Side Streets: This Colorado Springs building is worth restoring

March 28, 2014 Updated: March 28, 2014 at 2:31 pm
photo - Cristo Reyes with Building Restoration Specialties of Denver works Tuesday, March 25, 2013 to clear debris from the base of restored columns at the entrance of the Pioneers Museum. Photo by Mark Reis
Cristo Reyes with Building Restoration Specialties of Denver works Tuesday, March 25, 2013 to clear debris from the base of restored columns at the entrance of the Pioneers Museum. Photo by Mark Reis 

It's no secret that I love the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.

I love the building, which opened in May 1903 as the El Paso County Courthouse. And I love its contents - the collection of 40,000 items ranging from Van Briggle pottery and American Indian artifacts to the personal papers of Civil War Gen. William Jackson Palmer, who founded Colorado Springs and built the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. These artifacts tell the story of life in the Pikes Peak region. (In fact, a Side Streets column is one of the artifacts that has been on display!)

So it concerns me when I climb the steps to its doors and see cracks and missing chunks from its towering columns - which vary from Doric to Ionic and Corinthian, I'm told by Matt Mayberry, museum director. I hate to see the towers' ornate, carved stonework crumbling.

"The columns are melting away," Mayberry said as he ran his hand over the decorative carvings.

And it bothers me to see the stains and streaks of water damage under the windowsills around the elegant old building.

"The building needs a thorough cleaning," Mayberry said.

When I look closer, my concerns grow. I see large pieces missing from archways over doors. Mortar is cracked or missing between the pink granite and rhyolite lava base stones. And a growing collection of pieces have fallen off the building. It's a comfort to me that Mayberry and his staff have been diligent in pursuing funds to restore the structure. But money is tight for things such as power washing and new mortar. People tend to want to donate for a new exhibit or something to which they can proudly attach their names.

That's why I'm writing in support of the museum's effort to secure a $190,000 grant from the State Historical Society to help fund Phase 4 of a decade-long restoration project.

In the first three phases, about $1 million was used to replace rusting metal and repair roof leaks and stones. Phase 3 is ongoing, and I watched Wednesday as a masonry magician finished work on an eroded column base near the main Tejon Street entrance. This is not easy or inexpensive work. Century-old mortar must be chemically analyzed for expansion and contraction rates so that matching mortar can be created.

If Mayberry lands his grant and secures a 30 percent match from the city and private donations, Phase 4 will begin next summer on the north and south sides of the building. Then will come Phase 5, which will involve repairing and replacing doors and windows.

"We started planning for this in 2005," Mayberry said. "We hope to have it completed by 2016. Then the outside of the building should be good for another 100 years."

It's pretty amazing to think that with a little more tender loving care the Pioneers Museum should stand for another 100 years. Consider that in 1963 the El Paso County Commission declared the building unusable and began planning a new courthouse - the rectangular monstrosity across Tejon Street.

This building that now resides on the National Register of Historic Places serves as a 146-foot landmark in downtown with its bell tower, four-sided lighted clock, 38 carved Indian head keystones, two lion head fountains, cage elevator and more.

It's imperative that we preserve what enlightened Springs residents fought to save from demolition 50 years ago when they rallied behind a "Save the Courthouse Committee" and raised $250,000 to buy it.

After this architectural gem was boarded up in 1972, I'm thrilled the museum was able to move in seven years later.

And I'm happy to add my voice to those seeking grants and donations to preserve the museum. I'd love to see some deep-pocketed benefactor step forward to transform the shuttered fourth courtroom into an exhibit space, restore the tower clock and ditch the clock's electric motor for its historic water-pressure operation.



- First two floors have large yellow columns, or pilasters, called scagliola, or plaster painted to imitate marble.

- Building materials include pink granite from Platte Canon quarry south of Denver and rhyolite tuff called cotopaxi lava from Kerr Quarries near Howard, west of Ca?n City.

- During its 60 years as a courthouse, its basement housed the offices of the courts, surveyors, county physician and coroner.

- The 16 columns on the top of the clock/bell tower are cast iron.

- Each of the four porticos is adorned with two cherubs holding blank shields. Original plans called for them to be inscribed with "Justitia Dedicata" or dedicated to justice.

- The building has three floors. The tower is disproportionately tall because it was designed to accommodate a fourth story. The tower was centered in the building, north to south. But it is slightly off center, east to west, to accommodate a larger main courtroom.



1899: Excavation begins

Labor Day 1900: Cornerstone is laid.

May 1903: Opens as the ninth El Paso County Courthouse.

Construction cost: $420,000.

Architect: Augustus J. Smith.

1963: El Paso County Commission starts planning a courthouse and declares the old building unusable.

1966: Commission announces building will be demolished. A "Save the Courthouse Committee," led by retired Brig. Gen. Kenneth Curtis, persuades the commission to build on a new site and preserve the old courthouse. It raises $250,000 to buy the building after a bond issue failed.

Sept. 29, 1972: Building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

1972: Building is vacated by the county and boarded up.

1973: Building is deeded to Colorado Springs, which assumes ownership.

1979: Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum moves from its previous home in the gym of the Knights of Columbus Hall at 25 W. Kiowa St.

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