August 14, 2003 News » Cover Story

A brief history of downtown 

Trees, parks, culture and civility

Founded in 1871 by Gen. William Jackson Palmer, Colorado Springs was originally planned and designed to live up to its ultimate nickname as "Little London" -- a small urban epicenter of culture and civility in the otherwise Wild West.

"The town site started on a shortgrass prairie -- a mesa overlooking Monument Creek without a stick higher than your knee," said Matt Mayberry, director of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. "[Palmer] transformed the landscape with structures, trees and gardens to try to create a town site that would be palatable as a resort community -- which is different from most towns that were built around mining or ranching."

To attract people with money, there had to be certain amenities. And so, added Mayberry, "By 1881 we had the first opera house [which is now Rum Bay], a liberal arts college [Colorado College] right in the middle of the prairie in 1874, and he gave land to any church that wanted to build downtown." Palmer also created a network of parks including what is now Acacia Park and Monument Valley Park.

When the Cripple Creek gold rush hit in 1891, the town began to grow beyond the bounds of Palmer's imagination. Spencer Penrose, Jimmy Burns, William Thayer Tutt and Winfield Scott Stratton were just a few of the more prominent millionaires who had far more lavish visions of Colorado Springs. They used their Cripple Creek earnings to erect landmarks like the Broadmoor Hotel, the lavish Burns Theater (now gone) at the corner of Cascade and Pikes Peak avenues and the trolley system that coursed throughout the town until 1932.

In the early 20th century, the money still floating around after the gold rush and the copious amounts of land and landscapes made Colorado Springs a renowned art colony. When the Fine Arts Center was built in 1936, it was considered the finest museum and art school west of the Mississippi.

As the gold rush money and its influence began to peter out in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Colorado Springs reinvented its economy around automobile tourism and the military, donating thousands of acres of land to the Army and the Air Force. But with the huge influx of military personnel and the demand for inexpensive, postwar housing, Colorado Springs began to spread out and away from the core area of town.

During the '60s and '70s, many businesses and residents in cities across the country began fleeing the increasing decay and blight of downtowns for the newer suburban developments. In what became known as "Urban Renewal," Colorado Springs -- like other cities -- began massive, government-funded efforts to tear down and rebuild downtowns to attract new businesses. During the process, however, countless historical buildings were lost to the wrecking ball.

"We've lost a number of great landmarks," said Mayberry, citing the Burns Theater and the second Antlers Hotel as two of the most egregious architectural casualties of the era.

In order to create renewed interest in downtowns, said Mayberry, city planners believed you had "to get rid of the old buildings and build new buildings. There is a positive effect, but you also lose a lot of your history and heritage."

The downtown we see today is undeniably the result of what happened in the '60s and '70s. Even the Pioneers Museum building was scheduled to be torn down when it became obsolete as a courthouse, but it was saved when citizens rallied after the demolition of Burns Theater. The downtown economy remained fairly depressed during the '80s as the suburbs continued to spread, but a group of citizen activists and city planners -- headed by former City Councilwoman Judy Noyes -- was appointed by City Council to begin outlining a detailed plan "to breathe new life into the heart of our city."

Called the Downtown Action Plan, the outline was finalized and adopted by the city in the early 1990s. And the DAP had a very clear vision of downtown in the year 2020 as an attractive western, yet urban core, with plenty of cultural activities, parks, housing, parking and public transportation.

During the '90s, as the U.S. economy boomed along behind the tech markets, downtown slowly began to take shape under the guidance of the DAP and the leadership of then-Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace. Sidewalks were widened to accommodate outdoor dining, flowerbeds were added to busy corners in the core and the US Bank Art on the Streets Program was implemented.

Restaurants and clubs began to pop up all along Tejon Street, adding much-needed nightlife for the increasingly urbane demographic that began moving to Colorado Springs for jobs in the burgeoning tech industry. New buildings went up, old buildings were renovated, there were people on the streets, and downtown appeared to be getting the facelift it so desperately needed.

-- Noel Black

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