New hopes rise for Auditorium

Spectators today sit in the same seats that people used 90 years ago.

Spectators today sit in the same seats that people used 90 years ago.

Funded by a 1922 voter-approved bond issue, the City Auditorium opened its doors in 1923. The 40,000-square-foot facility, designed to accommodate conventions, trade shows and theatrical productions, could hold up to 2,500 spectators, equivalent to about 10 percent of the city’s population at the time.

Its cost: $424,810.32.

“Every seat has unobstructed views,” noted auditorium Manager John Carricato. Lofty skylights (now closed off) originally flooded the interior with natural light.

The building’s sober classical exterior contrasts with the airy lightness of the interior. A full stage at the south end of the floor includes the 1927 Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ, originally installed in the now-demolished Burns Opera House. It’s an amazing instrument, with 600 pipes and the ability to simulate scores of sounds, including snare drums, doorbells, birdsong, surf, clashing cymbals and sleigh bells.

The “City Aud” has hosted concerts by Paderewski, Rachmaninoff, John Phillip Sousa, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix and Willie Nelson. Preston Tucker unveiled the iconic Tucker Torpedo on the auditorium floor in 1948.

Generations of high school students received their diplomas there, and the city’s delightful metaphysical fair has made the Aud its home since 1993. More than 300 events take place there every year, in large part because it’s affordable, conveniently located and adaptable to almost any use.

But that cuts no ice with its owners, who haven’t lifted a finger to upgrade or maintain the building for decades.

“This historical facility deserves more respect and credit for the nearly 90 years of service it has provided to the Colorado Springs community,” wrote architect David Weesner in a 2012 strategic plan commissioned by the Friends of the Historic City Auditorium. “Sadly, for many years the building has been allowed to deteriorate. When service and repair was required, it was not provided and often broken systems were just shut off.”

Who are these tightfisted owners? That would be us, the citizens of Colorado Springs.

But finally, help may be on the way. The preliminary 2014 city budget contains a $300,000 appropriation for restroom upgrades. For users and fans, it’s an important milestone. If approved, it may be a first step toward total renovation of the building.

“With the interest that’s in downtown, it really has a role,” City Councilor Jan Martin said. “I do hope that any changes that are made in the budget won’t impact the auditorium.”

Ten years ago, the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado) offered the city a $75,000 grant, which would have been partially matched by a $36,000 grant from the Conservation Trust Fund, for a total of $111,000 to begin renovation of the auditorium’s seating. It was a no-brainer; the original seats were still in use after 80 years.

The grant came with strings attached. A 20-year covenant would have prohibited the city or any subsequent owner from altering the building’s exterior appearance. At the recommendation of then-Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Director Paul Butcher, City Council refused the grant.

In retrospect, it was a regrettable decision. Had the city simply decided to accept the grant, more might have followed. But since then the city has declined to seek any grants for the building, leaving it in a kind of municipal limbo.

Successive administrations have made half-hearted attempts to put the facility under private management, change its use or even sell it outright.

In each case, user groups protested loudly and effectively. Eventually, the city and auditorium users reached a de facto truce: The city wouldn’t sell or close the Aud, but as for additional money: forget it.

No easy solution

In July 2012, a city request for proposals sought private managers willing to invest millions in auditorium renovations in return for a long-term management contract. Not surprisingly, no such group appeared.

Meanwhile, thanks to Carricato, his enterprising staff and the Friends of the Historic City Auditorium, the building is much improved.

The gracefully arched ceiling above the main floor, once pockmarked with dozens of holes in the horsehair (yes, horsehair) insulation, has been skillfully patched. Ceiling floodlights, dark for decades, once more illuminate the interior. The 1940s vintage carbon arc “Super Trouper” spotlight mounted in the rear balcony works perfectly, as does the ancient hot water heating system. Thanks to an anonymous donor, four period-appropriate chandeliers recently have been installed in the auditorium lobby.

Weesner estimated it would cost at least $15 million to build a comparably sized facility today. Updating the auditorium would cost less than $3 million, reduce operating costs and increase user revenues.

Still luring crowds

Meanwhile, the Aud chugs along, hosting unexpected and wonderful events every week.

“We had 2,500 people here for Five Finger Death Punch [a heavy metal band] two weeks ago,” said Carricato, “and just last week we had a pep rally that attracted 800 people — Notre Dame fans! Didn’t see many Air Force jerseys, but it was fun seeing all the Irish rooters.”

In “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” Stephen Vincent Benet warns the unwary that if they go to Webster’s grave during a thunderstorm and speak his name, “the ground’ll begin to shiver and the trees begin to shake. And after a while you’ll hear a deep voice saying, ‘Neighbor, how stands the Union?’ Then you better answer the Union stands as she stood, rock-bottomed and copper-sheathed, one and indivisible, or he’s liable to rear right out of the ground.”

Should you visit Thomas McLaren’s grave in Evergreen Cemetery, what would you reply if he, the architect of the City Auditorium, asked you, “Neighbor, how stands the City Auditorium?”

You could tell him that his magnificent building still stands despite decades of neglect. And should he decide to jump out of his grave and take up residence in the City Hall until Council fixes the building, all the better.

After all, he designed City Hall, too.

One Response to New hopes rise for Auditorium

  1. The City needs to sell commemorative plaques to go on the back of theater seats. The Majestic did this in San Antonio and they raised millions of dollars in funds for the theater. Many folks would like to have their name on a piece of history.

    Steven Shepard
    November 12, 2013 at 3:43 pm