Welcome back to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum

Welcome back! As announced last week, today’s tour will afford further glimpses of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, located in the historic El Paso County Courthouse. As it reopened on July 9, 2020 after being closed for over 3 months, you don’t have to limit yourself to a virtual visit (but please wear your mask and keep a safe distance from other visitors).

Once you walk up the front steps and through the front door into the lobby of the 2nd floor, you will behold one of the most arresting pieces of equipment inside the building—the 1917 Bird Cage elevator, fashioned by the same Otis Company still in the elevator business today. The interval between the courthouse’s opening in 1903 and the elevator’s installation was presumably due to a lack of funds.

Unless you suffer from claustrophobia and/or agoraphobia, let’s ride the now-automated contraption (it used to have an operator in the early days) to the third floor with its Division I Courtroom, restored to its original splendor. If you paid attention last week, you might have picked up on my description of “the seemingly central clock tower.” It was actually offset 8 feet to the west to allow this courtroom to be built large enough for its needs, but the asymmetry is discernible only from the outside.

Today I will focus on our museum’s “permanent” exhibits (whose lifetime is about 10 years). It is impossible to do them justice with a few photos and words, but I will try my best without overwhelming you with too much information (my apologies if you have already fallen asleep 😊). One of the reasons I enjoy volunteering here is the fact that our museum director, curator, and staff are committed to providing an honest view of the history of Colorado Springs and the region, while questioning long-held notions about “Manifest Destiny” and the settlement of the American West. The displays are inclusive and avoid the one-sided point-of-view that has proven so divisive and destructive for our society.

In The Story of Us, each letter of the alphabet commemorates a significant person, place, or event in Colorado Springs, from A for Antlers Hotel, one of the most famous and enduring guest accommodations (the other is the Broadmoor) , to Z for Zoo Park, the first zoo. S celebrates local Sankofa culture as shown in the diorama.

Cultural Crossroads honors the rich legacy of Indigenous peoples. The Front Range of the Rocky Mountains represented not only a geologic intersection between the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, but a cultural one as well, where the Utes (known as The Mountain People) interacted with numerous Plains Tribes, among them Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa. Objects here represent more than 30 different tribes.

A Home of One’s Own pays tribute to author and American Indian activist, Helen Hunt Jackson, whose life and achievements I have described in a previous post. Visitors tend to be fascinated when they learn that the structure visible in the background represents a portion of Helen’s actual residence, not a replica. It was dis- and re-assembled not once, but twice, as it was also showcased in the museum’s previous home.

Any Place That is North and West (also the title of a Langston Hughes poem that makes me tearful each time I recite it) tells the inspiring stories of African-Americans who came to Colorado during the Great Migration, in which millions of Blacks left the Jim Crowe South to find freedom and opportunity for themselves and their loved ones. Fannie Mae Duncan, founder and operator of Colorado Springs’ own Cotton Club, was the focus of an essay I wrote in honor of Black History Month earlier this year.

From Paris to the Plains retraces famed potter Arthur Van Briggle’s journey. A gifted artist from Ohio whose talent was fertilized by a sojourn in Paris (whose isn’t?), he came to Colorado Springs seeking a cure for his tuberculosis—in vain. He died at the age of 35, but not before having recreated a matte glaze dating back to the Ming dynasty which became all the rage. His accomplishments would have been impossible without the tireless support of his wife and fellow artist, Anne, who continued to create Van Briggle pottery after his death. His death mask and their intertwined hands on a vase of their making are among the most affecting artifacts.

Last but not least, the remarkable life of General William Jackson Palmer—Quaker, abolitionist, volunteer Union soldier in the Civil War, railroad builder, founder of Colorado Springs in 1871, and generous benefactor—is explored in Evidence, which opened in 2019 as the first of three new displays designed to celebrate our city’s approaching sesquicentennial. A new Cultural Crossroads exhibit scheduled to open this year was postponed until autumn 2021, and Colorado Springs@150 will open in January 2021.

If you live nearby and have never, or not for a long time, visited the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, or if you are traveling through the Pikes Peak region, please drop in. Something interesting and stimulating is certain to await you, so come and come often, especially since the museum is free (donations are gratefully accepted). For further information, follow the link to the museum’s website: https://www.cspm.org/

Welcome to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum

West side of the building with entrance, July 2020.

