June 12, 2003 News » Cover Story

Gambling with History 

Cripple Creek's high-stakes battle for historic renewal

In the heart of Cripple Creek's downtown, a crane hoists steel girders over a quickly growing skeleton of concrete and steel. The sleek, boxy structure poses a stark contrast with the worn brick facades across the street, many built more than 100 years ago.

Though not even complete, the new building has become a symbolic flashpoint in a long-simmering conflict between the gambling industry, which came to town 12 years ago, and the desire of many locals to preserve what's left of Cripple Creek's unique historic character.

"That building was the number-one case recently of development coming up against preservation in a direct clash," said Eldon Likkel, a local hotel owner who sits on the city's Historic Preservation Commission. "Everyone in town was a little hinky about that one."

Already the largest casino on Bennett Avenue, Cripple Creek's main drag, the Double Eagle Casino is getting bigger, moving west to consume an entire city block, making more space for conference rooms, retail stores (including a Starbucks), a restaurant, and, of course, lots of slot machines.

But in its push to expand, the Double Eagle knocked down three historic buildings, fairly simple one-story brick storefronts -- some built by Springs moguls Spencer Penrose and Charles Tutt -- on a block that once housed an assay office, some retail shops and a working mine.

Supporters of the Double Eagle say the casino tried to save the buildings. But as construction began, work crews found structural problems that they say made preservation of even the building's facade impossible.

"Sometimes when you go in to repair an old building, things don't happen like they're supposed to on paper ... it just falls apart," says Al Feinstein, the architect who headed the Double Eagle project. "In the old days, the mortar was made mostly of sand, so when you go in and try to repair a wall, the mortar sometimes just peels away. You're left with a material that's incapable of being maintained."

In the end, the casino agreed to rebuild the storefront facades in the original design, based on historic photographs, and using some of the old brick -- a good compromise says Likkel.

Critics say the block's demise is just the latest example of historic integrity losing out to gaming profits. They say they warned Feinstein that the casino's ambitious plans (which included a major alteration to the buildings' floor plans, digging out another floor below the buildings' basements, big changes to structural outside walls) would lead to the buildings' demise.

"You have to wonder if they ever intended to save those buildings," said Jan MacKell, a local historian who works at the Cripple Creek museum and fought against the buildings' demolition. In a sign of how contentious the issue became, MacKell recently lost her seat on the city's Historic Preservation Commission. (She says her outspoken criticism of the Double Eagle made her a target; others say MacKell was too combative to represent the city).

But MacKell wasn't the only one who was miffed. Even some fellow casino operators who know the cost of historic renovation were ticked. "Those buildings didn't have to come down," said John Elges, assistant general manager of the Gold Rush Casino. "If they had done enough investigation, I think they could have figured out that the buildings wouldn't stand up to what they were trying to do."

Sure, old buildings are unpredictable, Elges agreed. But the same could be said for numerous other reconstruction projects that were just as complex with buildings in equally bad shape before they were successfully restored.

Some supporters of the Double Eagle concede that more investigation and bracing of vulnerable walls before digging might have saved at least the historic facades. "They were blasting in there," said one local official who asked not to be identified. "They were doing heavy digging within feet of [the facades]. You can't do that kind of work within feet of an old facade like that and expect the wall to stand."

Feinstein rejects the idea that the building could be saved. "I believe it would have [fallen down] anyway," he said. "You can go through extraordinary means to save things and you still may not be able to save it. And not everyone can afford to go through those extraordinary means."

Fake history

City Councilman Ed Libby, a local builder who also does historic work and is on the Historic Preservation Commission, voted for the compromise that allowed the buildings to come down. But he says he can see both sides of the issue: "On one hand I recognize how important it is to preserve buildings, on the other hand I recognize how difficult it is to preserve them," he says. "Sometimes the design of the new building may not be compatible with saving what already exists ... But sometimes you can do things to buildings in the process of preserving them that make them difficult to function on the interior."

Now, Libby and others in city government say they're considering ways to avert similar outcomes in the future: independent analysis of development plans by structural engineers; and incentives and streamlined review for developers who propose preservation friendly floor plans, among other ideas.

