Around the turn of the 19th century Colorado Springs had become one of the wealthiest, most attractive and prosperous cities in the American west. Thanks to the beneficence of Cripple Creek multi-millionaire W.S. Stratton, an extensive network of trolley lines linked Downtown to Colorado City, Manitou Springs, Cheyenne Cañon and every city neighborhood.
Jimmie Burns, another local guy who struck it rich in the Creek, built the gleaming Burns Opera House on Pikes Peak Avenue, just half a block from General Palmer’s second Antlers hotel. Other distinguished buildings included the Stratton-funded Mining Exchange Building, the First National Bank Building and the over-the-top county courthouse. Hundreds of commercial buildings lined Downtown streets while two railroad stations accommodated more than thirty passenger trains daily.
Seventy years later much of that beautiful little city had vanished. The trolley lines shut down in the 1930s, the passenger railways were out of business by the late 1950s and The Antlers, the Burns Opera House and scores of other structures were torn down in the 1960s.
The city had changed. Rapid suburban growth had created a polycentric community. Downtown sputtered as it tried to adjust to new realities, but sustained growth and prosperity eluded it — until the last few years, downtowns became cool and fun nationwide and we belatedly jumped on the wagon.
The future is now. Streets are blocked off as new hotels and apartment houses rise from long-neglected Downtown parcels. Property values soar as The Olympic Museum opens and The Robson Arena and Weidner Field near completion. In a few years Downtown will no longer be a work in progress, but a pleasantly dynamic place to work, live and have fun… and we can party as if it were 1902!
The resplendent city of 1902 was destroyed by events that its creators couldn’t have easily foreseen. Automobiles, those funny little self-propelled toys of the rich, would doom trolleys and passenger rail, and enable suburban flight. Moving pictures would give new life to the Burns and Downtown for a few decades, but malls and multiplexes would eventually force the departure of big retail and close almost every Downtown theater. Supermarkets forced small grocery stores out of business, small hardware stores succumbed to Sears and independent bookstores struggled to fight off Barnes & Noble.
So what supports our renascent metropolis and what pitfalls lie before us? I don’t know, but here are some candidates:
COVID-19. Will it obediently succumb to a vaccine and become, like typhoid, cholera and smallpox, an ancient memory? Or will it become endemic, ceaselessly mutating and dangerous to everyone, thereby making dense urban environments permanently toxic? Let’s hope not.
Cultural/technological change. It was easy for the Burns to transition from live theater to movies, but what will the Olympic Museum become if it can’t attract visitors? And will decentralized work-at-home Zoom culture linger on post-pandemic?
Fire and flood. Climate change might bring catastrophic wildfires to the Front Range, or we might see a repeat of the 1935 Memorial Day flood. Either would damage our city’s national image, to put it mildly.
But as we imagine the future of our Downtown we should listen to Will Rogers, who once remarked that “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” In 1900, our leaders knew, as Fred Hills observed in the Official Manual of the Cripple Creek District, that Cripple Creek was the “greatest mining camp in the world” and that it would remain so indefinitely. The men and women who built the beautiful houses of worship that still circle Downtown may never have imagined that congregations in those buildings would remain static or even diminish as the city grew from 30,000 in 1920 to about 500,000 in 2020. In 1901 Architect Thomas Maclaren described the new county courthouse as “a very ordinary Italian Renaissance [building] — we fear posterity will not give it a high place amongst architectural works.”
Thanks to early deadlines, I’m writing this column on Election Day. Whatever the result, life will go on. I hope to stay among the living, at least until turning 80 on Nov. 5. Any regrets? None, except that I sold the last of my Downtown real estate 20 years ago and spent too much time regretting the past and worrying about the future… Rock on.