Colorado Springs Business Journal

“Our taste in architecture runs too much to the bizarre and picturesque,” wrote Colorado Springs resident Dr. Samuel Le Nord Caldwell in a letter deposited in Colorado College’s century chest in 1900. “Towers, verandas and gables too often appear as excrescences rather than parts of a harmonious design, but our standard of taste in artistic matters is constantly rising to a higher and higher level.”

In another paragraph, he noted, “Our houses are of varying styles of architecture — or no style — to suit individual taste.”

Le Nord’s Colorado Springs was a prosperous, cultured little city of about 25,000 souls. He lived in the North End, where almost every house’s design was heavily influenced by the tastes and preference of the prospective homeowner. And while the mansions that were constructed on large lots north of downtown were one-of-a-kind collaborations between owners, architects and builders, the more modest homes north of the Colorado College campus along Tejon Street, Nevada Avenue and Weber Street were often derived from nationally marketed house plans, such as those available from Sears, Roebuck & Co. Builders in the 1890s would acquire half a dozen lots and build virtually identical homes.

Between 1910 and 1940, few homes were constructed in the city. In those 30 years, the city’s population stagnated, adding about 260 inhabitants annually. The Great Depression did its part by shrinking incomes and further reducing demand.

World War II ended those quiet times. The overnight creation of Camp Carson created jobs, lifted regional income and set the stage for a postwar real estate revival — one that, with a few downturns, is still going strong today.

The planned suburb

In 1948, Springs businessman John Bonforte platted a 325-home development adjacent to the stately homes of the North End. Called Bonnyville, it would be very unlike its upscale neighbors, featuring simple, Spartan and eminently affordable one-level homes on small lots. Bonforte was inspired (as were many of his peers nationwide) by Levittown, Bill Levitt’s extraordinarily successful Long Island development that introduced mass-produced housing to the American market.

- Advertisement -

Bonforte was the first subdivision developer in Colorado Springs. Since then, developers, architects and planners have followed in his footsteps, imitating and amplifying national trends in housing. As generations come and go, homebuilders and developers have had to adapt or go out of business.

“The GI Bill enabled soldiers who had served their country in World War II to buy a house with just a small amount of money for a down payment, and a 30-year mortgage for the rest,” wrote Jo Ann Rowe in her memoir, “Not for Public Consumption.”

“Broke as we were [in 1948], Prentiss and I bought a little house located in the new part of Colorado Springs — Bonnyville — where little houses were being built as fast as possible for new families just like ours.”

Loosely based upon Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian home design, Bonnyville homes are typically about 1,000 square feet, situated on lots of around 6,000 square feet. As built, they were plain, boxy and unadorned — no fancy verandas and turrets. Yet for their original buyers who had grown up during the Depression and endured the war, they were dream homes.

Residents of nearby settled neighborhoods greeted these little houses with scorn. Malvina Reynolds’ 1962 song may have perfectly expressed traditionalist dismay with the new American landscape.

Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes all the same
There’s a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same

Seventy years after Bonnyville was created, its architecture has drawn a new universe of buyers.

“The most derided architecture is now the most desired,” said real estate broker Amanda Miller Luciano, noting that younger buyers are attracted to the clean lines and simplicity of mid-century modern design and retiring Baby Boomers like one-level living in a near-downtown neighborhood. And although Jo Ann and Prentiss Rowe paid about $9,400 for their home in 1948, sellers are now asking around $300,000 for John Bonforte’s “little boxes.”

After Bonnyville

Bonnyville was succeeded by dozens of developments, many catering to a growing and increasingly affluent middle class. Developers acquired acreage along the city’s perimeters, sought annexation and the city grew. And as it grew, so did the houses and so did the developments.

Conceived in the 1980s, Briargate has grown to more than 9,000 acres, with thousands of homes and scores of commercial and multifamily residential structures. Far from offering virtually identical “little boxes on the hillside,” builders in master planned developments now give buyers a dizzying variety of architectural and design choices.