In the meantime, the Bennett Avenue demolition came as a blow for other reasons. For one thing, one of the buildings knocked down had already been restored -- using $30,000 of city historic preservation funds, distributed by Cripple Creek from state gaming revenue. (Under the gaming amendment passed in 1990, a portion of gaming proceeds go into the State Historic Fund. A portion of that money goes directly to the gambling towns for historic preservation projects). The refurbished building housed a pizzeria for several years.

To MacKell, the demolition belies a deeper problem. Hungry for continued economic growth, officials on the City Council and Historic Preservation Commission, she says, are becoming too lax in enforcing the city's historic codes, which only regulate what happens to a building's exterior. "It sets a terrible precedent," she says of the ultimate compromise. "What happens when the next casino comes in and says, 'they let the Double Eagle get away with it'? What's the city going to do then?"

Others say MacKell's criticism of the Double Eagle project is shortsighted. Where the original plan called for preserving three historic facades in place, the compromise hashed out between the city and the Double Eagle now calls for historic replication of eight storefronts. That's because five vacant lots that are also part of the project along Bennett Avenue are vacant. Under the historic code, new construction doesn't have to follow historic codes, so the casino's move to replicate (using old photos) the block's historic face is a plus.

But that's part of the problem says Kim Tulley, an ally of MacKell's on the Historic Preservation Commission. It's replication, not restoration. "The people voted in [gaming] for historic preservation not historic demolition and fake history," Tulley said of the voter-approved constitutional amendment that allowed gambling in the state. "We have a responsibility to the voters and the state to uphold that amendment."

And there's an even bigger fear. If it's okay for developers to simply replicate facades, then more buildings might fall and be replaced by new brick faces that bare more resemblance to a Disney set than a real historic town. If that happens, Cripple Creek could over time go the way of Blackhawk, a gaming town near Denver that has lost nearly all its historic charm to large, glitzy Vegas-style box casinos.

While some say this fear is an extreme overreaction in a town where dozens of old buildings have been restored -- at least on the outside -- by casinos, others say Cripple Creek is nearing yet another historic crossroads, and, as always, the stakes are high.

The fight of the century'

The Bennett Avenue boondoggle may not have been such a fracas if it didn't come on the heels of several other recent losses. Take the case of the First National Bank Building. An elegant brick structure where Bert Carlton schemed to build the Roosevelt and Carlton tunnels, the building collapsed in a series of financial and construction mishaps in the late '90s.

And then there was the Katinka Building. A diminutive, stand-alone storefront on the less-trafficked Myers Avenue (once famous for its brothels), the Katinka had the whole town up in arms after the Midnight Rose casino proposed a new, multilevel parking garage on the site.

Because no compromise could be reached that would save the whole building, the developer saved about a quarter of it -- the front 18 feet. So the old storefront is there, but it's useless as a business.

Because the Katinka is enveloped by a massive, brick parking garage that towers at least 20 feet over the old structure, it's also pretty useless as a historic artifact. People walking down the street would be hard pressed to get that old-time historic feeling from this bizarre truncated storefront stuck into the side of a modern, brick monolith.

To proponents of preservation, it was an outrage: another example of Cripple Creeks' character-filled past getting short shrift to make way for ugly boxes and the imperatives of casino gambling. To others, it was a perfect case of purists going over the edge, making impractical demands on private property owners.

Without massive intervention, the Katinka, like many old buildings here, would likely have fallen of its own weight in only a matter of years, some say. Even the Gold Rush's Elges, who was critical of the Double Eagle, saw little value in the Katinka: "That was a nasty old building," he said.

Fans of the old Katinka, however, say it was important for several reasons. One of only two old buildings left on Myers Avenue, it was once owned by Anthony Bott, a founder of Old Colorado City. Up until the Midnight Rose bought the structure, it was owner occupied.

The controversies show how deep emotions run in Cripple Creek when it come to historic preservation, an issue that in inextricably intertwined with the politics, economy and survival of this still rural Colorado mountain town.

"Oh, that was the fight of the century," builder Maurice Woods says of the Katinka flap. A local builder who has restored more than a dozen historic buildings in downtown Cripple Creek, Woods suggests it's unfair to blame casinos for the loss of old buildings.

Nobody will pour the substantial sums needed to restore an old building if they can't realize a return on their investment, says Woods. If that means that floor plans, walls and even facades need to be altered, it's better than the alternative: a building that collapses due to neglect.

