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“Help Save the Belvidere”

Central City considers use as a community center

by Patty Unruh

Central City’s historic Belvidere Theatre was the scene of a special fundraising event last Sunday afternoon, June 3. The City has been working to acquire funding and begin renovation on the long-neglected building. There is much to be done, and the fundraiser showed people how they could help.

Crowds flocked to the iconic location to hear of the Belvidere’s history, see its interior, share memories, and offer ideas of what activities or businesses they would like to see in the building. Light, scattered rain showers did little to hamper the occasion. Members of the Belvidere steering committee took donations, issued tickets, sold t-shirts, and offered a book for sale by former Gilpin County Manager Roger Baker about Central City Opera House and theatre history. DVDs of the movie “The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox,” filmed in Central City in 1976, were also available. Folks were invited to become stakeholders in the “Save the Belvidere” campaign by sharing their skills in a variety of areas, from fundraising or public relations to painting and photography.

Over $700 was raised in donations and t-shirt sales, and 64 people came out to show support. Patrons visited the Belvidere Beer Garden for refreshment and entertainment by the Jimmy Lewis Band “Zeke.” Meanwhile, several groups of about ten people each toured the inside of the structure. Visitors were cautioned, however.

“Watch for pigeon droppings and feathers.” Anyone whose health could be adversely affected by these hazards was discouraged from entering.

Main Street Central City (MSCC) is the steering committee for the Belvidere renovation. Its members include Jack Hidahl, Kathy Heider (Central City’s mayor), Peter Droege, and Barbara Thielemann. Ray Rears, Central City’s Community Development Director and Historic Preservation Officer, is the City liaison.

Hidahl served as the tour guide. He ushered each group upstairs to the spacious main area on the second floor. Standing on a red-carpeted staircase, he gave some of the Belvidere’s history and fielded questions about its future. As he spoke, visitors noted the worn wooden floor, cracked plaster, peeling paint, dust, and debris.

In spite of the run-down appearance, there were those who visualized the Belvidere’s former glory. “It’s a beautiful building, even in the state it’s in,” one visitor commented.

Literature handed out by MSCC related the historic past of the grand old theatre. Gold was discovered in the area by John Gregory in 1859, and miners arrived by the thousands. Central City was one of the mining towns erected during that period, but the city leaders wanted the town to have culture and entertainment that whole families could enjoy.

However, a big fire in 1874 destroyed much of the downtown area, including the Montana Theatre. In response to the need for theatrical entertainment, city leaders and business owners rebuilt the business district with brick structures to better withstand fires. The two-story Belvidere Theatre, constructed at the south end of Central City’s Main Street, opened in 1875. The theatre became the center of arts and entertainment in the city and a community gathering place.

Retail businesses were housed on the first floor, with a ballroom, bar, center stage, and room to seat 450 on the second floor. The Belvidere played host for many theatrical and musical performances and sporting events. An opera entitled “The Bohemian Girl,” performed at the Belvidere, was so well received that it was decided to build an even bigger theatre, and the Central City Opera House on Eureka Street opened in 1878.

The Belvidere began to lose patrons to its new competitor, so other uses for the theatre were found, including Beaman’s Central Bottling Works, retail shops, and a fire department. Company F of the First Infantry, Colorado National Guard, designated the building as Armory Hall. In 1915, the Central City Garage was on the main floor. A WPA project in 1938 converted the ground floor into a type of community center. The main theatre floor was also used as a basketball court by the school.

MSCC’s literature also noted that the Belvidere’s Shoo Fly Bar was an important gathering place. Community events included the Wintershire Ball, the Dowager Queen Competition, conventions, parties, movie nights, concerts, weddings, and amateur theater productions.

20th Century Fox filmed “The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox” in Central City in 1976, starring Goldie Hawn and George Segal. Locals had small parts, and portions of the film were set in the Belvidere, with its stage and Shoo Fly Bar.

In the 1990’s, limited stakes gambling came to Central City by way of a state-wide ballot issue. A new Belvidere owner intended to remodel the theatre as a casino. Community Development Director Rears advised that this owner began to do demolition, but was unable to complete the work. Accordingly, the project sat for the next twenty-plus years, and the building remained boarded up. By 1998, the Belvidere was considered hazardous.

