Editor's note: This July, as Colorado Springs gears up for its 150th birthday on the 31st, The Gazette has prepared a series of articles on the history of our city. Check back for fascinating glimpses into the people and events that have shaped Colorado Springs into the landmark it is today.
Culture and elegance arrived as quickly as the first residents of Colorado Springs. It mattered not at all that this was a rather bleak, treeless and rugged location — the new arrivals brought with them the cultural niceties of Philadelphia, New York and London.
As early as 1872, as Brig. Gen. William Jackson Palmer and his Colorado Springs Company issued invitations for people to travel west to become part of this new city. There were already accounts of a small concert in one of the first hastily constructed buildings downtown.
Palmer's wife, Queen, was the featured singer at that first musical event.
As the gold rush days began, the mine owners and the suddenly rich planned their mansions on the Old North End Millionaire's Row. They were often generous to the arts, starting with the owners of the Robert E. Lee Mine in Leadville, B.F. Crowell, Irving Howbert and J.F. Humphrey, who were behind the quite grand Opera House at what is now 18 N. Tejon St.
The sold-out Opera House's opening night in 1881 is a priceless story in local history.
Formally attired residents heard "Camille," known in Italian as the opera "La Traviata." The problem: In this tragedy, heroine Camille dies, and many in the aghast audience had traveled to this dry, sunny climate because they or their family members were suffering from tuberculosis (consumption).
In 1912, bank president and mining millionaire James Ferguson "Jimmie" Burns, quite the flamboyant fellow, wanted to rent the Opera House for a big party. He was rejected. In retaliation he built an even more elegant opera house a block away and regularly brought in stars of Broadway, movies and opera. The Burns later became a movie theater, The Chief, since demolished.
Opera survived beyond its "Camille" inaugural, cementing an important role in the community through Colorado College and, in 1998, with the arrival of Martile Rowland from the Metropolitan Opera. She founded Opera Theatre of the Rockies and its outreach/education arm Opera Theatre Goes to School, bringing in performances to local students and teachers for several decades.
During the early years, newcomers formed clubs for the different arts. Some were as simple as the Wednesday Morning Art Club, where the women studied art and artists as they did needlework. The Colorado Springs Musical Club, started in North Cascade Avenue homes, was incorporated "to bring musicians of reputation to the West" and it did. The Colorado Springs Drama League focused only on "good" plays, and members included professors and deans from Colorado College.
Art and artists have been a focus in Colorado Springs from the beginning. The beauty of the nearby mountains, the West, the wide-open skies, the travels of early expeditions and so much more called to the greats such as Albert Bierstadt, Fritz-Hugh Ludlow, Thomas Moran, Charles Craig and 1871 newcomer resident Walter Parrish, as well as Thomas and Anne Parrish.
Art studios were in local homes and at Colorado College. A Colorado Springs Art Association was formed and, in 1913, became the Colorado Springs Art Society.
The Broadmoor Art Academy began in 1919 when Broadmoor founder Spencer Penrose and his social, art-patron wife Julie offered their mansion at 30 W. Dale St. as a center for art when they took up residence near the hotel at El Pomar. Artists had private studios in the new art center. Among them was famed photographer Laura Gilpin, renowned for her Southwestern landscapes and Native American portraits. Instructors from around the country and Europe taught at the academy. One of the most memorable was Boardman Robinson, who became head of the art center in 1930.
In a collaboration between three philanthropists — Julie Penrose; Alice Bemis Taylor, who had a private Southwestern art collection; and Elizabeth "Betty" Sage Hare — coveted Santa Fe architect John Gaw Meem was chosen to design a new building. In 1936, the Fine Arts Center opened on the original site overlooking Monument Valley Park and the mountains. The formal, invitation-only grand opening covered an entire week, headlined by straight-from-New York dancer Martha Graham, whose indescribably strange performance reportedly left the Western audience speechless.
Over the years the FAC grew with the times, adding galleries, major theatre productions, ongoing art education, exhibits such as Dale Chihuly and Georgia O'Keeffe and many special events. The building underwent a major renovation. Its 100th anniversary in 2019 was a yearlong celebration. That year the FAC entered a new partnership, becoming the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College.
A famous name in local art history was Artus Van Briggle, whose glazed art pottery in ancient Chinese tradition is treasured. Like many others, he came here in failing health, suffering tuberculosis. He had support from a Colorado College art professor with a kiln, then others who offered places to live and work. As the art world was recognizing his Art Nouveau style, he won an award in the Paris Exposition of 1900. Financially, city founder Palmer became one of Van Briggle's first shareholders. Van Briggle started his company in 1899, five years before his death. Van Briggle Pottery went through several owners and locations, finally closing in 2013.
Music was a regular part of life starting from the city's founding days, from informal recitals in homes to stage concerts, clubs and symphonies. Colorado College was a particularly strong provider, including artist-in-residence educators and performers and summer music festivals.
The Colorado Springs Philharmonic of Sesquicentennial year 2021 has a history dating back to 1927, when just 27 musicians became the Colorado Springs Symphony Ensemble.
The 1970s were especially important years for what was then the Colorado Springs Symphony, as over his 20 years here, Charles Ansbacher led the part-time orchestra into a professional, full-time symphony playing full subscription seasons. Performances went out into the community with free summer concerts in the parks and Broadmoor Pops on Ice with the Broadmoor Skating Club.
Ansbacher and symphony General Manager Bee Vradenburg are credited as the forces behind the successful drive for the downtown performing arts Pikes Peak Center.
During an economic downtown, the Colorado Springs Symphony declared bankruptcy in March 2003, after which it became the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, which canceled seasons during the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing labor negotiations.
The city has long had strong youth music education programs that today include the Colorado Springs Youth Symphony and the Childen's Chorale.
Community theater and melodrama began in early Colorado Springs and have continued throughout the 150 years. Among the best known were the Star Bar Players, with performances from 1972 to 2008. Also, the Civic Players at the Fine Arts Center.
Dance, too, has always been very important in the local arts scene, starting with that early appearance of Martha Graham. The name of Hanya Holm is the one associated with years of local dance. She taught at Colorado College starting in 1941 and had acclaimed summer dance programs there for 43 years. She was credited with bringing modern dance to this state.