Tear-Jerker Ending?

The Bonfils/Lowenstein Theater, a beloved Denver landmark, may be in danger of demolition.

Members of the Denver City Council and community leaders have been talking a lot lately about improving East Colfax Avenue. And I have to admit, even if I love the honky-tonk character of the street -- and I do -- it does look pretty shabby in places.

This is strange, because East Colfax really should have something going on. After all, the mantra of the real estate world is "location, location, location" -- and look where it is. This stretch begins at the Civic Center, runs up the fairly steep grade that gives Capitol Hill its name, cuts a swath through some of the city's most history-rich areas and ends with the City Park South neighborhood.

Not only is it well located, it's also well stocked architecturally. East Colfax hosts a number of the city's most important landmarks, notably the neo-classical State Capitol Building, which is quite grand. Further up the hill is the French Gothic-style Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, another great building -- and talk about grand! Then there's the smartly detailed Fillmore Auditorium, one of the most important Prairie-style structures in Colorado, and the glitzy Ogden Theatre, a wonderful arts-and-crafts building. There are so many other noteworthy structures along this part of Colfax that it's impossible to list them all.

The Bonfils/Lowenstein Theater at East Colfax Avenue 
and Elizabeth Street.
The Bonfils/Lowenstein Theater at East Colfax Avenue and Elizabeth Street.

Near Elizabeth Street, at the eastern end of the district, the City Park Esplanade links Colfax to City Park. The Esplanade is a neo-classical landscape, with roads, plantings and sculpture. At the Colfax side, there's the Sullivan Gateway, by Leo Lentelli, made up of two colonnades surmounted by figural groups of pioneer men on one side and pioneer women on the other.

The Esplanade not only creates a greensward extending out of City Park, it also provides a grand frontage for East High School, a landmark of the highest order. And, most relevant in this particular discussion, it provides a visual approach for the wonderful Bonfils/Lowenstein Theater, the handsome old modernist theater designed to relate to the Esplanade.

Even this brief whirlwind tour demonstrates how much potential there is for East Colfax, which is no doubt why the umpteenth public process has been launched to address the street's many problems. I'm not sure what the city government should do to help East Colfax, but I do know something that absolutely shouldn't be done: The Bonfils/ Lowenstein Theater should not be torn down.

The Bonfils Foundation was considering selling the theater to a development company. That plan's on hold, but others could surface. This ongoing threat really doesn't come as any surprise because the theater has been vacant since the late 1980s, and disuse is an imminent danger to a building. Realizing this, Englewood-based preservation consultant Diane Wray has nominated Bonfils/Lowenstein to be added to Colorado Preservation Inc.'s annual "Most Endangered Places" list for the past several years. Each time, it failed to make CPI's cut. But CPI may never get the chance to highlight the building's plight, because it could be torn down before next year's list is released.

It's a disgrace that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts has allowed the building to fall into disrepair and even worse that the organization has prevented it from being used as a theater for almost twenty years. How strange that it isn't given over to community theater groups -- the reason it was built in the first place. This sorry circumstance reveals the DCPA's lack of interest in that neighborhood, preferring to put all its resources into the Denver Performing Arts Complex downtown on Speer Boulevard.

Helen Bonfils built and financed the Bonfils/Lowenstein, personally selecting the site on East Colfax. The Bonfils/Lowenstein was the love of her life for decades, created by her wish and whim. And though Bonfils's money was used to form the DCPA that got the performing-arts complex going -- starting with a new Bonfils Theatre -- she was dead by that time. So the new facility doesn't have the same personal association with Bonfils -- one of the most significant women in the city's twentieth-century history -- that the Bonfils/ Lowenstein does.

Bonfils was born in 1889 and was affectionately called "Miss Helen" all her life. Her parents were Belle and Frederick Bonfils; he was the founding owner of the Denver Post. Helen was interested in theater since childhood, and as an adult, she was a producer of plays, an actress, and a theater owner both here and in New York. She had followed her dream of becoming a professional actress to the Great White Way, appearing on Broadway in the 1920s.

With her father's death in 1933, Helen inherited a controlling interest in the daily paper, not to mention real estate and a huge fortune. She returned to Denver and spent the rest of her life here. She became deeply involved with the professional company at the Elitch Gardens Theater, and in 1936, she married its then-director, George Somnes, and they ran the theater together for many years.

In 1949 she commissioned the Bonfils/ Lowenstein, originally called the Bonfils Memorial Theater, named in honor of her parents. The theater was created both to provide a home for the Denver Civic Theater and as a place where Bonfils herself could practice stagecraft.

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