Hazlehurst: Summit House plans move ahead; what’s next?

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Pikes Peak Summit HouseEver since the city budget quietly allocated $1.5 million for “planning and design work” on a proposed new Pikes Peak Summit House, nothing much has happened — or so it seemed.

In fact, it appears that the ice on the summit is beginning to melt (literally and figuratively!) and that the long-dreamed-of replacement to the summit’s 1965 Führerbunker may actually become a reality.

It seems so simple, doesn’t it? The summit of Pikes Peak receives more than a half-million visitors annually. It’s celebrated as America’s Mountain, and it has been featured in tens of thousands of paintings and millions of postcards. William Henry Jackson loaded his photographic equipment on a mule in 1871 and took the first shot of the peak framed by the Garden of the Gods. And for all we know, your Uncle Will from Chattanooga may have taken the 10 millionth such photo in 2014.

About 240,000 visitors each year take the Cog Railway to the Summit, another 230,000 drive there, and the remainder walk or run.

Once there at the top, they eat a doughnut, buy souvenirs at the Summit House, walk around a muddy parking lot, view a lunar landscape dotted with junky buildings — and leave.

The train ride is great, the views from the highway inspiring, the summit … well, enough said.

In a sane universe, we’d erect a building worthy of America’s Mountain, an understated architectural masterpiece that would complement the mountain’s grandeur, not diminish it. We’d build it for future generations, creating a structure that would join the Air Force Academy Chapel, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, the Maytag Aircraft Building and Broadmoor Main in the regional architectural pantheon.

But just as Colorado Springs suffers from convoluted and irrational governance (thank you, Douglas Bruce!), the city’s beloved mountain is ensnared in a complex web of ownership and control that inhibits rational decision-making.

Who owns the mountain? Theoretically, we do. The U.S. Forest Service owns much of the mountain, including the summit, but its ownership is encumbered by leases, subleases, right-of-way grants and the claims of longtime users.

The USFS leases the highway corridor to the city of Colorado Springs, which has operated the highway since the 1940s. The city erected the present jerry-built Summit House in 1965, several years after a previous structure had burned down. The building rests on a site acquired by the Cog Railway in the 19th century through an act of Congress. The building is currently leased to Aramark, which pays the city a seven-figure annual sum for exclusive access to the summit market. And since the summit is an officially designated National Historic Landmark, the Department of the Interior has some say as well.

Besides the Summit House and its ancillary buildings (including an attached sewage plant), there are two corrugated steel structures on the summit plain. One contains the U.S. Army’s rarely used high altitude research facility, while the other contains communications equipment used by Colorado Springs Utilities, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency.

In a sane universe, we’d erect a building worthy of America’s Mountain, an understated architectural masterpiece.

Funded principally by the unspent balance of a 1998 congressional earmark (thanks, Rep. Joel Hefley, wherever you are now), city officials have begun to bring the players together. A recent summit meeting included power players from the city, USFS and the Army. According to a senior city official, everyone there supported clearing the summit plain and housing all existing functions in a single structure.

That’s a significant step, which may clear the way to plan and design the new Summit House.

But it’s important that this grand venture not be swallowed up by bureaucratic inertia. Given that the planning process will involve three cabinet departments (Defense, Agriculture, Interior), two local governments, Cog Railway owner Philip Anschutz, multiple user groups and everyone in America who cares about the mountain, it’ll be easy to choose a plain vanilla structure that will neither inspire nor offend.

As suggested here before, the city should announce an international design contest. Encourage out-of-town architects to partner with Colorado Springs firms, empanel a jury to select three finalists, and ask each to make public presentations. Reconvene the jury, choose the winner and get on with it.

Such a process might give us a building as iconic as John Gaw Meem’s 1936 Fine Arts Center, or as sensitively rendered as David Tryba’s 2007 addition to Meem’s classic structure. We can hope for a masterpiece, but let’s not settle for the kind of building that has too often defined our city — one that aims for mediocrity and achieves it.

The mountain deserves better. nCSBJ

One Response to Hazlehurst: Summit House plans move ahead; what’s next?

  1. Look up the Snowdon Summit House in N.Wales. Just like Pikes Peak this building acts as a visitor center and train station, was rebuilt in 2009, but is a fantasic building using local materials to both merge with its suroundings and be an impressive and inspiring building.

    http://www.e-architect.co.uk/wales/snowdon-summit-visitor-centre

    Doug B
    June 18, 2014 at 9:16 am