As the History Colorado Center celebrates its tenth birthday, we look back on its many homes.
When you’ve lived in a place for a long time, you tend to see buildings as what they are, but also as what they were before. And you see the spaces in between. That time-traveling perspective is particularly apt when we stroll up to the glass doors of 1200 Broadway, the current home of the History Colorado Center. As cars, scooters, trucks, and buses stream south on Broadway, it might be hard to imagine other places that housed the state’s historical society over the years. Or, how after a decade in its new home, the History Colorado Center continues to evolve.
This, of course, isn’t the state historical society’s first home. The Colorado State Historical and Natural History Society was established in 1879, when Colorado Representative William D. Todd introduced House Bill 134 with an appropriation of $500. Governor Frederick W. Pitkin and the state legislature approved this measure to collect and preserve the human and natural history of Colorado.
It wasn’t until 1881 that the society managed to set up shop in its first home in a room of the Glenarm Hotel at Fifteenth Street and Glenarm Place. Although then serving as the state office building, the hotel also continued to house a bar and billiard room on the first floor. That arrangement lasted until 1885, when the museum moved into the new, more dignified Arapahoe County Courthouse on the block between Fifteenth and Sixteenth streets and Tremont and Court places.
A year later, the society moved to the new Denver Chamber of Commerce Building at Fourteenth and Lawrence streets. There it shared the fourth floor with the Mercantile Library, a predecessor of the Denver Public Library. Librarian Charles R. Dudley also served as secretary of the society’s museum, with which he was not impressed: The museum’s collection, he complained, “became a nuisance, as the generously inclined gave liberally of the things for which they had no use…you could find almost anything from a New England meeting house foot stove to a Fiji Islander’s head rest.”
Dudley no doubt rejoiced when, in 1895, the State Historical and Natural History Society moved into eight rooms in the basement of the partially completed State Capitol Building. The capitol basement soon filled up with artifacts and the office of the museum’s first paid employee, curator Will C. Ferril. Its holdings included the 1,200-item Wetherill Collection, the most extensive collection of artifacts ever gathered from Mesa Verde. Other treasures on display ranged from Zebulon Pike’s sword to the Clark Gruber Mint machinery, as well as the Samuel B. Morgan Collection of books on Colorado.
As the collections expanded, growing tensions rankled those interested in historical collections and those favoring natural history. A separate Colorado Museum of Natural History (now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science) was formed in 1900, and it moved to its own neoclassical building overlooking City Park in 1908. The separation was not entirely amicable; not until 1927 did the Historical Society turn over all of its natural history artifacts and documents.
To keep up with the natural historians, the renamed State Historical Society of Colorado began planning its own Colorado State Museum. In 1909, Colorado history supporters pushing for an equally grand building cheered Governor John Franklin Shafroth when he persuaded the legislature to approve $100,000 for the Colorado State Museum. The legislature approved an additional $10,000 to purchase the site just across East Fourteenth Avenue from the State Capitol. This key location in Denver’s new Civic Center testified to the prominence and importance of the museum.
Colorado’s leading architect, Frank E. Edbrooke, designed the museum building as a neoclassical palace with Greek Revival detail. It faces and complements the State Capitol, another Edbrooke design. Both buildings use the same gray granite from the Aberdeen Quarry near Gunnison as their base. For the museum, Colorado Yule Marble from Marble sheaths the upper three stories as well as the interior.
Built entirely of Colorado materials, the history museum and furnishings ultimately cost $542,940.52. The three-and-a-half-story museum has a flat roof and the shape of a Greek temple. Its entrance portico features four fluted marble columns with Ionic capitals. Exquisite detailing includes brass doorknobs with the state seal. The building originally had a subbasement heating plant that provided steam heat for the State Capitol and other state buildings in the area until 1940, when a new power plant was built.
Opened to the public on September 2, 1915, the building remained home to the Colorado Historical Society and its museum for the next sixty-two years. State representative William D. Todd, who had introduced the bill to create the institution many years earlier, was on hand to help celebrate and was elected the society’s fourth president.
The Colorado State Museum saw a tremendous expansion in activities under the leadership of longtime executive director and first state historian, LeRoy Hafen. From 1924 to 1954, Hafen led the State Historical Society in founding and overseeing The Colorado Magazine as well as in publishing books, guides, leaflets, bulletins, pamphlets, maps, and erecting historical markers all across the state. During the mid-1900s, the museum acquired some of its most notable collections, including 7,000 glass plate negatives of William Henry Jackson’s photographs, the Tabor collection with Horace Tabor’s gold watch fob and Elizabeth “Baby Doe” Tabor’s wedding dress, the Thomas McKee and Joseph C. Smith Native American collections, the Woodard textile collection, and the Dwight D. and Mamie Eisenhower collection.
