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It's all in the details 

What makes the Pioneers Museum great

click to enlarge Stairs, silver gelatin print by Cynthia Deswik of Woodland Park
  • Stairs, silver gelatin print by Cynthia Deswik of Woodland Park

Quick, what's the best building in the Pikes Peak Region? The John Gaw Meem Fine Arts Center? The original Van Briggle Pottery building, now owned by Colorado College? The Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel? Most architects would opt for the Fine Arts Center, a nationally important building by a major American architect. Good choice -- I love the FAC too, but my vote goes to the original El Paso County Courthouse, now the Pioneers Museum.

That wonderfully exuberant old pile was erected 105 years ago and, as a birthday present, curator Tracy Felix invited a score of artists to submit works celebrating the structure. It's an exhibition well worth seeing, particularly to look at Charles Rockey's two paintings. Rockey's a fine painter who's been working for decades in Manitou -- arguably, he's the dean of Colorado artists. "Dance of the Pioneer Girl" is a dazzlingly colorful rendition of the building's entrance lobby, where a high-spirited girl dances to music unheard, to an audience unseen. Closely adjacent to "Pioneer Girl" is Rockey's take on the building's ornate exterior. Here, he emphasizes its complex, rhythmic verticality and the play of light and shadow over its varying surfaces.

The other participants in the show have risen to the challenge as well. I particularly liked Kin Scott's digital photographs "Old and New," juxtaposing the museum building with its newly constructed neighbor to the north, the so-called Plaza of the Rockies South. Timothy Carpenter's digiphoto "Happy Birthday" is, as Father Guido might have said, more than wonderful, as is Lee Manning's four-photograph series, "Pioneers Museum 1-4." Number three, a moody, atmospheric shot of the restored second-floor courtroom, has an edgy, retro, film noir quality. Linda Pearce's two digital photographs, "Painted Arches" and "Archway" subtly capture the building's swirling, antic vitality. And Kyle Chung, a senior at Colorado Springs School, is right at home among professionals twice his age (and more) with his accomplished drawing "The Pioneers' Steps."

Once you've seen the show, go upstairs to the A.J. Smith gallery, which tells, in absorbing and interesting detail, the story of the building's creation. This is Colorado Springs -- so it's not surprising that it's a story of arrogant elected officials, angry preservationists, sleazy maneuvers and reckless decisions that somehow turned out for the best.

When the County Commissioners decided to build a new courthouse, they chose the cheapest and most convenient site available to them -- the middle of a city park! Ignoring outraged protests from the preservationists of the day, they leveled a magnificent grove of cottonwoods in the center of the park and tore down a beloved community bandstand. And rather than employ a real architect to design the structure, they hired an itinerant evangelical preacher/self-taught architect/ plumbing fixture entrepreneur named Augustus J. Smith. Contemporary accounts suggest that Smith was hired because he could be depended upon to do what he was told, unlike uppity society types like Thomas McLaren.

Somehow, Smith and the commissioners surpassed themselves. Sparing no expense (one wonders just who chose the contractors), they built one of the finest courthouses in the American West. Borrowing cheerfully from every architectural tradition, Smith created a graceful, harmonious, and utterly delightful building. Twenty thousand folks attended its dedication 105 years ago, essentially the city's entire population. You might have missed it, if you're younger than 110 ... so go take a look now.

-- John Hazlehurst

capsule Capture the Courthouse: Architectural Detail as Art

A juried exhibit showcasing the Pioneers Museum 215 S. Tejon St.

Open: Tuesday Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Exhibit runs through Feb. 28

Call: 385-5990

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