"The problem is that people on both sides don't know what they're talking about," said Woods, who is now working on the historic Neall Building, just across the street from the Double Eagle expansion. "You have to ask people how much of their own money they've put into historic preservation here in town. How many buildings have they restored with their own money and their own sweat? Historic preservation is doing well in this city, but not by the people who just talk about it; it's by the people who put their own money and sweat into it."

At any cost'

Ten years after gaming money began to flow into the coffers of the State Historic Fund numerous buildings in Cripple Creek have indeed been restored. "On balance, I think Cripple Creek is doing very well with historic preservation," said Bob Brooker, general manager of the Imperial Hotel and Casino, hailed as one of the city's better examples of preservation.

It's a sentiment that's echoed by many in the business community here. You hear it at least as often as you hear other longtime residents or visitors say that the real flavor of Cripple Creek has already been lost to Las Vegasstyle gambling.

In the last 10 years, the city has also doled out gaming proceeds in the form of grants to homeowners and real-estate speculators to preserve dozens of old historic homes -- some that "most people would have taken a match to," in the words of one local builder.

And money from gaming has helped restore dozens of old buildings, from the old Bell Brothers Building that now houses the police department, to the Butte Opera House, to the May Block, where local realtor SueAnn Smith restored an old brick storefront, among many others.

"I just love old buildings, and there aren't that many usable structures left in town," said Smith, who received an $80,000 grant from the city, but invested much more of her own money into constructing a steel beam-and-cable infrastructure to secure her Bennett Avenue storefront.

Such scenarios are fairly typical of renovation projects. The gaming grants help defray the costs of expensive rebuilds, but they cover a small portion of what can be a rather hefty bill. "When you're talking about a 100-year-old building, you have to spend a lot of money to remodel it and bring it up to code," said Mark Murphy, general manager of Bronco Billy's casino.

The most difficult and expensive proposition is putting all the modern conveniences and requirements -- heating, ventilation, electric, plumbing and sprinklers -- into the old brick buildings, which often as not, don't even have foundations.

In most cases, builders have to gut the interior and install a steel super-structure simply to shore up the old brick walls. You can't pack hundreds of slot machines, customers, workers, kitchens and massive AC units into a building that can barely hold its own weight, they say.

"It also needs to be remembered that in the old days, there were no handicapped accessibility requirements, few utility requirements, no licensing, no [Occupational Safety] requirements," noted Feinstein, adding that bringing buildings up to code sometimes requires significant structural and design changes.

Such costs are one reason that some in the business community understand why the Double Eagle couldn't save its historic storefronts. The buzzwords going around the city these days are that historic preservation should not occur "at any cost," especially when the public is rarely willing to put up the cash to either buy a building or pay for its reconstruction.

But for many casinos like Bronco Billy's, which has now restored six historic buildings, Murphy says, the investment was worth it. "It's a real, Colorado-style casino; it's what gaming was intended to be when it was voted in," said Murphy. "People feel it's quaint and unique."

And that quaint feeling may not just be some trivial luxury to appease history buffs, Murphy says. It may in fact be the key to Cripple Creek's survival as the gaming industry -- along with Colorado's gaming towns and the State Historic Fund -- brace for an uncertain future.

$500 and two pigs

Goin up to Cripple Creek

Goin on the run

Going up to Cripple Creek

Have a little fun!

-- Traditional rhyme

When Horace Bennett paid Bob Womack $25,000 for the land under what was to become Cripple Creek, he was so skeptical about talk of gold, he put the town on a hill so it wouldn't mess up better and flatter land used by more worthy tenants: cattle.

"Bennett didn't want this inconvenient, ridiculous, temporary gold flurry to interfere with the ranch buildings and the corral in the southern, flatter half of the ranch," historian Marshall Sprague writes in Money Mountain: The Story of Cripple Creek Gold.

Bennett's haste made for some funny city planning: Perched on a slope, the city's main street had to be built in two levels at one point, a feature that lasts to this day. A joke at the time, reports Sprague, went like this: "A man broke his neck last night, falling off Bennett Avenue."

