Last week, the Regional Business Alliance loaded up a couple of buses with a rag-tag group of city leaders, wannabe leaders and once-upon-a-time leaders for a day at the Legislature.
Such events invariably feature elected officials praising themselves for all that they’ve accomplished, lawmakers explaining what they’ll do for the remainder of the session while also emphasizing their beneficence toward our fair city.
Such stuff isn’t exactly newsworthy — you might as well write a piece noting that the sun rises in the east; the earth revolves around the sun and Monday precedes Tuesday.
After arriving at the Capitol, our group split. Most of the participants filed into the House and Senate galleries to view the legislators legislating, while some of us opted to tour the grand old building.
Built on 10 acres donated by Henry Brown in 1868, construction began in 1886, a decade after Colorado was admitted to the Union. Designed by Elijah Myers, the Capitol wasn’t completely finished until 1901.
The tour, which included climbing more than 200 steep, winding stairs from the third floor to the lofty exterior gallery just below the dome, was amazing. No building in Colorado — whether private or public, sacred or secular — can match our Capitol. From stone foundation to gilded dome, its beauty, quality, architectural splendor and interior finish are unsurpassed.
The 19th-century building committee resolved to use as much material from Colorado as possible, to accept no compromises and to create a structure that would endure for centuries. Granite from Gunnison was used for the outer walls, Colorado Yule marble for the floors and rose onyx from Beulah for interior wainscoting. At completion, the building cost Colorado taxpayers $3 million.
As the visitors guide to the Colorado Capitol notes, “The cost of replicating this building today is impossible to determine.”
Entering from the western steps, the building’s grandeur is apparent, but scarcely forbidding. The great staircase in the center of the first floor rotunda is wide, airy and breathtakingly beautiful, inviting legislators and visitors alike to participate in the open process of representative government. About 140 years after construction began, the Capitol stands alone, an extraordinary gift from the past that still serves its original purpose.
When the builders broke ground, the state’s population was about 350,000, increasing to about 560,000 in 1901 when construction was finished.
That’s fewer people than in Colorado Springs today, so can we build to their standards?
Between about 1880 and 1925, beautiful public buildings were erected in every city in Colorado. In the Springs, the County Courthouse (now the Pioneers Museum), the City Auditorium, City Hall and a dozen distinguished school buildings were funded by taxpayers. The same spirit animated communities of faith that ringed the city with a dozen fine churches. Private benefactors and investors, including Jimmie Burns, W.S. Stratton and Gen. William Palmer built hotels, stock exchanges and opera houses to benefit and improve their city.
But times changed.
Once-beloved Beaux-Arts civic monuments came to be seen as impractical and pretentious, old rockpiles fit only for the wrecker’s ball. Public buildings became unadorned and “practical,” built to the same standards as big-box retail stores. Inexpensive, dreary and unlovable, they debase rather than elevate the built landscape.
Have we raised a single marvelous municipal building in Colorado Springs in the past 10 years? In the past 50? No — unless you find the City Administration Building and the county’s Citizens Service Center to be inspiring.
Colorado College’s Cornerstone Center for the Arts and the 2005 Fine Arts Center addition are worthy buildings, as the U.S. Olympic Museum and the Pikes Peak Summit House promise to be, but they’re not civic buildings. Forever broke and struggling to make ends meet, our poor city can’t even maintain the once-glorious City Auditorium and relies on grants and private donors to keep the Pioneers Museum afloat.
Will we leave those who follow us an architectural legacy, buildings that future generations will cherish? Don’t bet on it — we should consider ourselves lucky that we can pay to fill potholes.
And as for that hopeful Latin inscription over the proscenium arch in the city auditorium, Usui Civium Decori Urbis (“For the use of the people and the glory of the city”) — forget it.
We’re not into glory, much less snooty Latin phrases. And we don’t care that Winston Churchill said, “A country that forgets its past has no future.”
We have our own mantra: “If it’s good enough for government work, it’s good enough for us.”