Tear-Jerker Ending?

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.

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.

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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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia