March 3, 2017

One Family's 60-Year Preservation Story At The Tabor Opera House

Tabor Opera House

photo by: John B. Kercher

The objects of the Tabor Opera House can give you most of its story. The portrait of a mustachioed Horace Tabor tells of its first owner and the silver mines that built his fortune. The outline of a trap door in the stage tells of a Hungarian illusionist named Harry Houdini. And the collection of antiques share the story of Evelyn Livingston Furman, who grew up during the Depression and could hardly throw anything away thereafter.

Then there’s her daughter, Sharon Furman Bland, who can fill in all the blanks. Her mother had bought the Italianate opera house in 1955, hoping to save it from near certain demolition. In 2016, Bland sold it to the City of Leadville, Colorado, knowing that her family’s preservation success was secure.

Before anything else, the building was a place of childhood adventure for Bland.

“I had grown up with the opera house,” she said. “The minute my mother got it, she gave me a list of things I could not do, and I promptly set out to do them.”

But over the course of her life, it’s become much more.

Tabor Opera House

photo by: Stacy Holbert

Built by Tabor in 1879 when he and his wife, Augusta, decided they wanted a more refined entertainment venue to the mining town, the opera house saw performers from Buffalo Bill to Oscar Wilde. Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey even fought there.

But in 1955, long after the Tabors had sold the venue, it was up for demolition. According to Bland, the plan was to build nothing other than a parking lot in its place.

Furman had other ideas. She’d moved to the area as a nanny at 20 and quickly fallen in love with Leadville’s history, so she decided to buy it with the help of $10,000 from her mother’s savings and a loan.

“Everyone in town thought she was crazy for doing that, even my grandmother was skeptical,” Furman said. “But she wasn’t one to go with the flow. If she thought it was right, then she did it.”

For the next 60 years, the Tabor Opera House was one family’s preservation project. Bland remembers the 25-cent tours when she was a kid and later her mother—all the way into her 70s—getting onto the building’s roof to tar up leaks.

Around 1997, when Furman’s age no longer allowed her to run the whole operation, Sharon and her husband Bill picked up where she had left off. Their son and grandson came to help paint one summer, Bill served as a general handyman despite a full-time job, and Sharon continued giving tours and booking acts, maintaining the Tabor’s profile as a seasonal arts, tourism, and history destination for Leadville, a small town with a population of about 2,500.

Tabor Opera House

photo by: Huw Webber

When a friend came to help out for a week, she couldn’t believe how much Bland was handling.

“When I got back, she said ‘Sharon, you cannot do this by yourself,’” Bland said. “It had never occurred to me to ask for help.”

Bland ultimately brought in some volunteers and her daughter stepped in for some time, but health issues and an ever-growing list of long-term maintenance needs forced the family to stop operations in 2014 and look for a seller.

The National Trust designated Tabor a National Treasure in 2016 after a public outreach campaign and ultimately helped raise $600,000 in public and private funds for the City of Leadville to purchase the site in November of 2016. The Trust is also helping with a market and use feasibility study to determine how the opera house can be used to better the Leadville community.

For Bland, who says she worries about the building like a parent worries about a child, it was bittersweet. But she has big hopes for the building. And now retired, she and Bill are finally enjoying some down time. They’ve already planned a trip to Liverpool to visit friends they’d made from a tour in the '70s.

“It’s been such a wonderful experience for us. We met people from all over the world that are so intellectual, so genuine,” she said. “I think it can be what it was. If we fight to keep things in the community, the community will fight to save it and make it better.”

Jared Foretek enjoys historic train stations, old bars, and interesting public spaces, he was an editorial intern at the National Trust.

Now accepting nominations for the 2024 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places! Letters of Intent are due September 29, 2023.

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