Welcome to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. Allow me to introduce to you one of my favorite home-grown institutions, where I have happily served as a volunteer docent for over five years.

Our local history museum is located in the former El Paso County courthouse. The building was commissioned in 1899 and completed in 1903, then served as the county courthouse until the early 1970s. It was clearly built to last, but very nearly fell victim to urban renewal during the 1960s and -70s. If it weren’t for a group of engaged (and enraged) citizens, this gem would have been reduced to rubble, like other iconic downtown Colorado Springs structures.

The museum relocated from its previous, far smaller quarters into these more spacious surroundings, and reopened its doors in 1979. The building not only houses myriad fascinating artifacts, but represents the most elaborate showpiece of the entire collection. Though few people today fail to be impressed by its commanding presence, it has not always enjoyed favorable sentiments. Rather, it was embroiled in a series of controversies from the start.

Southeast corner with surrounding Alamo Square Park, June 2017.

Similar angle in February 2018. What a difference 8 months can make!

Situated in the middle of Alamo Square Park, the site was originally known as South Park and was the counterpoint to North Park (present-day Acacia Park) several city blocks north. Against the wishes of many lawyers, who would have preferred their future work place nearer their elegant homes in what is now called The Old North End neighborhood, the more southern location was chosen. Local residents protested the felling of trees from South Park, which had been painstakingly planted and raised. And, to add fuel to the fire, the appointment of the architect, Augustus J. Smith, with his what some considered an inadequate résumé, ruffled feathers among the architectural establishment, who were aghast that an outsider would get credit for what promised to be a prestigious project. But no gnashing of teeth or maligning resulted in the reversal of the county commissioners’ choice, and Augustus immortalized himself by erecting the 9th incarnation of the El Paso County courthouse in the then-popular Italian Renaissance Revival style, modeled after imposing Renaissance residences in Italy.

Characterized by flat or low-pitched roofs, wide eaves, central cupolas, vertical and arched windows, the design of the courthouse also pays homage to Greek antiquity by incorporating, in order of increasing complexity, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns. This classification is based on the elaborateness of the columns’ capitals (or crowns), not the shafts. While the building base is solid and square and adorned with sturdy Doric columns, the architecture becomes more detailed and elaborate before culminating in Corinthian columns in the seemingly central clock tower. Not unlike a wedding cake, to which it has been compared, its most eye-catching features adorn the top.

To honor its rootedness in the American West, the edifice incorporates Manitou Springs green sandstone in its foundation, and Platte Canyon granite and lava rock in its walls, materials all quarried in Colorado. The ornate if not slightly ostentatious enterprise came at a cost, but $420,000 seemed an appropriate price to pay for the then 30-year-old community of Colorado Springs. By the turn of the 20th century, not only did it enjoy a growing reputation as a health resort for sufferers of tuberculosis, it also benefitted from the river of gold flowing down the slopes of Pikes Peak, where the precious metal had been discovered in 1891.

View from the northwest corner with reflection in the adjacent building, July 2019.

In case you are surprised at the opulence you see before you, a recent article in our newspaper suggested that of all the historic courthouses in Colorado’s 64 counties, our local El Paso County example is by no means the most lavish or luxurious (though it might afford the most stupendous view).

April 2016. Westard view from the clock tower, showing the Front Range with Pikes Peak in the distance, and in the foreground, the 10th El Paso County courthouse, successor to its much more attractive antecedent.

If you enjoyed today’s tour, which highlighted some of the building’s history and exterior, I hope you will join me again one week hence, when I will give you a glimpse of the museum’s interior treasures.

History in our Midst

Imagine living in this octagonal hut for months, if not years at a time, with only a bed, a nightstand, a closet, a washbasin, and a desk. If you were lucky, you might have had electricity and a small stove, but this was not guaranteed. If you had been among those seeking a cure for tuberculosis in the Pikes Peak region in the late 19th or early 20th century, this type of domicile might have been your home away from home.

Stell Dir vor, in dieser achteckigen Hütte, die nur mit einem Bett, einem Nachttisch, einem Kleiderschrank, einem Waschlavoir sowie einem Schreibtisch ausgestattet war, monate-, wenn nicht jahrelang leben zu müssen. Vielleicht gab es Elektrizität und einen kleinen Ofen, doch das war nicht garantiert. Wenn Du eine(r) derjenigen gewesen wärst, die Ende des 19. oder Anfang des 20. Jahrhunderts in der Pikes Peak Region nach Heilung für ihre Tuberkulose suchten, wäre diese Art Domizil Deine zweite Heimat gewesen.

