Don't mess with Thomas MacLaren's local architecture

Who is the greatest artist in Colorado Springs' 145-year history? The answer is simple enough, if phrased differently: What artist has had, and continues to have, the greatest impact upon the city's daily life?

The answer: Thomas MacLaren.

You may not know his name, but you know his work. Born in Scotland in 1863, MacLaren came to Colorado Springs in 1893. Like so many others who moved here in the late 19th century, he was a tubercular. Seeking to avoid the fate of his older brother, who had succumbed to the disease, MacLaren sought relief in the sunshine and dry air at the foot of Pikes Peak.

He gained that relief — and if the city gave him life, he repaid that gift in full measure.

MacLaren was an architect. Many of his buildings still adorn our city, and continue to define it. They include City Hall, City Auditorium, Grace Episcopal Church, the clubhouse at Patty Jewett Golf Course, Ivywild School, Pauline Chapel, Claremont (now Colorado Springs School), Sacred Heart Church, West Middle School, Colorado Springs Fire Station No. 1, Cragmor Sanitorium and Manitou Springs' Carnegie Library.

Each is a treasure. Each expresses MacLaren's easy command of form, function, proportion and style. His buildings are subtle and understated, not overblown specimens of starchitecure. We're lucky so many remain to illuminate the past, delight the present and, we hope, inspire the future.

Sadly, two of MacLaren's buildings are threatened. Fire Station No. 1 will be permanently defaced by a renovation/addition that's already underway, while West Middle School, at 1920 W. Pikes Peak Ave., may be demolished by School District 11 and replaced by a new structure.

It's too late to do anything about Fire Station 1. In the 2003-2004 city-funded "Historical and Architectural Survey of downtown Colorado Springs," the building was given short shrift. "Alterations to the building," the authors noted, "would make it unlikely to qualify for listing on the National Register." Whether true or not, the absence of any local, state or national landmarking gave the city a free hand. No pesky historic preservationists to placate, no need to run the project past the city's toothless Historic Preservation Board (full disclosure: I'm a member of that board).

The project's justification is persuasive: Fire Station 1 needs to be expanded or replaced, and building an adjacent structure is the least expensive alternative. That may be, but were other alternatives seriously considered?

[pullquote-1] Completed in 1923, West Middle School was built of brick, complemented by cut stone trim and decorative stone panels. The campus of two city blocks includes the building and attached gymnasium, a playground and an athletic field (which also serves as a de facto community park).

As the Westside Pioneer reported last month, "The spending plan for a bond issue that will go before voters in the election Nov. 8 states that the building, which was originally West Junior High, would be replaced. In its stead would be a new building, including classrooms and a gym, at a total cost of about $17 million. It would house the current West Campus, consisting of West Elementary and West Middle School."

That plan isn't set in stone. Depending on public feedback, D-11 may gut the existing building and preserve its historic façade, essentially creating a new building on the present footprint. Building a completely new structure behind the existing building would allow a seamless transition, without displacing students during construction. It might also spell the end of the field as a neighborhood park (full disclosure: I live near the school).

All cities lose historic buildings, and Colorado Springs has lost more than its share. The process is always the same: The building is said to be functionally obsolete, renovating/repairing/reusing is expensive or impracticable, so down it comes. The losses happen in ones and twos, and suddenly we've lost irreplaceable structures.

We love to prattle on about becoming a world-class city, but sometimes our city leaders act as if we were a do-it-on-the-cheap hick town, the ignorant and clueless heirs to a great architectural legacy.

Thomas MacLaren lined our streets with beauty. He designed more than 100 homes as well as almost every public building constructed from 1900 until his death in 1928.

That's our inheritance. Let's not squander it.