Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Colorado History Museum

Over the past five months, I have been working on packing and preparing to vacate my workplace: the Colorado History Museum. When I'm not giving tours, researching and writing...I have to find time to actually work! Anyway, it's been a bittersweet time, so this overdue blog covers a brief history of the Colorado Historical Society's buildings and history since 1879.

The Historical and Natural History Society, the State Historical Society of Colorado, the Colorado History Museum, the Colorado Heritage Center, the Colorado Historical Society, and now History Colorado....all of these names and more have graced our state's "history museum" over the years since its founding in 1879 with Dr. Frederick Bancroft as the first president.

History Colorado (the newest name for everything associated with the Colorado Historical Society) as an entity has manifested itself most recognizably in its various museums and collections brought together over the years since its founding. Today, along with numerous regional museums across the state such as the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose or the Healy House and Dexter Cabin in Leadville, the state's main repository for past history has been various buildings in Denver since 1879.

The old Glenarm Hotel, old Chamber of Commerce, old Mercantile Library, and the old Arapahoe County Courthouse gave space to the museum over the years. By 1895, the museum had moved to permanent quarters in the basement level of the still-under-construction state capitol. Included in the museum's collection at this point was the large cache of archaeological wonders from Mesa Verde which had been purchased from the Weatherill brothers in 1889 for $3000. All the eclectic collection fit into 13,000 square feet and it soon became apparent that more space was needed.

One of the last buildings designed by architect Frank Edbrooke, the new state museum opened to much fanfare in 1915 with 59,000 square feet of space. This was the museum's longest-lived home where it stayed for 62 years. The building still stands at 200 14th Avenue.

By the early 1970s, pressure grew for expanded space once again. Enter the Colorado Heritage Center which joined the new State Judicial Building in one big modernist complex. The museum now had over 135,000 square feet for various uses, including space to house its growing collection. A competition was held to design the new buildings and the winner was none other than Rogers-Nagel-Langhart Architecture Company, better known by its initials of RNL today. The project definitely proved to be a challenge both architecturally and monetarily. Even before the competition, RNL said that the project was for two very incompatible uses. While it was felt the Judicial Building should be quiet and restrained, the Heritage Center should be inviting to people, particularly large numbers of children.

Upon its completion, the reviews were decidedly mixed in how to regard this new modernist structure and if it indeed was "inviting to people". While the Colorado Historical Society was certainly pleased to have a new building, negative feelings still found there way into print. Said W.E. Marshall, the Historical Society Executive Director, "In a state of mountains and plains, it is psychologically inapporpriate....for the history of Colorado to be relegated to a basement." Most of the museum's exhibit space was indeed located on the underground level. He also felt that the revised layout and structure "diminishes the structure to a level inconsistent with the functions, purposes and repsonsibilities of the Historical Society." "The exterior looks like a subway station," he continued.

Indeed, the overall reputation of the building has suffered over the years as few could recognize that the building housed a museum. Signage and exterior design elements were modified over the ensuing years to make the function of the building more apparent. The relatively recent addition of the handsome signature history panel certainly helped (see below). Still, a 1982 local pamphlet called the Capitol Hill Guidebook featured this building on its list of 'Archiectural Crimes Against Denver: a Few Candidates for Demolition'. The caption for the Colorado Heritage Center gave the following description: "the physical embodiment of the word 'hostile'".

And with its age not even yet 35, this publication gets its wish. Another example of our 1970s architectural heritage will be lost. Demolition of this building is set for May 2010. The museum gets its wish for a larger facility although this reality is really being pushed by the state judicial system--it wants more space as well. That institution will build a new expanded facility on the entire block, demolishing its current structure along the way. Click this link to learn more at

The Colorado Historical Society has a new 200,000 square foot museum under construction at 1200 Broadway. While its design is certainly more dramatic than the current facility, it certainly is not going to turn any heads. Hopefully though, people will recognize it as a museum! As for the now "old" facility, soon to be razed......will we regret the loss of yet another 20th century building? Our built environment of the 1960s and 1970s is disappearing. Although these buildings themselves often replaced wonderful Victorain structures, showing no mercy themselves when constructed, are we not just repeating the same mistakes of the past. While the Colorado History Museum at 1300 Broadway has had its detractors, it definitely was a unique building that I have been proud to both work in and be involved with through volunteer work since 1999. I'm sorry to see it go.

Look for the new History Colorado Center to open in 2012 with the Colorado Historical Society, Colorado History Museum, State Historical Fund and Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation all under one roof .


Jeff Smith said...

Thank you Shawn for keeping us posted on the museum.

Scott Bennett said...

I'm curious why the executive director of the museum was slagging the building off right after it was completed- did he not have any say in the design? I'm sure the current director was involved in the design of the new building at every step of the process. For someone who should be cheerleading the museum, his comments must have been very demoralizing.

Anyway, despite the apparent hatred of this building, I don't think it's that bad. Certainly not the worst building put up during the 70s. Many of the 70s skyscrapers downtown are getting reclad in new facades, in much the same way a lot of Victorian buildings (e.g., Fontius) got covered over in the 50s. I wonder if our current "modernizing" work will seem as clumsy in another 50 years.

Vanessa Heart said...

Thanks for all this awesome history! I always wondered why the exhibits were in the basement and often I would speak to people who didn't even know that the basement housed an exhibit.