Entrance to Rock Ledge Ranch (adjacent to Garden of the Gods)/Eingang zur Rock Ledge Ranch

These structures were frequent sights in our region when it served as a major destination for sufferers of what was historically referred to as consumption, phthisis, or “White Plague,” named in contrast to the Black Death. Tuberculosis, this old scourge of humanity, had no known cause until 1882, when German bacteriologist Robert Koch proved that it was caused by an infection with Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Even after the disease could be attributed to a specific germ, no targeted treatment existed until antibiotics became commercially available in the 1940s. This dilemma spawned multiple popular therapies, among them the climate cure. Travel or a move to a healthier climate was deemed beneficial for the afflicted, especially in combination with good nutrition and plenty of rest. After the founding of Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs in the early 1870s, local boosters were quick in advertising our climate as therapeutic to invalids “chasing the cure,” in the jargon of the time. Our dry air, high altitude, and more than three hundred days of sunshine were major selling points and attracted countless number of tuberculars, consumptives, lungers or chasers, as they were known.

Diese Gebäude waren oft in unserer Region anzutreffen, als sie ein Hauptreisziel derer war, die unter der Krankheit litten, die lange als Schwindsucht, Phthisis oder weiße Pest bekannt war (im Unterschied zum schwarzen Tod). Die Ursache dieser alten Geißel der Menschheit war unbekannt, bis der deutsche Bakteriologe Robert Koch 1882 bewieß, daß eine Infektion mit „Mycobacterium tuberculosis” für Tuberkulose verantwortlich war.

Doch selbst, nachdem die Krankheit einem spezifischen Erreger zugewiesen werden konnte, existierte keine gezielte Behandlung, bis Antibiotika in den 1940er Jahren kommerziell auf den Markt kamen. Dieses Dilemma resultierte in allerlei volkstümlichen Therapien, unter anderem der Klimakur. Man ging davon aus, daß eine Reise oder ein Umzug in ein gesünderes Klima für die Betroffenen nutzbringend war, besonders in Kombination mit reichhaltiger Nahrung und körperlicher Schonung. Nach der Gründung von Colorado Springs und Manitou Springs Anfang der 1870er Jahre machten beide Orte Reklame, und priesen unser Klima als therapeutisch für alle diejenigen an, die nach Heilung strebten. Unsere trockene Luft, hohe Lage und mehr als 300 Sonnentage pro Jahr waren wichtige Werbeargumente, und lockten zahllose Tuberkulöse, Schwindsüchtige oder sonstige Lungenkranke an.

Twin TB Huts along Manitou Avenue in Manitou Springs/Zwillingshütten in Manitou Springs

Tuberculosis sanatoria became widespread in the shadow of Pikes Peak and most of them had free-standing tuberculosis huts on their property. These huts’ architecture was conceived by one of the local pioneer physicians, Dr. Charles Fox Gardiner, and was inspired by the form and function of American Indian teepees. Originally built of canvas, they were called Gardiner sanatory tents, until more permanent wooden models became en vogue. Their design exposed the sick to as much air as possible by circulating it constantly. It entered through open spaces around the floor and escaped through a vent in the roof.

Tuberkulosesanatorien waren im Schatten von Pikes Peak weitverbreitet und die meisten hatten freistehende Tuberkulose Hütten. Deren Architektur wurde von einem der frühen Ärzte entworfen. Dr. Charles Fox Gardiner war von der Form und Funktion der indianischen Tipis inspiriert worden. Die ursprünglichen Konstruktionen bestanden aus Segeltuch und hießen Gardiner-Zelte, bis stabilere Holzmodelle in Mode kamen. Ihr Design setzte die Kranken so viel frischer Luft wie möglich aus, indem sie sie zirkulierte. Sie drang durch Öffnungen oberhalb des Bodens ein, und entwich durch einen Schlot im Dach.