Longtime Colorado Springs builder Classic Homes currently offers nearly 30 different house plans in multiple developments. Want a ranch? You can choose from 14 options, and choose from a variety of indoor styles and finishes, thereby personalizing your new house. Want two stories? Choose from another 14.

Pine Creek, a 900-acre upscale development in northern Colorado Springs, has made design and architecture a centerpiece of the community.

“The architectural theme borrows from the predominant architectural styles of historic Colorado Springs and adapts them in a contemporary form,” according to the Pine Creek Village Association’s website. “Craftsman, Prairie, Spanish Eclectic, and European Cottage are the only architectural styles permitted in Pine Creek.”

Commercial and public

While few Colorado Springs residents have opted for the expense of an architect-designed custom-built home, substantial public and private structures have invariably used architects to conceive and create community centerpieces. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Thomas MacLaren, a Scot who moved to Colorado Springs for his health in 1894, designed or co-designed City Hall, Fire Station 1, Claremont (now the Colorado Springs School), Sacred Heart Church and many others. His buildings, like our city, are eclectic, ranging from neoclassical to Beaux-Arts to Spanish colonial — whatever the client wanted.

Just as residential builders have always sought ideas and inspiration from national trends, so have their commercial counterparts. The gracefully ornamented façades and interiors of the turn-of-the century El Paso County Courthouse (now the Pioneers Museum) and the Mining Exchange Building gave way in the mid-20th century to less labor-intensive modernist structures such as the third Antlers hotel and the Holly Sugar Building. And while appearances may change, architects still understand that their clients’ needs come first.

“Things have gotten more complex,” said Stuart Coppedge, a principal at RTA Architects, whose firm is designing the new Pikes Peak Summit Complex, “and architects have to deal with it. There’s more attention to context — we don’t consider buildings as stand-alone structures. Energy efficiency is very important, although energy costs are relatively low in Colorado Springs. And also day lighting — we’ve learned that natural light is crucial to workplace health and productivity. And  flexibility — things are changing so rapidly in business and education that buildings need to be adaptable for changing uses, so they’ll be usable for their entire life.”

That new complexity is evident in RTA’s design for the Summit Complex, especially compared to architectural renderings from the 1990s. Now under construction, the new summit house will not be a hulking, dramatic structure plopped down on the summit, but a far more modest light-filled, energy-efficient building tucked away on the southeast rim of the summit.

The future

Longtime real estate broker/developer/entrepreneur Tim Leigh cites several trends, including smaller houses, intergenerational living and increased architectural creativity.

“There’s definitely a transition going on in the market,” he said. “Sales have come to a screeching halt in the last month, but we have to look at demographics. The demand is there. Things don’t change overnight.”

Several years ago, Leigh considered building 15 upscale homes with attached apartment units on the tract of land bordering Cresta that The Broadmoor hotel ultimately traded to the city as part of the Strawberry Fields land swap, but the deal never got off the ground. Today, national builder Lennar Homes offers Nextgen models in 21 states, including Colorado (but not the Springs). These houses, touted recently in The New York Times as the “affordable American dream,” that you can “move in and never leave,” incorporate “a home within a home,” a separate one-bedroom apartment with its own entry, linked to the house through a hotel-style door that can be left open or locked.

“That concept is really attractive,” said Leigh. “You can have your kids living there, or your aging parents, and you could even swap spaces with the kids as their family grows.”

He also liked the concept of two homes with a single mortgage.

“That time when everybody wanted a bigger McMansion than anyone else? That’s over,” he said. “I want no more than 3,000 square feet and so do a lot of people. That’s happening now, and there are really smart architects that think about this all the time. If you’re a builder or a developer, you have to pay attention and sell to the market. That’s the path of least resistance. Remember, failure isn’t market-driven.”

The Nextgen concept would have surprised Jo Ann and Prentiss Rowe, who had moved to Colorado Springs to get away from his domineering parents.

“While previous generations may have tolerated living with their mothers and fathers/in law until they could afford something of their own,” she wrote, “our generation was less willing to wait. We understood that life is short… .”