 Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ, by the way, was rescued and is now in the City Auditorium.) Other gorgeous old buildings along Colorado Avenue between Cascade and Nevada have long been replaced by such architectural "wonders" as the city administration building, the Sun Plaza and the city utilities building (with a handy drive-through).

By contrast, let's imagine a great city envisioned by such leaders as former Mayor Charles E. Thomas and fellow architect Thomas MacLaren. The two men had well-publicized differences, but in the early 1900s, they and others lovingly constructed classic structures -- in the Romanesque, Classical Revival, Queen Anne and Mission/Spanish Revival styles -- to establish Colorado Springs as an architectural jewel of the West. Today, few of those buildings remain.

Which brings us to the City Auditorium itself. Approved by voters and completed in 1923, the building represents the last local example of publicly owned Classical Revival architecture in Colorado Springs. Inside, over the arch, is the Latin phrase "Usui Civium Decori Urbis," which translated means "For the Use of the People and the Glory of the City."

The auditorium currently hosts events 320 days a year -- and on many of those days multiple events, according to manager Bob Wade. The events pay for the cost to operate the building, and this year Wade expects to actually make a profit.

In addition, since the city secured designation on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, it has received grants to renovate the building. The latest, $75,000 from the State Historical Society, is supposed to be used to refurbish 600 of the old auditorium seats and to restore the two beautiful murals inside -- the works of nationally recognized artists Archie Musick and Tabor Utley.

If the city sells off the auditorium, it will have to send back that $75,000, plus refund another $47,000 of grant money it has already spent.

This week, Vice Mayor Richard Skorman expressed some discomfort about the plan. "I'm not in favor of selling off assets unless there's no other way to run our city government," he said. "To lose [the City Auditorium] might be shortsighted."

Might be shortsighted?

Joyce Stivers, president of the Colorado Springs Historical Alliance, cites Winston Churchill's famous quote, "A country that forgets its past has no future" -- and applies the same theory to the city. She is appalled that the city could even consider such a deal.

"I would remind our elected officials that when Colorado Springs was founded we had incredibly benevolent people giving their time and energy and most of all money to make sure Colorado Springs was beautiful," she said. "What are we going to remember our leaders by 100 years from now?"


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