Alice Bemis Taylor.For many, it's just a dusty name, words carved on buildings all over the city.But Taylor was mover and shaker of the early 1900s. Dubbed "Lady Bountiful" by the press, she created the Colorado Springs Day Nursery, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and fiscally supported the Colorado College and many other city institutions.That legacy has lingered in filed-away lists, typewritten budgets and board reports. Look for the woman behind the largess, though, and she quickly fades from view."There's just not much here," said Leah Davis-Witherow, an archivist at the Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum. She shakes her head.It's pretty much the same story everywhere, from the Fine Arts Center to the Colorado Historical Society.No personal letters. No diaries. A few academic papers on Taylor and her famous family. The same handful of photographs of her.The few who knew her well are likely dead. So the interested must fall back on a few papers based on first-person sources.Which is likely how Taylor would have liked it. Unlike some of her peers, she preferred a life — and a death, apparently — out of the spotlight.Ultimately, though, history refused to forget her.
The building blocks of Bemis
In a different time, it could have been a life out of airplane paperbacks and TV movies. She was a rich kid, the daughter of a bag manufacturing magnate.Taylor went to private schools, studied in Europe and spent many summers on the East Coast.But born to a public-minded mother, Alice Cogswell Bemis, and Judson Moss Bemis, a father who valued "the blessedness in drudgery," the Massachusetts-born Taylor was cut from burlap, not silk.She grew into quiet, regal, resolved woman who was generous to the right causes. Her father's daughter."If you stand all your life for right principles and leave your country better than you found it, your day in the world has been worthwhile," said Judson Moss Bemis, whose philanthropies are estimated to have totaled $25 million by his death in 1921.Her mother's health brought Alice Bemis, 4, and her family to Colorado Springs in 1881. The youngest of three, she grew up in the 15,000-square-foot Victorian her family built at 506 N. Cascade Ave.It was a pastoral childhood of riding horses, playing tennis and ice skating on a friend's iced-over driveway, wrote Vesta Tutt in her 1956 dedication of Taylor Hall at CC.Then, in 1903, Alice Bemis married stockbroker Frederick Morgan Taylor in a private ceremony, wrote Julia Ryan Wills, who wrote a short biography of Taylor.Diane Price, the current president of Taylor's Day Nursery, got to know the Taylors' adopted daughter during Doree's trips to the Springs as well as Price's own trip to Doree's home in Maine.Doree said she didn't get along with her mother all that well. "Mom was pretty prim and proper, and Doree was a tomboy," explained Price, who, contrary to most accounts, credits Alice Bemis Taylor, and not her mother, with founding the Day Nursery in 1897."She did not say much about her mom; she really didn't."
Lady Bountiful's very public private life
For a woman determined to avoid fanfare, Taylor propelled herself into worthy projects again and again.For years, she was the biggest single contributor to the Colorado Springs Community Chest. There were scholarships for needy students at CC, where, in 1934, she was the first trustee. She also funded improvements to college buildings.And she eventually donated her collection of 290 manuscripts and letters of British and American poets and writers to the CC Special Collections. She also donated the Grace Church organ and established a fund for an ongoing series of concerts in memory of her late husband.And there's La Forêt, a rustic lodge with cabins and a Sante Fe chapel that now hosts public retreats."If we did not hope for more than we can accomplish," Taylor wrote in a 1915 letter to the Day Nursery board, "we would not be working up to a higher ideal."What most didn't see, though, was the private support she gave, often anonymously, to individuals in need. It was all a compulsion, Vesta Tutt said, to share Taylor's own good fortune.So when the new Day Nursery opened on Christmas, 1923, Taylor passed out $20 gold pieces to every worker on the $273,000 English Tudor building at Rio Grande and Tejon streets. That's a $250 gift today."I was just fascinated by this lady," said Wills, who still lives in Colorado Springs. "She was so visionary but so private. She cared about the common people and their strength. ... I think she was a quiet force."
Taylor's biggest gift
It starts with $400,000 for a new CC library and more Hispanic and Indian art than Taylor could display in her large Wood Avenue home.A modest home for her collection might have been just fine, until socialite philanthropist Julie Penrose and art maven Betty Hare convinced her to set her sights higher; to create an art center that would eventually include a museum, a theater, a research library for Taylor's 6,000 volumes, studios, a music room and cutting-edge design.It must be free, though, and must welcome everyone in Colorado Springs, Taylor said, not just the wealthy and in-the-know.The library money went to the new project, and Taylor tapped Santa Fe architect John Gaw Meem, who popularized the Pueblo Revival style of design.Taylor corresponded with Meem frequently during the construction, even offering notes on aspects of the plans. "Certainly, if you were a man," Meem wrote Taylor, "you would have been in the building game."Before it was over, Meem's masterpiece cost Taylor $600,000, which today is in the neighborhood of $9 million.About a year after its April 1936 opening, Taylor gave the FAC $400,000 to create an endowment, Wills wrote."May I urge you to keep the announcement of this gift from the newspapers, and I beg of each one of you to keep it, in so far as possible, to himself," Taylor wrote the center's board. "It gives me great pleasure to be able to do this, and I trust that you will feel a security in having the funds in the name of the Colorado Arts Center."Today, it thrives. In 2008, the newly expanded Fine Arts Center saw 101,000 visitors pass through Meem's impressive doors.
On June 23, 1942, the Evening Telegraph announced "Death Takes Mrs. Taylor." A few days later, Taylor, 64, was buried in Evergreen Cemetery, next to her husband."I go there and chat with her," said Price, who marvels at the persistence of Taylor's vision for the Day Nursery. "When things are bad, I just want to make sure she's still watching over us."Daughter Doree, who died in January, received $75,000 in Bemis Brothers Bag Co. stock and her childhood home and its furnishings, the paper reported.Pet projects got sizable sums: $400,000 in stock to CC; $400,000 to the Fine Arts Center; $200,000 to the Community Chest; $100,000 to the Day Nursery; and $100,000 for the Grace Church memorial organ fund.Today, those five bequests would total nearly $15.7 million.They are last wishes but ones she spent a lifetime carrying out, day by day and in a gesture so small as a few corrections to a 1919 letter. In it, she prodded the Day Nursery board to consult to a world outside of the country club as they make plans for the nursery.Talk, she wrote, "with your laundresses, your maids, your farm hands, perhaps, and with people who through misfortune of one sort or another are obliged to put their children into the Nursery."As she did in so much of her life, Taylor changed the references from "your" to "our."Contact the writer at 476-1602.