As early as 1923, the Society had complained of inadequate space in its then eight-year-old building. By the 1960s, the Colorado State Museum was bursting at the seams. Schoolchildren crowding into the building filled it with joyous but distracting glee. An ever-growing collection had to be largely consigned to offsite storage. Exhibits filled every nook and cranny. William E. Marshall, who became executive director in 1963, made a new building his priority, but not until May 7, 1975, was ground broken at Thirteenth Avenue and Broadway. On November 5, 1977, the Colorado Heritage Center opened to the public.
Located on the south side of Civic Center in Denver, the modern museum was three times as large as the old State Museum, which offered much greater space for exhibitions, programs, and offices, but it garnered less public affection for its unlovely, clumsy shape. It served as the society’s headquarters and main museum until 2010.
Conceived as part of a modern governmental complex, the 1977 Colorado History Museum shared the block immediately southwest of the State Capitol grounds with a new Colorado Judicial Center. Rogers Nagel Langhart (RNL), one of Denver’s best-known architectural firms, designed both buildings, which shared a spacious plaza as well as innovative postmodern designs. On the north half of the block, the Judicial Center rose on two massive piers, allowing passersby to walk under the main structure and peer through a long skylight to the law library below. On the south half of the block, the museum rose at a slant from the plaza to a flat roof, with tiered terraces set in the slope at each floor, behind a flat front on its south side.
The architects planned a granite cladding for the museum exterior, but the legislature threw it out in favor of dull, gray brick, which was cheaper. The result was unfriendly and formidable, but functional. The combination of unusually shaped structures led some people to call the museum the “typewriter” and the judicial building “the box it came in.”
The museum’s first level included exhibition space and a large auditorium, while the museum’s second floor was given over entirely to the library and its substantial book, periodical, photograph, and manuscript collections. The museum’s third floor housed the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (OAHP), administrative offices, and the publications office (which later moved to the second floor). The 1977 building was demolished (without protest or much mourning) as the society prepared to move to the new, much more architecturally handsome History Colorado Center, which opened in 2012.
In 2005, the Colorado Supreme Court had proposed a new judicial building that would fill the entire block it shared with the Colorado History Museum. The Ralph L.Carr Colorado Justice Center would bring into one building all the scattered Denver-area state judicial offices. To make this happen, the historical society’s president, Edward C. Nichols, began the search for a new location for the museum. After considering various plans, the board agreed to a site a block south of the old museum, fronting Broadway.
Moving was monumental. The staff found temporary office space and the society’s millions of artifacts were packed and moved. In March 2010, the Colorado History Museum closed for good. To signify the society’s new direction, in 2008 it assumed a new name: History Colorado.
In 2010, the Colorado History Museum was demolished to make way for the Justice Center. The History Colorado Center opened to the public on April 28, 2012. Designed by Tryba Architects, it is a four-story, 200,000-square-foot, modern building made of glass and limestone. Its central feature is a four-story atrium with a terrazzo floor depicting a forty-foot-by-sixty-foot map of Colorado by artist Steven Weitzman.
The terrazzo flooring, which contains 20 percent recycled glass, is only one of the many environmentally forward-thinking design features of the History Colorado Center. The building spotlights regional materials, such as wooden surfaces made of beetle-kill pine, and promotes energy conservation by taking advantage of natural light and heat through glass walls and the skylit atrium. These features helped make the History Colorado Center the first history museum in the country to attain Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold status.
A decade later, History Colorado Center has become a familiar part of Broadway past and present. The Center houses not only a museum featuring exhibits that invite visitors to explore more than 13,000 years of human history in Colorado, but also the State Historic Preservation offices, the Stephen Hart Research Center, classrooms, meeting rooms, public meeting spaces, a publications department, a gift shop, special events facilities, and the Rendezvous Café with indoor and outdoor seating overlooking Broadway.
And today, as we stroll up to the glass doors of the History Colorado Center (or up to any of History Colorado’s community museums or historic sites around the state), we sometimes catch a glimpse in the reflection of the work that began in 1879—and the work still to come in the decades ahead.
This article has been adapted from several Colorado Encyclopedia articles by Professor Noel. He started out at History Colorado in 1970 as a volunteer at the original 1915 museum, working in the Collections and Photography Departments. He taught Colorado History for fifty years at the University of Colorado Denver, “which I could not have done without class tours and research facilities at History Colorado,” he says. Noel is the co-author or author of fifty-six books on Colorado, a former longtime columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post and appeared for years on Channel 9 as “Dr. Colorado.” For decades, Tom led many History Colorado tours and treks, sat on the board of directors, and then served as a Colorado State Historian. He welcomes your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.