Memorial Day once marked the start of the summer tourist season at the Lace House. But on this Memorial Day, it was difficult to remember what the historic landmark looked like back in the olden days.
Back, say, in the olden days of six years ago, when the renovated Victorian home was still Black Hawk's biggest draw. Back before "limited-stakes gaming" came to town. Back before casino-owners began moving mountains--literally--in their efforts to strike it even richer.
Back before Black Hawk dragged history through the mud. Which is where the Lace House sign was lying on Monday.
The Lace House has perched on a steep slope overlooking Clear Creek since 1863, just four years after gold was found in a gulch up the hill from what would quickly become Black Hawk. But four years was long enough to fund an ambitious building project--particularly if you were related to the man who operated a toll road to the diggings. Lucien K. Smith built this house for his wife, and if it was modest in size, he more than made up for that with the gingerbread exterior, which earned the building its nickname and also a reputation as one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in the Rockies.
In 1974 the house was donated to Black Hawk as a museum. It was renovated just in time for Colorado's centennial and for the next twenty years remained a draw for tourists heading for the hills.
But the Lace House did not open its doors this past weekend. Inside, the museum is empty of everything but dust. Outside, its paint peels and its name is mud.
Last week Black Hawk's Historic Architectural Review Commission voted to let the house be moved. Which means the most historic building in a town that's part of a National Historic Landmark District--one of only fifteen in Colorado--will be pulled from its 134-year-old foundation and relocated in a "historic district village." The area tapped for that historic district village is just outside the official gaming district boundaries and conveniently close to the sewage treatment plant.
And what will go where the Lace House once stood? A parking lot for Eagle Gaming Inc., which is willing to finance the entire move.
Like the Lace House's soon-to-be neighbor, the whole deal stinks.
Although the Black Hawk City Council is scheduled to vote on the plan this week (Eagle has thrown in such pot-sweeteners as wheelchair accessibility and moving four other houses to the "district"), that council is a body that has lain down for every business booster around--and there's no reason to think it will stand up to one now.
Limited-stakes gaming was sold to Colorado voters--suckers!--as a historic-preservation measure, but Black Hawk wasted no time in clearing any historic obstacles to ever-bigger casinos, and ever-bigger takes for the town.
Some of that money will go to a new Black Hawk project, the Hidden Valley "infiltration gallery" just east of Idaho Springs. Although it carefully avoids much mention of the Lace House, the current town newsletter burbles with information about this "environmentally friendly project...the first step to completing the city's long-range water supply plan to meet the needs of continued commercial and residential growth."
And, perhaps, the final step to killing off its longtime rival, Central City.
Just a mile up Clear Creek from Black Hawk, Central City had always been the more successful sibling. Historically, of course, which doesn't count for much these days. During the mining boom, Central City was the center of commerce, while Black Hawk had all those dirty mills. A century later, Central City was the center of culture--the Central City Opera, the Gilpin County Historical Society museum, the newspaper--while Black Hawk had, well, the Lace House.
But when gaming came in, Black Hawk finally got the advantage. It had flat land for building, where Central City had none. It had a council willing to roll over at the first sign of a bulldozer, whereas Central's called a moratorium on construction until it could come up with a way to handle massive growth.
Most of that growth never came, though, thanks to one more crucial Black Hawk advantage: It was a mile closer to Denver. By the time Central City figured that out, Black Hawk had the business--over 50 percent of all gaming business in Colorado.
With nothing left to lose, last fall Central City devised a grand plan to save itself: building a road from I-70 direct to Central City. Do not pass go, do not let Black Hawk collect a penny.
So this week, while Black Hawk's council votes on the fate of the Lace House--a home built by a toll road--Central City's council will decide which of seven bidders gets the contract to build a 7.8-mile road from the interstate just east of Idaho Springs into Central City.
Naturally, there are some stumbling blocks to the project--mountains, for example. And artificially, there are several more. For starters, the company that wins the contract must be willing to finance the project. Although Central City won a referendum to set up a Business Improvement District to issue $34.8 million in bonds, a pesky lawsuit by one local company within BID limits--Central City Development, which runs parking lots, of all things--makes it difficult for the city to issue those bonds just now. But having come this far, Central City manager Jim Drinkhouse is sure that his town can go the distance--and come in under budget. Although no real design work has been done on the road (that job will fall to the winning contractor), "We have some engineer estimates," he says, that add up to about $30 million.
"Central City has protected its historic integrity," Drinkhouse adds. With this road, the town can be a "viable community with gaming as an industry. We want to be a total town. All our historic buildings are intact."
Even if many are empty.
Once the contract is awarded, just one last roadblock remains. The owner of a crucial piece of land in Hidden Valley, just outside Idaho Springs, is being rather obstinate.
That owner, of course, is Black Hawk, which last fall hurried to snap up the property for its water project when it heard Central City needed it for a road. Too late to buy the land itself, Central City scurried to condemn it.
The two towns will meet in court next month over this teeny-tiny disagreement.
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"There's room for both," says Drinkhouse. "Black Hawk is making a blatant effort to block."
Black Hawk spokesman Roger Baker points to his town's push for a "universal settlement agreement" between the two rivals, which would preclude many clashes. "They could be resolved," he says, "without us going back and forth for the rest of the millennium condemning each other's land."
Don't bet on it.
Besides legal bills and land acquisitions, Black Hawk's overflowing coffers have subsidized a variety of luxuries Central City can only dream of. Grants so that every resident can fix up his house in a historically appropriate manner. More grants so that those houses have completely modern utility systems. And next month, Black Hawk will bring in an appraiser so that residents can have their antique treasures valued for free at City Hall.
Someone should haul over the Lace House.