Downtown art: Just look and you can find it
Paint peeling and colorful light bulbs long dark, the kitschy 1950s sign that once advertised Michelle’s, an iconic Colorado Springs ice cream parlor for many years, typifies the artistic elements that make downtown a link to our area’s past.
Walk through downtown. What do you see, besides bars, restaurants, shops, office buildings and your fellow boulevardiers? You see officially designated artworks, including a bronze Humpty-Dumpty perched on a ledge 20 feet above the sidewalk, seven life-sized bronze gentlemen (three perched on horses), and a variety of sedate abstract sculptures put in place during the past 20 years.
The message is clear: Art is art, buildings are buildings and signs are signs. Yet downtown’s streetscape is full of quaint and curious artworks that are often more interesting than the officially designated art.
The adventurous entrepreneurs who built our city started with wooden shacks in 1871, but by the turn of the century, downtown Colorado Springs was graced with dozens of exuberant buildings, many festooned with unlikely artworks.
A handful of these buildings survive. The original art is still there, sometimes easily accessible but more often hidden and obscure. So bring your binoculars, walk slowly, and look up!
Photos by Cameron Moix
The El Paso Club:
The dragon in the sky The 1883 mansion at the corner of Tejon Street and Platte Avenue that houses the El Paso Club is a splendid survivor of Gen. William Palmer’s era. Its turret is crowned by a bronze finial, best viewed from a distance with binoculars. It’s altogether amazing and wonderful – a dragon, there to symbolically defend the home against intruders. He’s done a good job, given that the mansion still stands after 130 years.
Built in 1901 as a mixed-use, office-residential facility, the Cheyenne Building is a modest, relatively undistinguished Victorian commercial structure – except for the iconic sculpture on the building’s southwest corner. Carved from a 2-foot-square sandstone block, it’s a highly detailed bust of a Native American. He wears a full ceremonial headdress, a scarf and a bear claw necklace. Contemporary accounts give no clue to the sculptor’s identity, much less that of his subject. Originally known as the Jones-Blackmer building, it was renamed a year later. It’s reasonable to assume that the much-loved sculpture’s origin wasn’t particularly romantic – it was just part of an effort to rebrand and advertise the building.
Built as the county courthouse in 1903, the Pioneers Museum is an overwhelming wedding cake of a building, so cheerful in style and decoration that it’s hard to believe local politicians dared build it. But there it sits, a building fit to house a Medici pope or a 19th Century robber baron. “There are more than 50 carved faces inside and outside the building,” said museum director Matt Mayberry. “I can’t even remember where all of them are.” More than 30 adorn the building’s façade, where carved stone heads of imagined Native Americans look down from second and third floor windows. They’re all slightly different, created 110 years ago by anonymous carvers. At ground level, cast-iron lions heads once poured water into granite drinking fountains, now long shut off. And that’s just a start. Art, history, architecture, romance, extravagance – it’s all there.
The 1912 YWCA building, located at Nevada Avenue and Kiowa Street, is easy to miss. It lacks the decorative touches of the Pioneers Museum or the Mining Exchange Building. But it’s a remarkable and rare example of an arts-and-crafts building, featuring hundreds of matte-glazed, locally fired Van Briggle tiles. Again, use your binoculars to make out fine details on the south façade.
The Mining Exchange Hotel:
The Mining Exchange Building, now restored to glorious life, is Winfield Scott Stratton’s lasting gift to the city he loved. Developer Perry Sanders stripped the bland panels that covered the building’s ground-floor granite arches and columns, making it once again a harmonious, graceful structure. The decorative elements on the upper floors seem to capture the extravagant optimism of Colorado Springs in 1900, when Cripple Creek gold had brought unimaginable riches to Palmer’s once-genteel resort.