Within months, however, Bennett changed his tune. As Cripple Creek swelled to 2,000 residents, Bennett and his partner Richard Myers tore down their ranch buildings to make room for a cemetery. By the early 1890s, Myers and Bennett had made more than a million dollars selling off lots (for both the living and the dead) from land that Womack's family bought from earlier homesteaders for $500 and two pigs.

Cripple Creek was by then a bustling little town of 5,000 served by 26 saloons and gaming houses, four dance halls, 24 grocery stores, 10 meat markets and 11 clothing stores, according to Sprague. At its peak, a few decades later, Womack's gold camp reached 25,000 residents.

Today, Cripple Creek is bustling again. This time, the rush is for limited-stakes gambling. Tour busses chug down Bennett Avenue, dropping off thousands of cash-laden gamblers each year; the tourism business grows steadily as more people opt for road trips over air travel, and home construction is picking up.

But gambling has not delivered the kind of diverse, booming economy that followed gold during the city's heyday. Cripple Creek today has just one supermarket, opened only two months ago, a general store, and a few clothing, antique and souvenir shops. Everything else is gambling.

You wanna play slots, you've got more than three dozen places to drop a quarter. You want a box of office paper or some lumber, you drive to Cañon City, Woodland Park or Colorado Springs. Wages are decent, but housing is scarce, so people tend to live elsewhere.

Still, it's a mistake to assume that all of Cripple Creek's revenues come from gaming. "In the summer, we run almost 80 percent occupancy and during the winter, when it's just the gambling crowd, it's as low as 30 [percent]," Likkel says of his hotel business. "What that tells me is that tourists are the bulk of the trade up here. You see people come up to snap some pictures; they may not even go into a casino. If we had to survive on gaming alone, we'd probably be out of business."

They come to ride the old narrow-gauge railroad, take a 1,000-foot plunge into the Molly Kathleen mine, visit the Cripple Creek Museum, see a historic drama at the Butte Opera House, witness the annual Gravity Race, snap a few pictures, or feed any of the several dozen old donkeys (descendants of the original miners' companions) who still roam the city's streets.

The tourism trade would surely diminish, Likkel and others agree, if the town's antique character were compromised too much by the glitz of gaming. That's one reason the City Council, along with a newly created Gold Camp Development Corporation, are trying to diversity the economy by bringing businesses other than gaming to town.

The matter has taken on increased urgency since the Colorado Lottery Commission, the agency that regulates scratch games and Lotto, wants voters to approve a ballot measure that would allow Video Lottery Terminals or VLTs at dog tracks like the one on North Nevada Avenue in the Springs.

"It could be devastating," say Murphy of Bronco Billy's. "Cripple Creek has roughly 4,300 slot machines. If you put 1,000 VLTs in Colorado Springs and 1,000 in Pueblo -- and we all know that VLT is another name for slot machine -- that's a 50-percent dilution of the market that's already very mature."

Since most of Cripple Creek's regulars come from Cañon City and Colorado Springs, an industry now bringing in a steady 3.5 percent yearly increase in revenues could take an immediate 40- to 60-percent hit.

Hard times could also mean further consolidation in the business, with bigger out-of-state corporations controlling most of the town's economic activity and even less private money from casinos for historic preservation projects.

And it would mean less grant money for historic preservation. Because VLTs would be administered by the state lottery commission, all the feel-good gravy money would go to open-space projects, not the State Historic Fund.

At the same time, historic preservation is getting hit from another angle. State treasurer Mike Coffman has floated plans to divert gaming money from historic preservation into tourism promotion. The idea is to boost the state's sales tax coffers to get through tough financial times.

"It's a terrible idea in our view," says Lawrence Walsh, director of Colorado Preservation Inc., a nonprofit group that recently issued a report touting the benefits of historic preservation on the economy. "Giving money to tourism helps a limited sector of the state ... the counties with skiing mainly. The State Historical Fund distributes money to small towns in every corner of the state."

While not everyone in Cripple Creek is worried about the diversion, it's clear that in Cripple Creek, like many historic Colorado towns, historic preservation and tourism go hand-in-hand with the city's survival. From Denver's LoDo to the San Luis Valley, historic preservation is helping locals keep their history intact while drawing investors, businesses and tourists into Colorado's historic enclaves.

