Crass? Clueless? Just plain dumb? All of the above? Yup, all of ’em are good descriptors of the Fine Arts Center’s midnight teardown of the historic Carpenter mansion last week.
And why did they tear it down? For a parking lot!
According to FAC public relations flack Charlie Snyder, the decision had been made years before, but they just now got around to doing it.
The reason for the wait seems glaringly obvious. Because FAC supporters are often the same kind of mush-brained lib’ruls who also support historic preservation, the FAC decided to hold off calling the demolition contractors until after opening the new wing earlier this month.
Tearing down the Carpenter mansion might have, you know, sent the wrong signal to potential donors and to the newly energized and enthusiastic arts community. It might have cast a pall over the glittering gala opening of the “new” FAC — even though the additional parking sure would have come in handy!
Former CEO Mike De Marsche’s decamping to Armenia did the FAC board and his yet-to-be-named successor a favor by taking responsibility for a deservedly unpopular action.
So why did they do it?
I asked FAC board chairman Buck Blessing, who was reasonably forthcoming, if disingenuous. Asserting that the building was not of any particular importance, he volunteered the information that the FAC had hired a preservation consultant, who had agreed, predictably enough, that the building wasn’t historic.
Sorry, Buck, but I don’t buy it.
It was a beautiful building, the only survivor of an entire block of such houses. But the FAC, given the choice of an historic mansion or 30 parking places, chose the parking places.
The Carpenter mansion had long been the red-headed stepchild of the FAC — a building that they didn’t need, given to them by Julie Penrose’s sister in an act of misguided philanthropy.
It would have been far better for the community, and for Ms. Carpenter’s bank account, had she simply sold the building to a private user — who, we can safely assume, would never have torn it down to create a parking lot.
But in an act of amazing stupidity, that’s exactly what the FAC did.
We shouldn’t be surprised.
There’s a long history of institutional cluelessness regarding historic properties in Colorado Springs. Somehow, owners of such properties often believe that their interests are best served by tearing them down and building parking lots.
After all, nobody wants these old wrecks! Best to bring in the bulldozers and prepare the site for glorious redevelopment.
We should know now what that means.
Take, for example, the parking lot at Pikes Peak and Cascade avenues, where the magnificent Burns Opera House once stood. The building was leveled almost 40 years ago — and it’s still a parking lot. The timing just hasn’t been right for a new building, I guess. Maybe the owners are shooting for a date in the early years of the 22nd century.
But some historic structures survive the wrecking ball, despite all odds.
Nearly 20 years ago, the historic Cheyenne Building, located on Pikes Peak Avenue across the street from the former site of the Burns Opera House, stood vacant and dilapidated. The First National Bank, which had owned the building for years as a potential site for expansion, decided to sell it.
The bank cut a deal with Penrose Library. Financed by the El Paso County Retirement Fund, the library would buy the building, demolish it and make … a parking lot!
I thought of myself as a civic activist during those days, so I decided to do what I could to derail the deal and preserve the building. I managed to get a lot of publicity, but neither the library nor the bank would budge an inch.
I was just a mildly annoying pain in the butt, who would go away the moment the building started to come down.
At a friend’s suggestion, I contacted Mike Witty, who ran the county retirement fund. He listened patiently as I described the historic importance and structural integrity of the beautiful old building — and, to my astonishment and delight, Mike said that he was pulling out of the deal.
The building was, he said, too important to the history of our city to lose.
The white hats had triumphed. I put the building under contract, and eventually turned it over to Denver’s John Hickenlooper.
John’s entrepreneurial genius turned it from a forlorn derelict to a downtown landmark, the Phantom Canyon Brewpub and Restaurant.
Today, the restaurant provides employment to dozens of people, contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars to city tax rolls and has given me, and thousands of others, good beer and good food.
And here’s the rest of the story. Witty didn’t back out of the deal because of my oh-so-persuasive pitch. A few years later, it was revealed that he had been using the retirement fund to make risky real estate deals and had been pocketing kickbacks.
Clearly, he didn’t want attention of any kind — so he bailed. In the end, he couldn’t cover his tracks and he went to jail — but we owe him a debt of gratitude.
After all, wasn’t it the great medieval rabbi Rashi who said that a good deed, even if performed with evil motives, is still a good deed? So let’s lift a glass of Phantom’s Cascade Amber ale to Mike — here’s to you, dude!
But sadly, the city continues to lose historic properties. Visit the Web site of the Historic Preservation Alliance (hpasprings.org), and you’ll see 10 significant regional structures that are listed as threatened, the Carpenter mansion among them.
Unlike almost every other city in America, Colorado Springs has no meaningful historic preservation ordinance. As far as the city’s concerned, all properties are equal, and there’s no difference between the Tuff Shed in your back yard and, say, Grace Church.
If the owner wants to tear it down, he/she can do it — end of story. There are no mandatory delays, no preservation incentives of any significance and little commitment to the historic environment of the city.
That’s why, when I drive past the Midland Railway Roundhouse at 21st Street and Highway 24, which has long been occupied by the Van Briggle Pottery, I cringe at the “For Sale” sign.
It’s one of the most significant historic structures in the city — and it occupies a prime corner, one perfectly situated for redevelopment. To lose it would be tragic, but does the city have the tools to help a new owner create a suitable, and profitable, adaptive re-use?
Let’s hope so.
Every historic building that is heedlessly demolished diminishes our city, and all of us. And those who tear them down are diminished most of all.
In fact, let’s call them what they are — vandals.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5204.