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Salida Residents Optimistic About Saving 'Unique Theater'

SALIDA, Colo. (CBS4)- While so much Colorado history is being preserved, some of it is in danger of being lost. The Unique Theater is one of those places.

Built in Salida in 1889, the building first served as an opera house. A group of businessmen decided that the town needed a proper opera house to attract the big names who were passing through town.

Salida Opera House (credit: CBS)

"All the performers in the early days would travel on trains and could get to anywhere. And because Salida was such a major division point for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, a lot of traveling shows did come through here," said Salida resident Jack Chivvis.

The building would only serve as an opera house for 20 years. In 1909, the curtain fell on live performances, to be replaced by moving pictures.

"It evolved into a theater and eventually into movies as movies came onto the scene," said Chivvis.

Salida's opera house would become known as the Unique Theater. For the next 90 years, the theater spawned some unique memories.

The Unique Theater in Salida. (credit: CBS)

"The heating system wasn't that great. So in the dead of winter you didn't want to go to the movies," said Salida resident Ed Quillen.

"It had the old projection system from the 1940s and as the new movies came in with the Dolby sound, it didn't quite match up that well," said Chivvis.

"Sometimes it was a lot of fun," said Quillen. "The popcorn was always good."

The theater finally went dark in 2007, after deferred maintenance got the better of the building.

"It started to fall into disrepair and was condemned as being unsafe for the public," said Chivvis.

The city turned to South African businessman Billy Hartslief to help save the building.

"It had been stuccoed in 1966 and all of the big arched windows that you see were completely covered up and buried under the stucco. To his credit he did a great job with a local contractor to get the stucco off and the building really looks great now," said Chivvis.

Hartslief then began stabilizing the back of the building, installing steel beams to support the roof. Then work stalled.

"The current owner, with the economic times, he struggled to keep going on the building," said Chivvis.

Holes in the roof of the Unique Theater in Salida. (credit: CBS)

Restoration work stopped. Gaping holes remain where the roof was torn out. The building deteriorated, and with it, the relationship between Hartslief and the city.

"They have a demolition permit for the back half of the building. Theoretically they'll begin to take it down brick by brick after they get the hazardous materials taken out," said Salida Historic Board Member Jackie Powell.

Powell served on Salida's Historic Preservation Board which advised the city on how to proceed to try to stabilize the building.

"The restoration of the front needs to be completed because it's not up to maintenance code and it could be hazardous," said Powell.

The front of the Unique Theater could be preserved without the back. The storefronts and second floor space remain for sale "As Is." None are suitable for occupancy.

"We've kind of exhausted our local resources on preserving the building," said Powell.

The work that has been done so far has revealed a past about one of the city's oldest buildings that current residents weren't aware of.

"I didn't know this was here. This was boxed in," said Chivvis. "This wouldn't have been the very original entryway, but similar. I think it always had the large archway here."

Preservationists remain hopeful that someone will come forward with a viable solution to save the building.

The Unique Theater in Salida. (credit: CBS)

"Someone was joking that there are so many pigeons in the building that it would make a good shooting gallery. I guess it takes some crazy ideas until you get to the sane ones," said Powell.

Additional Resources

To learn more about the Salida Opera House and other sites on this year's Most Endangered Places list visit


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