Interior of TB hut at the former Woodmen of America Sanatorium/Inneres einer ehemaligen TB-Hütte

Several surviving specimens stand scattered throughout the region and if you live in, or have visited Colorado Springs, chances are that you, too, have come across one of them—perhaps at the Pioneers Museum, at Penrose Hospital, in some Old North End Neighborhood backyard, in Manitou Springs, or at Mount St. Francis on West Woodmen Avenue (the former Woodmen of America Sanatorium, where I took the uppermost photo). A few cabins display the interior décor as it might have appeared during their heyday, but many more have been repurposed into garden sheds, gift shops, museums, or entrance booths. Others are simply fading away, being gnawed on by the tooth of time. But all serve as reminders of an important chapter in the annals of Colorado Springs which defined the first seven decades of the city’s life.

Einige erhaltene Exemplare sind noch in der Gegend verstreut, und wenn Du in Colorado Springs lebst oder die Stadt schon mal besucht hast, ist es gut möglich, daß Du auf eins gestoßen bist—vielleicht im Pioneers Museum, am Penrose Krankenhaus, in einem der älteren Stadtviertel, in Manitou Springs oder auf dem Gelände von St. Francis (einem ehemaligen Sanatorium, wo das oberste Photo herstammt). Einige der Hütten demonstrieren die ursprüngliche Innenausstattung, doch die meisten wurden umfunktioniert, und dienen heute als Gartenhäuschen, Geschenkeläden, Museen oder Eintrittskabinen. Andere schwinden dahin, angenagt vom Zahn der Zeit. Aber alle dienen der Erinnerung an ein wichtiges Kapitel in den Annalen von Colorado Springs, das die ersten sieben Jahrzehnte der Stadt bestimmte.

Everybody Welcome

In honor of Black History Month, allow me to introduce you to a remarkable woman who once called Colorado Springs home. On October 26, 2019 our city welcomed a new sculpture in front of the Pikes Peak Center for the Performing Arts. The life-size figure depicts Fannie Mae Duncan (1918-2005) in her mid-30s, elegantly-attired, enthusiastic, and with her right arm extended in a greeting gesture, epitomizing the motto that became her credo, EVERYBODY WELCOME. Plans to create the first local statue in honor of an African-American woman were forged soon after Fannie Mae’s death, but it took nearly a decade-and-a-half of private fundraising for those plans to be made flesh—or bronze. The well-attended dedication ceremony was the latest in a series of belated tributes to a woman who modeled a peaceful way to racial integration.

Everybody Welcome also became the theme of a play, a book, and a PBS television documentary, thanks to the efforts of retired teacher, Kathleen F. Esmiol. She and a group of her students contacted Mrs. Duncan to ask for permission to portray her in a play, which was performed in Colorado Springs and Denver on a number of occasions between 1993 and 1994. The ensuing friendship between the two women led to the 2013 publication of Everybody Welcome, A Memoir of Fannie Mae Duncan and the Cotton Club. Written by Ms. Esmiol, it recounts Fannie Mae Duncan’s life in her own words, and is a poignant and profound portrait of a woman whose ideals we are still striving to achieve today. If it were not for urban renewal, a short walk from Fannie Mae’s statue would lead to the legendary establishment that became synonymous with her—Colorado Springs’ very own Cotton Club.

To retrace Fannie Mae’s life from her roots in the deep South to her blossoming in Colorado Springs is to re-live the struggles of many an African-American family. Her parents were children of enslaved parents and labored as tenant farmers in Alabama, until the family moved to Oklahoma to escape a case of blatant racism. Fannie Mae Bragg was the first of seven siblings born outside of Alabama. After the death of her father, the family eventually relocated to Colorado Springs, where Fannie Mae became the first member of her family to graduate from high school in 1939. She had to forego her dream of attending nursing school because of a lack of funds, working instead as a maid for various employers. She married Ed Duncan, the older brother of a classmate, who worked as chauffeur.

The entry of the United States into the second World War after the attack on Pearl Harbor changed not only Colorado Springs’ fortunes, but also the Duncans’. Camp Carson was founded in 1942 (to be renamed Fort Carson in 1957), and Fannie Mae learned about an open position as a soda fountain operator at the segregated Haven Club. In 1944, she persuaded Ed to help her run a café and snack bar at the newly opened USO club for black servicemen in downtown Colorado Springs. He was an excellent cook and handyman, she knew how to deal with customers and money. The café was an instant success, providing a steady income for the Duncans, as it was one of the few eateries that served blacks, and attracted both downtown workers for a quick bite, as well as local families and travelers.

