Is Colorado Springs already in the midst of an architectural renaissance that will transform our dowdy little burg into a resplendent Western metropolis? That may be overstating it, but we seem to be on a bit of a roll.

This weekend will feature the opening gala of UCCS’ Ent Center for the Arts, an imaginatively conceived five-venue structure that departs sharply from the stolidly functional buildings that have long characterized the university. The downtown U.S. Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame is under construction, and ground (or rather rock) could be broken for the new Pikes Peak Summit House this spring.

In addition, more than a dozen significant buildings are either planned or under construction. These include the William J. Hybl Sports Medicine and Performance Center at UCCS, the 10-story Hilton Garden Inn under construction on the southeast corner of North Cascade Avenue and Bijou Street and two multistory apartment buildings also under construction near the downtown core. It even seems possible that the long-stalled downtown stadium/events center envisioned in the 2013 City for Champions project may soon rise from the ashes.

Based on preliminary renditions, it seems likely that the new projects will feature imaginative, site-specific designs. That would be a refreshing break from the dreary downtown buildings that were erected during the second half of the 20th century.

“We’ve sometimes had an economy of scarcity in this city,” said RTA Architects Principal Stuart Coppedge. “There’s been a feeling that we’re the No. 2 city in Colorado, that we can’t afford to do things right. But I think that’s changing now. When the international style took hold, architects began to consider a building as a decontextualized object, something in and of itself. But buildings are for people, for people who work there, or walk by.

“Downtown’s form-based code has really supported better architecture — basically, it says that if you’re nice to your neighbor, you can have any use you want.”

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If we’re on the verge of a design explosion, we’ll be following in the footsteps of the men and women who built the “City of Sunshine” in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The golden age

In the 50 years between 1880 and 1930, Colorado Springs residents built hundreds of distinguished public and private structures. Many have since been demolished, but many more remain. A dozen historic churches embrace downtown in a ring of faith, every one a notable architectural achievement. New Yorker Henry Rutgers Marshall designed the 1889 First Congregational Church on Tejon Street, while the 1926 tower, part of what is now Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church a few blocks to the north, was designed by Frohman, Robb and Little, the architects of the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

The Terry R. Harris Judicial Building sits across the street from the Pioneers Museum. The building, an extension of the courthouse to the south, displays architecture common in the 1970s.
The Terry R. Harris Judicial Building sits across the street from the Pioneers Museum. The building, an extension of the courthouse to the south, displays architecture common in the 1970s.

Other important public buildings were similarly magnificent. The 1902 El Paso County Courthouse, now the Pioneers Museum, is perhaps the most beloved building in the city — and it wasn’t built on the cheap. Flush with revenue from Cripple Creek gold, the county swung for the fences and created a building for the ages. Two years later, the city followed suit, opening the Barber & MacLaren-designed City Hall on the northeast corner of Kiowa Street and Nevada Avenue.

Thomas MacLaren, who was a practicing architect in Colorado Springs from 1894 until his death in 1928, designed more than 200 buildings in the city, including the City Auditorium, Sacred Heart Church, West Middle School, Ivywild School and Colorado Springs Fire Station No. 1. Facile, inventive and able to adapt his style to the varying demands of his clients, MacLaren’s legacy lives on in the Thomas MacLaren School, and in the repurposed 1917 United Brethren Church that now houses the Colorado Springs Business Journal.

A new dawn

Mike Collins, who has practiced architecture in Colorado Springs since the 1960s, is delighted by today’s architectural revival.

“To see three or four cranes at work downtown is amazing,” he said. “I’ll be really interested to see how the [Buck Blessing and Chris Jenkins] apartments turn out; I like the Summit House design; and Jim Johnson [of GE Johnson Construction Company] is making good progress on the Olympic Museum. That $45 million renovation of the Tutt Library at Colorado College is really worth a visit, too. And I have a lot of confidence in Buck and Chris — they’re not just putting up buildings, but building community.”

Collins has spent much of his career renovating historic buildings, usually partnering with builder Chuck Murphy.

“We did the Cliff House, the Manitou Spa Building, Phantom Canyon and quite a few others,’’ he noted. “We also worked on some new construction — although not on the City Administration Building.”

The 1979 C.A.B. has been widely derided as the worst building of a bad era. Collins refused to condemn it, though.

“It may not have been the architect’s best work,” he admitted, “but you can’t always do your best work. You have a budget and a client to please.”

In this case, the client was the city of Colorado Springs, which was more interested in saving money than making an architectural statement. When the C.A.B. opened, city government abandoned MacLaren’s resplendent but rundown City Hall for shiny new digs in the C.A.B. Years later, city council renovated City Hall and moved back in, leaving most of the administration stuck in the C.A.B.

And who knows? Maybe Mayor John Suthers will take pity on his staff and opt for an upgrade in this expansive new era. As one commentator in a local publication wrote in 1902, applauding plans for the new City Hall, “…since the founding of the city, both the municipal and county offices have been housed in cheap, ramshackle buildings, entirely incommensurate to the dignity and standing of Colorado Springs and El Paso County.”

Judging from history, change comes slowly.