Salvaging our artistic roots 

City Sage

Our Pikes Peak region has a rich artistic heritage, one that extends from thousand-year-old petroglyphs (no, I'm not telling you where they are) to an amazing mural created by Steve Wood for the recently openedSunWater Spa in Manitou Springs.

But like a spendthrift heir, we've often been careless with our legacy. Architectural masterpieces such as the Burns Theater and the Antlers Hotel were thoughtlessly demolished, along with hundreds of lesser structures. It's easy to lose history and hard to save it — but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Here are two recent examples.

When Kevin O'Neil acquired the 1917 Santa Fe Station at 555 E. Pikes Peak Ave. in 2014, the once-magnificent interior had been sadly altered by earlier renovations. Gone was the spacious, high-ceilinged waiting room, gone was the interior detailing, gone was any sense of its past — except for the space once occupied by a Harvey House.

Harvey Houses were the first restaurant chain in America. The company was started in 1875 by Fred Harvey, who opened two "eating houses" in Wallace, Kansas, and Hugo, Colorado, along the route of the Kansas Pacific Railway. A few years later, Harvey made a deal with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to operate Harvey Houses system-wide. The deal was successful, and the chain flourished for many decades.

The Harvey House in the Colorado Springs depot is much the same as it was in 1917. With its elaborately tiled walls and arching ceiling, it's well-suited for its projected use as a meeting space. To modern eyes, the tiled walls seem anachronistic and fussy, an architectural detail that could easily be scraped off the wall and thrown away.

Yet it's staying in place, thanks to O'Neil and Ingrid Richter, the O'Neil Group's economic development director. Probably created by a Midwestern firm such as the American Encaustic Tile Co., the complex and low-relief tiles are typical of the era, when dozens of businesses making decorative tiles flourished across the country. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only such installation in Colorado Springs, except for the magnificent Van Briggle tiles on the pottery building at 1125 Glen Ave. and on the former YWCA Building at Kiowa Street and Nevada Avenue.

In 1936, Colorado Springs artist Frank Mechau created a pair of murals for the Colorado Springs Post Office. Both 51/2 by 12 feet, they remained in place until an ill-advised renovation of the space in the early 1960s. The murals were removed by the General Services Administration, which set about trying to find a suitable home for them in other federal buildings.

A couple of years ago, I became interested in the murals. Mechau, who painted the mural of running horses in the courtyard of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, is now considered to have been the finest Colorado artist of the 20th century.

What happened to the murals? Could we get them back? One of the murals, "The Corral," is in Building 41 of the GSA complex in Denver. The other, "Indian Fight," is in GSA storage in Washington, D.C.

I spent months trying to figure out how to recover "Indian Fight." Time was of the essence, since the FAC is planning a March 2016 Mechau retrospective. With permission of FAC higher-ups, I contacted Congressman Doug Lamborn's office for help.

Jarred Rego, who directs Lamborn's local office, put me in touch with Lamborn's legislative director, James Thomas. Within a week, Thomas sliced through bureaucratic obstacles and delivered the initial good news.

If the FAC wanted it, the GSA would put "Indian Fight" on permanent loan to the museum. I was amazed and delighted — until the bad news came a day later. The painting had already been claimed, and was about to be crated and shipped — to Building 41 of the Denver GSA complex!

It may be that the FAC can arrange to borrow the murals for the show, but it looks as if Denver has beaten us to the punch. Ironically, two murals that Mechau created for the Glenwood Springs Post Office are also in Denver. For the rest of Colorado, Denver sometimes seems like a black hole, sucking up everything in its gravitational orbit.

The moral of the story: Preserve what you have. We need to set an example, so that 75 years hence, our heirs won't thoughtlessly discard Steve Wood's wonderful mural ... or ship it to Denver.

  • We've often been careless with our legacy.


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