Who will pay the tab for City Auditorium restoration?

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Built in 1912, the City Auditorium still houses a wide variety of events throughout the year.

For many years, visitors to downtown’s historic City Auditorium were treated to a dismal sight. All they had to do was look up at the arena ceiling, pockmarked with dozens of holes in the tiles, and further desecrated by pieces of material hanging like dingy banners.

That material, stuffing made from horse hair, likely was installed when the facility was built in 1912 — who knew? In any case, replacing it surely would cost a fortune, and maintenance seemed impossible, even if you could find replacement horsehair.

That changed a few months ago, when a part-time maintenance guy brought in a cherry-picker and gave it a try anyway. In a couple of days, the ceiling was patched and respectable at nominal cost.

“It’s made an enormous difference to our facility,” said auditorium manager John Carricato. “He patched more than 120 holes. You can see the patches, but they’re not obvious.”

And it’s not as if the place has been abandoned by users. Last year, the auditorium hosted more than 575 events.

“During our peak time, September to May, we’re probably dark no more than two days a month,” Carricato said. “Some days, we’ll have three or more events going on.”

The auditorium receives no financial support from the city.

“We have a zero-based budget,” Carricato said. “We’re self-sufficient. We can pay our operating expenses, but we can’t do much about deferred maintenance.”

This small success inspired the auditorium’s nonprofit support group, Friends of the Historic City Auditorium (cityauditorium.org), to create a new plan for renovating downtown’s aging treasure. The cost: $1.65 million, 80 percent below even the most conservative estimates for refurbishing the facility. Source of funds, according to the Friends’ plan: “grants, public fundraising and special in-house work.”

Most of the cost is earmarked for ventilation system restoration, toilet improvements, replacing many of the historic (and notably uncomfortable!) seats in the main auditorium and Lon Chaney Theater, and repainting/revitalizing the arena space.

The Friends’ proposal makes an interesting suggestion: forget new HVAC systems, which would cost millions. In fact, forget air conditioning altogether.

“It’s actually a very green building,” said Shanti Toll, a founding member of the Friends. “The original system worked fine. If we install new fans and thermostats, and use windows that are now sealed as they were intended to be used, it’ll be fine in the summer.”

The report notes that the original architects declined to use “refrigerated air,” relying on the building’s thermal mass to aid cooling and heating systems.

For at least 20 years, various plans have been proposed or considered for the renovation, re-use or privatization of City Aud.

In 1992, the city administration suggested that the auditorium be converted into a new municipal court building. That went nowhere, as did subsequent proposals. One called for turning over the building to the Colorado Springs Conservatory, while another more recently linked financing to non-exclusive use by a proposed luxury hotel near the auditorium.

Even as local voters happily approved dedicated taxes for open space and public safety, as well as a multi-million dollar bond issue for transportation-related improvements, the auditorium languished.

Yet for many decades the venerable auditorium was the city’s beating heart, hosting a dizzying variety of events and performers. Funded by a $390,000 voter-approved municipal bond issue, the auditorium was designed 90 years ago as a multi-use facility, capable of hosting events large and small. Prefiguring modern venues such as Denver’s Pepsi Center, the arena-style seating accommodates any event from conventions and sports events to rock concerts, raves, and cage fights.

  • Paderewski, Rachmaninoff, and John Philip Sousa gave concerts there.
  • Johnny Cash, June Carter, Buck Owens, George Jones, Johnny Horton, Willie Nelson, Wanda Jackson, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton and Marty Robbins all played there, as did Eric Burdon and the Animals, the Yardbirds, Ike & Tina Turner, and Buffalo Springfield.
  • Preston Tucker introduced his revolutionary automobile, the Tucker Torpedo, to a skeptical crowd in 1948.
  • A tiny piece of rock ‘n’ roll history was made on the Aud’s historic stage, when Little Richard fired his lead guitarist, reportedly for upstaging the boss. The flamboyant unknown who got the boot: Jimi Hendrix.

Designed by local architects Thomas MacLaren and Charles Thomas, the auditorium is one of the city’s crown jewels, a soaring lattice of structural steel wrapped in a sober classical façade. That cuts no ice with city officials, who have long believed that the auditorium ought to pay for itself.

“I’d support a private fundraising plan with all my vigor,” said City Councilor Tim Leigh. “I love the idea — but I wouldn’t support any public dollars.”

The Friends think they can raise the money — but only if the city commits to “supporting the renovation process … (and allocating) an annual budget for repair and upgrades (perhaps 1 percent to 3 percent of the building’s value).” Moreover, the Friends want the mayor and City Council to formally commit to “maintaining (the auditorium) as an affordable multi-use venue for public events of all Colorado Springs residents.”

Such commitments may be hard to secure. If the auditorium’s replacement value is $15 million, the city would have to cough up between $150,000 and $450,000 annually for repairs and upgrades. And a previous City Council declined to accept a grant from the Colorado State Historical Fund to renovate the seating, citing a requirement that the city maintain ownership of the facility in perpetuity.

“Do we have money for the auditorium?” asked Councilor Brandy Williams. “It depends — we have money for police, fire and roads. If we could fund it privately, and have a private company run it, that would work — but otherwise, it’s up to the mayor. If it’s in his budget, then we’ll see.”

So far the Friends have raised about $25,000 over the past few years to support the auditorium, as well as donating thousands of hours in volunteer time. In Toll’s opinion, the ball is in the city’s court.

“Without strong governmental cooperation,” he wrote, “foundations and private donors won’t commit money (for renovation).”

And, he added, “We can’t patch horsehair forever.”