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City Aud: A little help from its friends 

With just a little imagination, you can bring the Colorado Springs City Auditorium back to life.

Let your eyes go soft, and those murals of toiling miners and opulent actors in the entrance hall, painted by local artist Archie Musick, take on a slightly brighter tone. Now, visually scrub the oak moldings and heavy doors, patch the linen ceiling and the fabric of the wood-frame chairs, and paint the grand theater in cheerful tones.

Suddenly, this is the same spectacular place that opened in 1923, which drew throngs of women with their bobbed hair tucked into cloche hats, and men in fedoras. This is a place that the citizens of Colorado Springs agreed to tax themselves to build. It's a place that's played host to the Shrine Circus and the Harlem Globetrotters, Michelle Obama, Jethro Tull and Johnny Cash.

"The building has asked very little for the performance it's given," says David Weesner, part of a group proposing a new plan to restore the building.

These days, the City Aud is a shadow of its former self. Bathrooms, heating and ventilation aren't up to par, if they function at all. The ceiling is crumbling. The main theater's once-beautiful paint is a sad dirty cream. The old wood has lost its luster, chairs are falling to pieces, and the prized 1927 Mighty Wurlitzer Pipe Organ has been largely forgotten.

In short, to reach the end of this century the City Aud needs more than vision; it needs help.

Building support

In 2007, Compass Facility Management Inc. produced a restoration plan for the city and the Downtown Partnership. GE Johnson Construction Co. estimated it would cost $15 million. Compass insisted that the Aud could recover the costs within five years, but Council was put off.

"I would hope to see it returned to a community jewel," Mayor Lionel Rivera told the Gazette then. "But you have to weigh that against all the needs of the city."

With Rivera and at least four other Councilors now on their way out of office, the Friends of the Historic City Auditorium will try again. The nonprofit group has contacted the city's eight mayoral and 22 City Council candidates, in hopes of building early support for a more modest restoration plan costing around $2 million, taking two to five years to implement. It would be funded by grants — but group members say grantors will insist upon having clear, long-term support from city leaders.

"We need them to say, 'This is a building worth saving,'" says Friends member Shanti Toll.

City Councilman Scott Hente, whose term runs through 2013, thinks the group's effort is "commendable," but he wants to hear more details. As far as Council support for the Aud, however, Hente says that already exists.

"I think this Council has shown on a couple of occasions that we're willing to continue this auditorium," he says.

People who use the Aud say it serves a unique community function. Toll has organized metaphysical fairs there for 21 years. Friends president Jo Peterson has hosted antique shows there for 11 years. They say the City Aud, with a capacity of 2,655 (compared to the World Arena's 8,000), is the right size and far more affordable than other venues. Lately, the City Aud has hosted cat shows, small concerts and school events, plus sporting events like roller derby and volleyball.

But those activities take their toll. One, in particular, is responsible for leaving holes in the historic ceiling.

"I try to get all the metaphysical spirits to protect the place," Toll says, "but it's hard to compete with a volleyball."

Fixer-upper

Weesner, an architect, has had a passion for the City Aud for decades. He helped transport the organ there from its old downtown home at the stunning Burns Opera House (a historic structure demolished in the 1970s to make room for a parking lot), and he still plays the instrument regularly.

Having examined the building thoroughly, Weesner says other plans had high cost estimates because they called for thorough modernization. He'd rather just see it brought back to its former self.

First up, aesthetics: ceiling repairs, a historically accurate interior paint job, restoring seats, and adding some new chairs (to accommodate the increased girth of the American behind).

Heating and ventilation systems would be repaired, and computerized controls added. The City Aud doesn't have air conditioning, but it does have an out-of-commission system that pulls cool night air inside. Since the City Aud is well-insulated, Weesner says, the old system works remarkably well when functioning.

Bathrooms would be upgraded, and several reopened. Restrooms would be added near the 230-seat Lon Chaney Theater, allowing shows concurrently there and in the main hall.

Finally, new bookkeeping, business and marketing plans would be implemented, aiming to attract local, regional and national events.

It's a lot to tackle, but Weesner says the City Auditorium is well worth the investment.

"I'm an architect, and I can tell you," he says, "it's hard to say what the replacement costs would be."

stanley@csindy.com

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