Bringing back the Babcock

Bringing back the Babcock

During Hollywood’s Golden Era, it was all the rage: grand theaters with red velvet pillowed walls, punctuated with gilded accents and fluted columns in the lobby.

But as American cinema evolved and multiplexes and shopping-center movie theaters moved in and pushed out the smaller, more charming and intimate theaters of yesteryear, the Babcock Theater in downtown Billings has kept its doors open, avoiding the proverbial final curtain call.

It may not have heralded in big-ticket items of late, but it is re-emerging strong after major, multi-million dollar renovation, thanks in large part to two gals tasked with preserving the past.

Kay Foster and Kim Olsen, along with their more “silent” partners, their husbands, have worked tirelessly in recent years to renovate the Babcock Theater, the once “white elephant” in downtown, as Kim, an established architect, has referred to it. With its long-time signature 1950s-style turquoise metal siding and empty storefront windows, the Babcock has long been a dying eyesore as other, more stylish, stores have popped up in droves. Long-time businesses, such as Lou Taubert Ranch Outfitters and Jasons, bailed on renting space because of age-old plumbing issues.

Not so anymore. The Babcock is bustling and is poised once again to stand strong among its equally established neighbors, the Alberta Bair Theater and NOVA, the former Venture Theatre.

“Well, we were all into preservation,” Kay explains, of how she and her husband Mike, and Kim and her husband Don, came together to partner to revive the Babcock. “We had been involved with the Moss Mansion, had been involved with other preservation efforts. “

Kay and her husband bought the old Montana Power building 13 years ago and worked tirelessly to register it with the National Register of Historic Places and they currently enjoy living upstairs in the building.

“This is our neighborhood,” Kay says matter-of-factly. “If there’s a run-down place in the neighborhood, you want to fix it up because it doesn’t do anything for the rest of the neighborhood.”

As architects, Kim and Don Olsen have been involved in a significant historic preservation from the mechanical sense, and were the architects that Kay and her husband used when renovating the Montana Power building.

“This is the last historic theater in Billings,” Kim points out about the Babcock. “It’s one of very few across Montana. It’s an icon that we’re going to lose if we don’t keep it. They just don’t survive. And we understand why they’re dying; man, this is hard to heat!”

As such, the Babcock has proven to be a whole other animal, with many strings attached.

“When we first got the building,” Kay recalls, “thanks to the very generous gift that we got with the tax increment funds, that helped us with the purchase. We were conditioned that we would turn it over to the city at a certain point with a nonprofit in place. We were conditioned that we had to restore the stage, do the roof, and do the exterior. And, there were several other tasks – the mechanical, the plumbing, and the fire safety – that we had to complete in compliance with our agreement. But we’ve gone so much beyond that.”

Ironically, the team could never get much of a tour of the building before they agreed to purchase the building.

“We had been trying for years to purchase the building,” Kim says. “We never could get a really good tour of it. They gave us a set of keys and said, ‘Oh, by the way, you only have eight tenants, and you need to evict four for non-payment.’ So out of these 18 apartments (upstairs), there’s only eight being rented and of that, there are only four that are actually current!”

Where anyone else might have had unsettling feelings of buyer’s remorse, these ladies plunged in.

“That money (the TIFD) was not going to be available if we didn’t take it,” Kay says of their mindset at the time, in 2008. “So it was a huge leap of faith on our part. We’re going to tackle this and just know that this is all going to come together.”

Along the way, the ladies have surely excavated some interesting treasures.

“The electrician tried to chase down the wires,” Kim sets the scene of the early days of renovation, “and he’s crawling around in this attic space. And he says, ‘you guys need to get up here. You’ve got to see this.’ Tucked up in there were pieces of the original terra cotta and so from that, the College of Technology’s Tim Urbaniak took his students in here and they did a digitized 3-D model of it. They also did 3-D models of those pieces, and from that we’ve made molds. We had a company from California create a mold and cast replica pieces of it in a stone resin base of the same color because we had the samples there.

