By Kevin Strong

CENTRAL CITY, Colo. (CBS4) – It was 1874 and fire had just gutted much of “the richest square mile on Earth.” That wealth allowed Central City to quickly rebuild, and rebuild to stand the test of time.

An ordinance required all new downtown buildings to be built from brick or stone. Among the new buildings to rise up, a new theater, known as the Belividere Theatre. It was backed by two prominent businessmen — Henry Teller, who would become one of Colorado’s first U.S. senators, and Silas Hahn, a local judge.

The theatre opened to the public in 1875, but its time as the center of entertainment in Central City would quickly be upstaged by the larger Central City Opera House. That didn’t mean the space sat empty; rather, it served many different functions, including a bottling plant, armory, fire department, even a garage and car dealership.

“Then, our Gilpin School District used the main floor as a basketball court,” said Barbara Thielemann of the preservation group Main Street Central City. She says the theatre eventually went back to its roots. “It became a movie theater and a dinner theater in the 60s and 70s.”

And if playing movies wasn’t enough, the Belvidere Theatre took center stage on the big screen, playing a large part in the 1976 film “Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox,” starring Goldie Hawn and George Segal.

Belvidere Theatre (credit: CBS)

Belvidere Theatre (credit: CBS)

The ensuing years would find the Belvidere playing host to local jazz concerts and community events. When gaming came to town, the large open space on the main floor seemed ideally suited to house a casino. That gamble never paid off.

“It passed through a succession of owners, and basically fell on hard times,” according to Gilpin County Manager Roger Baker. “Because it was still valued as a casino property or potential casino property, the taxes on it were quite high.”

The last owner couldn’t keep up with those taxes, so the county took possession of the building for back taxes owed. Now they’ve got the task of figuring out what they can do with this fixture of downtown Central City. They’re now working with Central City officials to create a workable plan for restoration and re-use.

Central City City Councilwoman Kathryn Heider envisions the Belvidere as an alternative attraction to gamers visiting the town.

“One of the things we’re looking for is balance between the gaming industry which we support and it’s been really great for us, but also to diversify and have a much more vital town.”

The need for that sense of balance is shared by others.

Belvidere Theatre (credit: CBS)

Belvidere Theatre (credit: CBS)

“Even our casinos with their hotels feel there should be a place for their families who want to take a break or non-gamers to go to,” says Thielemann.

She says there’s widespread support for redevelopment. The challenge is turning that support into the cold, hard cash needed to move forward. The boom days of the gold rush are long gone, and money is tight.

Central City has set aside $200,000 for revitalization of the building, but that’s a far cry from what will be needed.

“Central City is rich in history, but not tax revenue,” quips Heider.

She and other community leaders are hoping to get funding from some of the local casinos.

Belvidere Theatre (credit: CBS)

Belvidere Theatre (credit: CBS)

“The casinos are our lifeblood,” says Ray Rears, a city planner for Central City. “The money that comes from gaming helps a lot of public endeavors.”

Much of that money comes from the state historical fund, which is funded largely through gaming revenues. Supporters would like to see the local casinos take a more direct role in supporting the Belvidere’s restoration.

“I think everyone wants this to be a successful project. It’s a needed project. It’s a needed effort for the community,” ????? said.

For Councilwoman Hieder, seeing this theatre restored to its former glory would help keep alive many early memories.

“I can remember when it was a really vital building. A lot of fun times in my life were spent in this very building here. I think it would be great to restore it so others can have that experience,” Hieder said.

LINKS: Colorado Preservation, Inc. | Belvidere Theatre GoFundMe page | Central City

Kevin Strong is the producer of “Colorado’s Most Endangered Places” — an annual special that airs on CBS4 that profiles endangered historic sites in Colorado. To contact Kevin, click here.

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