The property was privately owned until 2015, when its last owner failed to pay taxes and the Gilpin County Commissioners took title. The County submitted an application to the State Historic Fund for a historic structure assessment grant. The application was funded and the assessment was done, determining that it could require $3 million for just the structural work; that figure does not include retail space, offices, bathrooms, walls, or restaurant equipment. The County transferred ownership to the City of Central two years ago.

The Belvidere was designated by Colorado Preservation, Inc. (CPI) as a Most Endangered Place in 2016. CPI assists people in getting grants to fund the restoration of their historic sites.

Since then, work has been done to stabilize the façade, assess the cost of renovation, and begin cleaning up the interior. The City Council has been working to get grants and has set aside a share of its state historic preservation funds. Those funds, along with private donations, have grown to $700,000 for the Belvidere restoration. The Council is committed to providing even more support, although the building needs to be self-sustaining, Hidahl noted.

“We can leverage our funds with grants, tax credits, and other opportunities,” he said. “If it doesn’t pay its own way, though, it will be back like this.”

He added, “We envision the Belvidere as an economic keystone for Central City. We used to bus groups up and back from Denver in the 1970’s and ‘80’s. This model would work today. We could have business meetings, conventions, small businesses, family gatherings, weddings, groups of any kind. Local artists could be showcased to enhance our creative district. We may install a kitchen and possibly a micro-brewery.”

Local residents were encouraged to submit ideas, but the City Council will make the final decision on future uses for the building. The main issue, of course, is money. Until the City decides what to do with the building, contractors cannot be invited to submit bids, and grants cannot be sought.

“It depends on what the City decides to do and on prices we’d get from contractors,” Hidahl advised. “If we could get one contractor from the beginning to the end of the project, we could save up to one-third of the cost.”

Some of the thoughts submitted by folks included hosting local and touring bands, comedy shows, and jazz fests, and having ballroom dancing, movies, plays, and weddings. The first floor could be used for bowling, roller skating, or a day care center.

Many folks shared memories of good times at the Belvidere. “The Russell Gulch Volunteer Fire Department used it on New Year’s and Valentine’s Day,” said one.

“I remember the grand staircase and the dance floor,” offered another.

Jeff Powers, whose family has a long history in Gilpin County, grew up here and recalled his wedding reception at the Belvidere in 1979. “I also remember the Friday and Saturday night movies, and my dad played basketball here in the 1920’s,” he said.

Carissa Walters actually lived in the Belvidere from age 13 to age 19.

“The building had been condemned, and my parents bought it in 1968 and opened the theatre in 1969. My dad, Harold (aka “Willie”) Williamson, had flown in the Navy with some Indians, and when he got back here, he wanted to open a store to sell Indian jewelry. This was the cheapest place. My parents also wanted to do stuff with kids. They had roller skating, movies, Tae kwon do, and dance classes.

“At first, it was just an empty box,” Carissa said of the Belvidere’s interior. She said her dad had put in the balcony, opened a wall between the bar and the theatre, and did a lot of other work. Her mom, Ellie, kept busy making ballroom gowns for Denver events.

Carissa’s fondest memories were of the dances and the “spitting, belching, and cussing” contests. On a more elegant note, she and her other two sisters all had their wedding receptions at the Belvidere.

Not every memory was happy. Gail Maxwell, who is employed with the Gilpin County Clerk and Recorder’s office, recalled that the 1990’s were a difficult time for Central City and Black Hawk after gaming came in. It was hard to tell who had integrity.

“There was a grant to fix the Belvidere. A contractor named Bob Harvey was hired to do the work, but it never came about. He replaced the grand stairway with a new stairway, but then got another job, and that was the last we heard of him.” The wood and other pieces of the grand staircase apparently vanished.

Central’s Mayor Kathy Heider chatted with guests in the beer garden and held a drawing for “The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox” souvenir DVDs.

“I have lived here forever,” she chuckled. “I feel strongly that the Belvidere should be rebuilt. We had so many community events for all ages. I remember the Wintershire Ball and the Dowager Queen Contest – it was very competitive! We also did community plays and had dances.”

If you would like to get involved with the effort to help save the Belvidere, contact MSCC-Belvidere at P.O. Box 1072, Central City, CO 80427-1072, or donate at GoFundMe.com/ndnqmsmk. You may also call Colorado Preservation, Inc. at 303-893-4260 or visit their website, www.coloradopreservation.org.

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