Full house for public forum on the Belvidere Theatre

Architects and engineers propose plans and invite comments

by Patty Unruh

A community forum was held Monday evening, March 18, at Central City Hall for a presentation by the architectural firm and engineers designing the restoration of the historic Belvidere Theatre. Officials from Gilpin County and Central City governments, Main Street Central City members, and the general public filled the council chambers for the forum.

Ray Rears, Community Development Director and Historic Preservation Officer for Central City, expressed appreciation for the community support and said the public’s comments would improve the project.

A brochure noted the main points of the Belvidere’s past. During the gold mining boom of the 1860’s, Central City became known as Colorado’s economic and cultural capital. After a fire in 1874 destroyed much of the downtown, new brick buildings were erected, including the Belvidere, which opened in 1875. It became the center of entertainment and housed several enterprises. The second floor held the ballroom, bar, center stage, and seating for 450. When a competing opera house opened in 1878, the Belvidere was forced to diversify. Over the years it housed a number of entities. In 1976, the movie “The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox” filmed scenes in the Belvidere.

In the 1990s, after limited stakes gambling came to Central City, a new Belvidere owner hoped to turn it into a casino and started remodeling. The hoped-for casino never materialized, and the building fell into disrepair.

Ray Rears summarized events of the past few years.

In 2015, the Gilpin County Commissioners took ownership of the building after the previous owner failed to pay taxes. The Commissioners transferred ownership to the City of Central.

In 2016, the Belvidere was named as one of Colorado Preservation, Inc.’s most endangered historical sites. The State Historic Fund provided a grant of $2.65 million for restoration costs.

In 2016 and 2017, the Central City Council approved monies for restoration costs and paid for a structural analysis of the building.

In 2018, a fundraiser was held at the Belvidere to invite public input. A lease was given to the Central City Building Authority, a local non-profit.

A DOLA grant for $179,000 was awarded in October 2018. In December of 2018, a roof was constructed over the Shoo Fly Bar area.

The Central City Council has set aside a large share of its state historic preservation dollars to restore the Belvidere and to stimulate redevelopment of other privately owned empty buildings in the downtown. The Belvidere fund, which also includes some private donations, had grown to nearly $700,000 by 2018.

The City does not yet know what the full cost of turning the Belvidere into an income-producing facility will be, but grant funding will be essential. The City has contracted with a grant writer to research philanthropic organizations and prepare applications.

Rears said the public’s comments would be reported to the Central City Council, likely at its regular meeting on April 16. He said, “We hope to have construction and engineering drawings by mid-summer.”

He turned the meeting over to the design team, which included Jessica Reske and Natalie Lord, principals of the architectural firm FormWorks Design Group, Larry Graham, senior project manager of the engineering company JVA, Incorporated, and Kevin Vecchiarelli, senior associate of JVA.

Reske shared a slide show of historic photos of the building so that attendees could see how the Belvidere had evolved over the years. She called attention to the flat roof of the building in 1880. In the 1890’s, the structure was used as a National Guard armory, featured a decorative cornice and was not painted. During 1898-1900, the building had been painted and had an arched roof. In a 1958 photo, the original cornice was gone, there was an armory sign on the top, and stairs on the front of the building.

The team presented four different schematic options for the public to consider, making it clear that these were only preliminary. Exterior building features the public was asked to think about included sidewalk and ADA access, main entrance options, exterior masonry, exterior windows, cornice, and the form of the roof. Interior items were uses for the first and second floor and mezzanine, elevator, and restrooms.

The first option included space for one tenant, an elevator near the front wall, mezzanine access and Shoo Fly access from the theatre, restrooms primarily on the first floor, and a main entry at a large arched opening.

Graham presented three-dimensional drawings that showed a multitude of levels. He said the Shoo Fly portion was built before the theatre, which was added next to it. The buildings had two independent roof structures and shared a wall. The theatre stage was added later.

“The Belvidere started as a warehouse. The original walls supported the roof,” he said. “When space was opened to create the auditorium on the second floor, they took out the brick load-bearing walls and over-framed the roof with wooden trusses. These are not original, and the trusses have suffered decay and have been overloaded over time. The attic space is inaccessible.”

He suggested two options: strengthening the trusses or removing them and putting on a flat roof with steel trusses, which would give better support.

Reske said the Shoo Fly is in poor condition, with water damage, pigeons in residence, and debris. She added that some of the Belvidere’s current features may have been added for the movie filming and were not historical.

“Still, these applied ornaments could become part of the character of the building.”

The second option was only slightly different from the first. The third option featured a relocated mezzanine access, restrooms split between the floors, and the main entry at the end of the building. Option four showed two tenant spaces, the elevator at mid-wall, mezzanine access from the theatre, limited Shoo Fly access from the theatre, restrooms split between the floors, and the main entry with a smaller opening.

After presenting the conceptual options, the team invited the guests to view them in hard copy posters on easels and to post comments on provided sticky notes. A questionnaire was also distributed asking for thoughts on how people would most like to see the Belvidere used and which interior and exterior features matter most to them.

Folks’ wish list included a theatre dressing room and green room (waiting room for actors while not on stage), making the Shoo Fly a full-time food and beverage establishment, a commercial kitchen for all events, a catering kitchen for weddings and receptions, and storage for movable chairs and tables. Some indicated they would like to keep the mezzanine, and others added that commercial use was very important for the first floor. Still another thought of installing a bowling alley, bar and restaurant. Option four found favor with its ability to house two tenants rather than one.

The floor was then open for questions and additional comments. The main concerns were to bring in as many tenants as possible to keep the building going, to maintain a historical appearance, to install a food service in the Shoo Fly, and to make connectivity between the spaces available.

People were also concerned about handicapped access and were assured that the building would meet codes required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Ingress and egress would also have to pass muster with the fire department, and a sprinkler system was discussed.

The team responded to questions on energy efficiency by saying there would be interior storm windows, the roof would be brought to current energy codes, there would be LED lighting, and not all of the space would need to be heated if not occupied.

The architects acknowledged that the construction may have to be done in phases, with the Shoo Fly perhaps being completed and generating income while other portions of the building were under construction.

Occupancy was estimated as one person per five square feet, depending on what the space would be used for.

A question on acoustics was answered with, “We’ll design for the loudest activity. There are acoustic plasters that look historical, and sound systems can be concealed.”

The suggestion was made that smaller Central City Opera productions could also take place at the Belvidere. The architects were encouraged to meet with the Opera to do the same presentation as at this forum.

Possibilities for exterior appearance included painting the building or having it unpainted, type of entrance, keeping the cornice as is or going back to its historic appearance, putting back the armory sign, and changing the structural support from wooden to steel trusses.

Of course, cost is a primary consideration. Reske said a cost comparison would be done on the possible features. She said some may not be worth the cost now, such as having stone caps over the windows, but could be added later.

Painting the façade would depend on the quality of the brick, an attendee pointed out.

One person questioned whether a flat roof was efficient as far as drainage. The team responded that the next level of planning will be an analysis of a drainage system if a flat roof is used. However, having an arched roof could help conceal HVAC equipment.

The people’s comments will be posted on the Central City website. The meeting was livestreamed as well. Additional comments may be emailed to the City.

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