Fire on the mountain

"The two started to argue. He slapped her face. She came at him with a bowie knife. He grabbed her arm and the two of them knocked over the lighted gasoline stove. Liquid flame spread over the wood floor. Three minutes later, residents heard Fire Chief Allen shoot off his revolver three times to call the volunteer firemen."

-- Sprague, Money Mountain

Walking around Cripple Creek today, hints of the past are everywhere. A brick wall on the Imperial Hotel and Casino hawks "Chase's Walk-Ezy Footbath Tablets Make Walking a Pleasure."

And on every building, plaques remind tourists of the bar, assay office, bank or brothel that once stood there.

Almost all these buildings were erected in 1896, a year after a devastating fire wiped out almost the entire camp and the town fathers (Stratton, Tutt, Carlton and others) decided to remake the city from scratch, in brick.

It's that brick, and the sometimes ornate Victorian touches, that color whatever's left of Cripple Creek's history. But it's easy to see why some people feel that history plays second fiddle to the imperatives of big gaming.

Just a block down from the Katinka Building, a large boxy structure looms over the Old Homestead House, a petite little Victorian that was once a famous Myers Avenue brothel. Here, Pearl DeVere, Lola Livingston and Hazel Vernon plied their trade with men -- some of whom are still remembered with statues in busy Colorado Springs intersections and by portraits in its most pretentious institutions.

Take a quick turn into any casino and whatever nostalgia might have been felt is shot dead quicker than bartender Grant Crumly put buckshot into the brain of Sam Strong, friend of Stratton and claimant of the famous Strong Mine.

Row after row of slot machines beep and flash incessantly. Because historic preservation codes have no reach inside historic buildings, most were gutted so casinos could both maximize floor space and install steel support structures to keep the buildings standing.

In place of the older, more authentic artifacts came a sort of over-the-top, pseudo Old-West dcor: an odd mix of antique walnut bars, plush red carpets, gilt trim, plexiglass chandeliers, marbleized mirrors and flashing lights.

It's also worth noting what you won't see in Cripple Creek. There are no neon signs, which are prohibited by local historic codes. And unlike many historic towns that feature some sort of continuing re-creations of old-time life, there is little living history of the type that brings places such as Bents Fort, Gettysburg or Jamestown to life.

There's not even a horse-drawn carriage to take you on a trot down history lane. A spring day on Bennett Avenue is awash with the sounds of tour busses, parked on nearly every block. But other than the Homestead, you won't see a restored interior, any impersonators garbed in Victorian gowns (except on specific occasions), old worn miners hats, or the double-breasted suit of a newly minted gold baron.

Some local officials are working to change that, but for now, the only real glimpse of history comes down at Cripple Creek Museum, which displays artifacts of the old-time boom and bust in glass cases. Finding other nuggets of the old charm takes digging: The Imperial Hotel's Red Rooster Bar, a gorgeous though tiny burgundy room festooned with cocks of all shapes and sizes, and the Butte Opera House, which now partially houses the fire station, are two examples.

It's no wonder there are many in Cripple Creek and along the Front Range who preferred Cripple Creek as it was before. Worn floors and smoke-weathered walls, yellowed chandeliers, uneven glass and faded mirrors all offered day-trippers from Springs a peek into a time and place like none other on Earth.

It's a complaint town leaders in Cripple Creek hear often. But they're only partly sympathetic. "There's a tendency among some people on the Front Range to treat the whole place like it's a museum," said Reed Grainger, chairman of the Cripple Creek Historic Preservation Commission. "It's easy to forget there are people up here who are still living and who need to make a living."

The era just before gaming didn't do a whole lot for locals, and it did little to ensure that the historic buildings of Cripple Creek would last another 100 years, Grainger and others note. In the 1970s, the town population shrunk to 600 and no one was seriously renovating old buildings; now more than double that number of people has steady work, mostly in casinos (though many commute from other towns).

On the other hand, can Cripple Creek keep hawking history as a key selling point if the past becomes little more than a theme-park-like replica -- like the phony New York skyline or the made-for-tourists Pyramid of Las Vegas?

"Once it's gone, it's gone," Kim Tulley says of Cripple Creek's history. "Once it's faked, it's not real. It's like going to the Mona Lisa and instead it's a reproduction. It's like someone reproduces Michelangelo's 'David' and says, 'Oh it's good enough.'"

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