Cities are not born by accident. New York, San Francisco and New Orleans began as seaports, gateways to a vast, unsettled country. Heartland metropolises such as Kansas City, St. Louis and Denver were commercial hubs that sprouted from the growth and prosperity generated by the industrial revolution.
No one individual created any of those cities. The convergent technologies of transportation, communications and finance enabled railroads to be built, regional markets to grow and flourish, and entrepreneurs to become wealthy … or lose everything and try again.
Colorado Springs was an exception. Gen. William J. Palmer’s project was a real estate play, a little city deliberately insulated from the smoky factories, urban slums and intemperance of the times.
Palmer was selling clean air, virtuous neighbors and breathtaking beauty. He well understood what his city’s USP (unique selling point) would be:
Those who followed Palmer to Pikes Peak understood the mountain’s iconic power. Far from reveling in the daily miracle of its existence, many looked at the mountain as practical men and women would.
They asked a simple question:
How can I make money out of that pile of rocks?
Winfield Scott Stratton, Spencer Penrose, Charlie Tutt and Jimmie Burns turned gold-bearing rocks on the mountain’s western slopes into vast fortunes. Artists and photographers produced and sold millions of forgettable images of Pikes Peak.
The mountain inspired poetry (“America the Beautiful”), prose (Frank Waters, “Pikes Peak”) and autobiography (Irving Howbert, “Memories of a Lifetime in the Pikes Peak Region”).
Authors and prospectors come and go, but the mountain’s mythic summit is, as it has been since the 1860s, a hustler’s paradise.
Visitors to Colorado Springs want to go to the summit, and we’ve always catered to their wishes. Sharp-elbowed entrepreneurs jostled each other for title to the mountaintop, most notably in 1882 when the then-mayor of Manitou Springs claimed the summit under the Homestead Act, took up a wagonload of dirt and pretended to plant vegetables.
The scam didn’t work, but deep-pocketed capitalists soon gained control of the mountain.
Penrose built the Pikes Peak Highway and began staging the annual “Race to the Clouds” as a showcase. Zalmon Simmons built the Pikes Peak Cog Railway and gained control of the summit, and the marks soon found out that it was easy enough to get to the top — just pay the man!
Today, the economic impact of the mountain is immense. It’s our brand, our signifier, and indirectly it may support thousands of jobs.
You’d think that we’d take care of it — but the summit is a dismal, well-documented mess.
America’s Mountain? It’s more like America’s junkyard.
The existing Summit House is a windowless, single-story structure built in 1965. It contains a crowded 1950s-era souvenir shop and a café — so profitable that the concessionaire pays the landlord $1 million annually to operate it.
And who’s the hustler who wrings a million bucks a year from a worthless, functionally obsolete building? Who’s the brilliant scam artist who lures a half-million visitors a year to his junked-up roadside (or road’s end) attraction?
It’s important that we not repeat the mistakes of the past.
That would be us — Colorado Springs. The city’s wholly owned enterprise, grandly titled Pikes Peak America’s Mountain, owns the Summit House and controls Pikes Peak Highway. We don’t own the peak, though — it belongs to all Americans.
It’s good news that Mayor Steve Bach’s administration has started the process of designing (then hopefully building) a new Summit House, with $1 million in funds appropriated by Congress more than a decade ago.
But it’s important that we not repeat the mistakes of the past.
All of the buildings currently on the summit should be demolished — and replaced with a single structure, one worthy of its site.
City bureaucrats and elected officials should step away from the selection process and throw open the design competition to architects the world over. Ask the American Institute of Architects to oversee that competition, and to advise a group of local residents in selecting finalists.
The process alone will bring a lot of positive attention to the city and to the mountain, and should guarantee a world-class building on the summit. Just as City Hall, the Pioneers Museum and the City Auditorium were created to last for centuries, we should build for the ages.
Pikes Peak should be crowned in beauty, not by a tawdry souvenir shop. Let’s stop scamming the marks and give them value for their dollars … what a thought!