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Independent's new home a downtown landmark

All architecture is shelter; all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts or stimulates the persons in that space." -- Philip Johnson, 1975

Now in its 10th year of publishing, the Colorado Springs Independent has obtained a new home in the 1917 United Brethren Church building at 235 S. Nevada Ave., known in recent years as the Smokebrush Building.

Purchase of the building was secured on Friday, June 27, by publisher John G. Weiss from Kat Tudor of the Smokebrush Foundation.

Plans are currently being drawn by Michael H. Collins Architects to renovate the interior space of the building to meet the needs of the newspaper organization. Some parts of the building complex will be leased as office space and as multipurpose meeting space for community nonprofits and arts organizations.

"For the past five years, we've been looking for a permanent, unique downtown building with parking that will enable us to grow," said Weiss. "The building formerly known as Smokebrush fits the bill."

The structure, erected between 1912 and 1917, was designed by famed architect Thomas MacLaren of MacLaren and Thomas Architects for the Church of the United Brethren and was one of the few historic buildings in the area spared the wrecking ball during the city's urban renewal thrust of the 1960s and 1970s. An education annex was added to the original building in 1950.

Built of red brick and stone, the North Italian Romanesque edifice has maintained many of its original features through almost 90 years of hard use and multiple owners.

The-Hole-in-the-Ground Church

Construction of the building first known as Tourist Memorial Church was slow and complicated. The lot at the corner of South Nevada and South Vermijo Street was purchased for $6,000 in 1911. With 200 members at the time, Tourist Memorial moved ahead and dug the basement, holding services in a big tent on the lot. According to the published History of the Church, now Central United Methodist Church on Galley Road, "Several times the tent was damaged by strong winds, but the women of the church brought their sewing machines, heavy cord and needles, and repaired the tent prior to Sunday services."

Between 1911 and 1915, problems arose that split the congregation and brought construction to a halt. Only 27 families were left to worship in the covered basement until June 1916 when Rev. W. G. Schaefer, fresh out of seminary, was sent to Colorado Springs to pastor Tourist Memorial. By that time, the church was known around town as "The-Hole-in-the-Ground Church."

But Schaefer and church members rallied with an aggressive "Buy a Brick" campaign that sold 200,000 bricks, drew many larger financial gifts to the building fund and enabled a loan from the Church Erection Society in Dayton, Ohio. In 1916, the church was renamed First United Brethren of Christ Church and in 1917, the building and a five-room parsonage were completed.

Local resident Lucille Sams, a member of First United Brethren since 1940, remembers stories of the buy-a-brick fund-raiser. "He arrived and just said, 'We need to sell bricks,'" she said.

Schaefer remained the central figure of United Brethren for many years after his triumphant beginning. He retired in 1957, after 41 years as pastor.

"I don't know how many weddings and funerals that man performed," said Sams, now in her late 80s. "If you go around and look at people that Rev. Schaefer married, there's still a group of us."

The early days

During Rev. Schaefer's heyday, the neighborhood surrounding United Brethren was a lively residential crossroads in Colorado Springs, with fine Victorian homes to the north, a busy working-class neighborhood to the south, and the courthouse -- now the Pioneers Museum -- directly across the street.

"There were big, beautiful homes," said Leah Davis Witherow of the Starsmore Center for Local History. "Across from the courthouse was the home of Maud McFerran Price who became the first curator of the Pioneers Museum. Price was quite wealthy and had a big home. There were boarding houses, then on the diagonal street that headed south from Vermijo was [the beginning] of a real working-class neighborhood with a lot of African-Americans. We know that because Payne Chapel, organized in 1875 by Rev. J. W. Braxton, was nearby. There's quite a lot of historic information on Payne.

[Payne Chapel was maintained at that location until the 1980s until the membership outgrew the building. The church is now on Marion Street near the Citadel Mall in Colorado Springs.]

"Myron Stratton lived on Weber, just a few blocks north," said Witherow. "Streetcars accessed the area. It was dotted with little neighborhood grocery stores."

In the grass median of Nevada Avenue, between the church and the courthouse, stood a statue of one of the city's early leaders, Winfield Scott Stratton.

The Ladies Aid society of United Brethren hosted Thursday chicken pie dinners that became a popular lunchtime option for downtown workers. Beginning as an effort to raise construction funds, the tradition continued well into the '50s. Slices that cost a penny in 1911 went for 25 cents in the 1930s and eventually cost a dollar in 1953. According to Sams, workers from the courthouse and from around downtown lined up around the block to get a slice of chicken pie, coleslaw and dessert, helping to pay the church's bills.

Fine architecture was in no short supply in the area, thanks largely to architect MacLaren of MacLaren and Thomas. (Partner Charles Thomas became mayor of Colorado Springs in 1917.)

A Scotsman, MacLaren received classical training in Britain and became renowned for his freehand drawings. Influenced by the great cathedrals of England and by the classical architecture of Italy, MacLaren came to Colorado in 1898 reportedly for health reasons, joining the ranks of craftsmen and artists who came to the area for the tubercular cure. Gen. William Palmer commissioned MacLaren to design the Springs' pre-eminent Gothic church, now Grace Episcopal Church on Tejon Street.

A few of the many other local buildings attributed to MacLaren include Fire Station One, Ivywild School, Cragmor Sanitorium on the UCCS campus, City Hall, the Pauline Chapel and many homes in the Old North End neighborhood. Many MacLaren buildings, including the Petite Trianon at Colorado Springs School, originally designed as a residence, are listed on the National Historic register. MacLaren died in Colorado Springs in 1928.

Original architecture

In 1968, the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist denominations merged, becoming the United Methodist Church. United Brethren Church of Colorado Springs became Central United Methodist Church just a few years before vacating the building for the suburbs, where their membership was moving. In 1973, the building was sold to the Police Training Academy and for a while housed the police training center, a youth program and the district attorney's juvenile diversion programs.

In 1993, the long-vacant church was bought by the Smokebrush Foundation, was renovated and became the home of the Smokebrush Center for the Arts.

For almost 10 years, the building housed art studios, an exhibition gallery and a 200-seat theater, until the Center was closed and put on the market in 2002.

The Independent has secured the services of Michael Collins Architects, a local firm well known for their work on historic structures, to design plans for interior office space renovation.

Collins and associates have worked on such notable local buildings as City Auditorium, Manitou's Cliff House, the historic Garfield School and the Cheyenne Building that houses Phantom Canyon brewpub.

"What we've done from the get-go is to do simple, adaptable partitioning inside [historic buildings] to let the original come through," said Collins, adding that he is thrilled to be working on a MacLaren building. "It has always been our approach to let the strength of the original architecture come through and do as little to change it as possible."

The newspaper will move from its current home in the Independence Building at 121 E. Pikes Peak when renovations are complete.

-- Lola Garcia provided research assistance for this story.

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