The former Bonfils Theatre was once one of Denver's cultural jewels, a community playhouse that brought thousands of people a year to East Colfax Avenue to watch everything from fairy tales to Shakespeare. For the past decade, however, the 1953 building, which was renamed the Lowenstein Theater in 1985, has sat empty. And the $2.5 million price tag slapped on the building by the nonprofit group that owns it may make any change in its status nearly impossible. But that hasn't stopped Capitol Hill teacher and actor Montgomery Christian from dreaming.
He envisions a Capitol Hill Center for the Arts as a venue for theater, dance, music and festivals. The building, he says, would be a place where struggling young theater and dance groups could perform and low-cost performing arts classes could be offered. The Lowenstein has a 550-seat theater on the main level and a downstairs cabaret.
"It would serve the Capitol Hill community as well as the greater metro area," says Christian. "It could be used for seminars, symposiums and festivals."
Christian's group is holding fundraisers, but he says the organization hasn't even begun to raise the kind of money necessary to buy the building.
The theater's creator, the late Denver Post heiress and arts patron Helen Bonfils, would surely be displeased to see the Lowenstein, across from East High School at Colfax and Elizabeth streets, boarded up and decaying. But critics are blaming the people who now run the Helen Bonfils Foundation for making a difficult situation even worse.
The Lowenstein is owned by the Bonfils Foundation, the trust that supports the Denver Center Theatre Company and plays a vital role in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. In 1985 the foundation named the theater in honor of longtime Denver theater promoter Henry Lowenstein--then shut it down the next year. The DCPA still has a theater named after Bonfils, as she specified in her will, but it's now downtown.
DCPA officials claim they want to see the building back in use, but they say they are unable to give it away or lower the asking price.
"We're legally prohibited from making any gift to anybody other than the DCPA," says Lester Ward, president of the DCPA and secretary-treasurer of the Bonfils Foundation. "It's our duty to make sure assets are converted into cash."
Last year DCTC artistic director Donovan Marley floated the idea of turning the Lowenstein into a children's theater that would operate as part of the DCTC. At the time, though, Marley said reopening the Lowenstein was still years away, and Ward says his group isn't ready to make a large commitment to a new children's theater.
"That's never been part of what we felt we were intended to do," he says. "That's not part of our mission."
With no plans in sight for the DCTC to use the Lowenstein and given the building's hefty cost, it seems the theater is likely to remain empty. That angers East Colfax boosters, who have struggled to change the reputation of the avenue and attract new businesses to the area.
"Imagine what it would be like if the Lowenstein Theater were open and bringing people onto Colfax," says Greg Flynn, president of Colfax on the Hill Inc.
Flynn believes the price the foundation has put on the building is too high and has discouraged interest in reviving the space. "They're asking $2.5 million for a building that's falling down," he says. "You wonder why a building bequeathed to Denver by a patron of the arts has sat empty for so long. Maybe they're afraid of the competition."
Two years ago the Lowenstein caught the eye of Christian, who says the last thing his group would do is draw audiences away from the wealthy, downtown performing-arts complex. "I don't know how we could ever compete with the DCPA," he says.
Ward insists that the foundation does want to see the building reopen, but he says the law governing nonprofit groups makes it impossible to just give the Lowenstein away. "We'd dearly love to see it used as a school for the arts or a community center," he says. "But as trustees, we have a responsibility to make sure the foundation realizes the value of the asset."
Leasing the building is not an option, says Ward, because it will take more than $1 million in renovations just to bring the former playhouse up to code. "To put the building in operating order would require a substantial amount of capital," he says.
Getting it going is Christian's dream. He says many small nonprofit arts groups in central Denver would love to have access to the building.
"There are several groups around Capitol Hill that really want a place to call home," says Christian. "They need space."
For now, Christian is organizing a benefit concert at the Bluebird Theater and plans to use the money raised to make a video on the history of the Lowenstein. A fashion show benefit at the Bluebird last month attracted more than 200 supporters from throughout Capitol Hill, and twenty neighborhood restaurants donated food for the event.
Christian is hoping the Bonfils Foundation will have a change of heart and look for a way to donate the theater to his group.
"It's an interesting building with a great location," he says. "It's still in excellent condition, even though it's been sitting dormant for ten years. Opening it up would really revive that part of the neighborhood.