Fannie Mae dreamed about not only renting, but owning their own business. When the opportunity presented itself that same year to buy a former restaurant, she pleaded with Ed to jump at it. They borrowed money from one of his former employers, a wealthy widow, in order to make the requisite down payment. Duncan’s Café and Bar opened in November 1947, becoming instantly popular. Soon thereafter, Fannie Mae and Ed also opened Duncan’s Lounge on the second floor above the café.

Fannie Mae and Ed regularly journeyed to the Rossonian nightclub in Denver’s Five Point neighborhood to listen to famous jazz performers, which sparked the desire to open their very own. Fannie Mae knew she wanted a grand name, and what could be grander than Cotton Club, in honor of Harlem’s famous but defunct musical venue. She ordered a 20 foot-tall, flamingo pink Cotton Club sign, and was tickled by the notion that it could be seen by all passing cars from the highway that would became I-25.

The Cotton Club was a hit from the moment it opened its doors. Unlike Harlem’s namesake, which featured black performers for white patrons, the Duncans wanted to provide a home not only for black artists, but also for their fellow black citizens, whose social opportunities continued to be limited. Neither the Antlers nor the Broadmoor Hotel allowed black performers or guests. Because many of their patrons were in the military, and had returned home after World War II with foreign-born wives, the Duncans expected a multi-ethnic crowd, and wanted to make them feel welcome. Fannie Mae hired 15 waitresses from various racial backgrounds.

By coordinating engagements with the Rossonian, she was able to book their high-level performers for the Cotton Club also. The Who’s Who of American Jazz performed in Colorado Springs, among them luminaries like Fats Domino, B.B. King, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and Etta James. It did not take long for white music lovers to show up at the club, and for other local businesses to complain about her channeling white customers away from their establishments, which led to her invitation to the local police chief who told her she “couldn’t mix races,” and to “run it black.” She famously countered with: “I check them for age. Nobody told me I had to check them for color.” He soon changed his mind, likely because of the protests by her white, influential clientele.

Fannie Mae has often been described as a community activist, but my impression is that she did not set out to be a revolutionary. She simply applied the golden rule and treated others the way she wished to be treated, regardless of skin color. While it might not have been the Duncans’ initial intent to make a political statement, the Cotton Club became the first fully integrated enterprise in Colorado Springs. Ed hand-lettered a sign, and Fannie Mae put it into the window: EVERYBODY WELCOME reflected not only the slogan of the Cotton Club, but Fannie Mae’s philosophy of life.

Black performers, regardless of their national or international fame, were still not welcome to rest their heads on pillows in Colorado Springs hotels. It profoundly perturbed Fannie Mae that her musicians had to return to Denver for accommodations. To remedy this shortcoming, in 1952 she bought one of her favorite downtown houses, saving it from demolition. The 1891, 42-room Victorian Mansion was then conveyed to her property in three parts. The Duncans were able to welcome their performers with comfortable lodgings and with home-cooked, Southern-style meals, courtesy of Fannie Mae’s mother. Sadly, Ed died in 1955 due to complications from alcoholism, which might have been triggered by the death of their only child during delivery. He left Fannie Mae a widow at 36.

It seems an inevitable fact of “civilized” society that jealous, evil tongues start wagging at the success of fellow humans. Fannie Mae’s preference for flamboyant outfits, flashy Cadillacs, and Victorian mansions likely did not help, nor did the degeneration of downtown Colorado Springs, with increased levels of crime in the 1960s and 70s. The city decided to sacrifice her Cotton Club to urban renewal and applied eminent domain, and Fannie Mae’s baby fell prey to the wrecking ball in 1975.

She moved away from Colorado for a while, but returned to live in Denver, where Kathleen Esmiol found her and set into motion the events that culminated in the beautiful statue of Fannie Mae Duncan. Fannie Mae died in Denver in 2005 at age 87, not knowing of all the honors that would be bestowed upon her posthumously. One hopes that she had overcome her misgivings about Colorado Springs, where she was laid to rest at Evergreen Cemetery, next to her husband. In death, she remains surrounded by her mother and several other family members.

The mural of Fannie Mae and her Cotton Club shown in the topmost photo graces a wall at 2438 E. Platte Avenue in Colorado Springs. It was dedicated by the Knobhill Urban Arts District Planning Committee on July 5, 2019.

Bitte verzeiht mir, daß es wegen der Länge dieses Beitrags heute keine deutsche Übersetzung gibt.