Tear-Jerker Ending?

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

Bonfils was very generous, and she donated money to many institutions, including a million dollars to the Archdiocese of Denver. It was through her association with the Roman Catholic Church that she came to meet John K. Monroe, who was essentially the official architect of the archdiocese. Bonfils tapped Monroe to design the Bonfils/Lowenstein despite the fact that he had only rarely worked on secular buildings.

Monroe was born in Denver in 1893 and attended architecture school in the 1910s at Washington University in Saint Louis. He then returned to Denver to join the office of J.J.B. Benedict, a distinguished and prominent society architect. In 1932, Monroe established his own practice, but he remained associated with Benedict, overseeing the completion in 1943 of the elder man's Holy Ghost Catholic Church at 633 19th Street downtown. The church is one of the city's most dazzling gems -- even if it's partly smothered by a skyscraper that wraps around the building.

Among the many Monroe churches in Denver are Christ the King from 1947 at 845 Fairfax Street, Saint Catherine of Siena from 1952 at 4200 Federal Boulevard, Saint Vincent de Paul from 1953 at 2375 East Arizona Street and Good Shepherd, also from 1953, at 2626 East Seventh Avenue Parkway. Stylistically, all of these churches are related. Most have been constructed using buff-colored brick and cream-colored terra-cotta trim, a combination of materials that is virtually a Monroe signature. These materials were also used for the Bonfils/Lowenstein, but that's about the only thing that links the churches to the theater. The churches are simplified traditional architecture, while the Bonfils/Lowenstein is, appropriately enough, all showbiz glitz.

The theater, which opened in 1953, exemplifies the moderne style, which at that time was decidedly on the way out. Bonfils/Lowenstein has many characteristics of the moderne, such as soft corners, curved walls and fancy brickwork. The pink-tinted windows on the Colfax side were custom made by Gump Glass and include etched decorations, one of which is the sailing-ship symbol of the Denver Civic Theater. Around the windows and throughout the exterior are cast terra-cotta details that were created specifically for the theater by the Denver Terra Cotta Company. There are also generous portions of travertine and big slabs of red Lyons sandstone, as well as a lot of aluminum trim, which gives the place that glamorous old-Hollywood feeling. Bonfils operated the theater, frequently appearing in its productions, right up until her death in 1972.

Henry Lowenstein was hired by the theater in 1956 and served as manager from 1967 to 1987, at which time he retired and the DCPA renamed the Bonfils Memorial the Lowenstein Theater, which is why it's often called the Bonfils/Lowenstein, as I call it. Soon after that, the theater was closed. Clearly, the DCPA board had not intended to honor Lowenstein so much as they wanted to get the Bonfils name off of it before it was shut down.

Bonfils was a remarkable woman, and in addition to her professional involvement with theater, she is remembered for her deep commitment to social justice. As could be expected -- since she was a career woman herself -- Bonfils was a champion of women's rights. And at a time when many Denver institutions were closed to African-Americans and Jews, Bonfils made sure that her theater was not.

It was shortly after Bonfils's death that Donald Seawell, who drew up the papers creating the Bonfils Foundation, got control of its purse strings and used a heap of its cash, along with proceeds from the sale of the Denver Post, to start the DCPA. Had he a mind to, he could have also directed the relative pittance that would have been necessary to maintain Miss Helen's beloved theater, if only to carry the torch for her memory.

I mean, it was her money, and her love of theater that ultimately led him to be able to create the performing-arts paradise. We should all be grateful to Seawell for that, don't get me wrong, but as is apparent from the neglected appearance of the Bonfils/Lowenstein and the threat of sale, Seawell doesn't give a damn about it, and he should be ashamed of himself for that.

A preservation campaign will be mounted. My advice to the volunteers is to get the Bonfils/Lowenstein issue before the Denver Landmarks Commission. The threat to the theater is exactly the kind of problem for which the city's landmark ordinance was created: saving a building that's important to the community but not to its owners.

Getting Bonfils/Lowenstein approved for landmark listing should be a slam-dunk -- the association with Helen Bonfils alone would be enough to cinch it as far as I can tell. Not only that, but it's already been evaluated as being eligible for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and extensive research on the building and the history of its productions is found in the files of the Colorado Historical Society. Lowenstein's near-encyclopedic collection of programs is in the Western History Collection of the Denver Public Library, and they could also be used to help make the case.

Only a public hearing will get the preservation issue into the political world, where Mayor John Hickenlooper and city council would be forced to take a stand one way or another. And that's the only hope we have of averting yet another architectural, cultural and historic tragedy. I want to be optimistic here, but Denver does have a sad and longstanding tradition of erasing its architectural assets.

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