“So that was one of those a-ha’s,” Kim describes, of uncovering the proverbial diamond in the rough. “You fall in love with the building because of the character and the "oh wow" things you find in it.”

And a rough journey it’s been. Despite the trying task of breathing new life into age-old bones, the biggest challenge for the ladies was financing.

“When we first got the building,” Kay explains, “we were going around talking to our friendly bankers. They’d all say it was a great project, and good luck with that!”

“It was 2008,” she continues, “the housing bust. It was a total unknown to them and very high risk. The whole banking industry was clamping down. We just found very friendly, nice people to talk to but we didn’t get much help. Eventually, we got our financing and we’re doing well. That was one of our major challenges, because we knew we had this building and we knew we had to keep it going. We had tenants in here – retail and some apartment tenants. We had to keep going. So it was a little scary.”

Both ladies complement each another in their talents. Kay is the bookkeeper and accountant, watching pennies and trying desperately to pinch what she can; to Kim’s fervent, on-her-knees, in-the-trenches, scraping of the paint and managing of the contractors with her precise, detail-oriented sense.

They have no staff, as they try to complete the task of renovating the Babcock, while trying to somehow come out, at the very least, even at the end of the journey.

“We don’t have the most energy-efficient systems,” Kay points out. “It’s a very expensive proposition when you take a building this size and totally redo it.”

Financing aside, then began the task of registering it with the National Register of Historic casino online Places, a distinction with very clear guidelines.

“There are a few levels of it,” Kim explains. “There are restoration, renovation and reuse, and those are different things and different guidelines. If you’re going to restore something, it needs to be exactly as it was. The Moss Mansion would be an example of restoration project. Ours is more of a renovation project. You have to maintain the character-defining elements in it. First you research why it’s important, why it’s significant, you give some background and they decide whether or not it’s special enough that it should be on the register.” After much research and even more hard work, the duo was informed in February of this year that the Babcock not only made the list and is on the National Historic Register, but it was highlighted in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Prosperity through Preservation” campaign as a model for historic preservation. Kim says, "Of all of the restoration projects done across the United States, there were only a handful of projects highlighted and we were one of them."

With that designation in hand, a reward for the owners will hopefully arrive in the form of historic tax credits, helping swallow the bitter pill of their personal investment in the project, one on which they won’t see a return otherwise when they gift the Babcock back to the city.

In order for that to happen, Kim further explains that with the National Register designation, “What you do to it has to be pre-approved. So you have to write out your whole plan, give all your drawings and documents and get all that pre-approved. For the tax credits… if you renovate a building on the National Register, all you risk losing is losing that designation. If you renovate one and collect tax credits for it, you run the risk of losing a lot more. So you have to be more in compliance. You do get inspected on that."

At the end of the day, when the dust settles, it all comes down to pride in the neighborhood and preserving the theater. Once turned back to the city, the ladies hope the once-grand theater model mentality of the theater remains.

“We like it as a live-event theater but we do now have film capabilities,” Kay says. “So that’s something we’re going into more and more. The stage was half the size it is now when we got the building.”

But if there’s one thing the Babcock isn’t going to do, Kim and Kay agree, is compete with their neighbors, the Alberta Bair and NOVA.

“It is grand,” Kim insists. “As far as preserving the theater, it has great acoustics. People can sing on that stage, and be heard. It was designed well. We get a lot of the bands starting up and the old folks kind of fading out,” she laughs, but says they’re just fine with that. “We’re not competing.”

“Every time there’s an event,” Kay says, “whether it’s at the Alberta Bair or the Babcock, it doesn’t matter. If the town is busy and restaurants are busy, it’s good for everybody.”


The Babcock Theater in the Spotlight
Restoration takes center stage with awards and acknowledgements

Since work began on the historic Babcock Theater, it"s turned the heads of not only leaders in state and federal government but distinguished groups renowned for their preservation knowledge. Not only did the project walk away with the Governor"s Outstanding Preservation Rehabilitation Project this year, but it was honored in a publication by the Montana Preservation Alliance and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In that publication, the Babcock was one of eight projects highlighted for showing just how you can spark economic revitalization through historic preservation.

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