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Colorado's landscape dwarfs its architecture. The eastern high plains, massive central mountains, and western canyons are dramatic settings for buildings. Even the metropolitan strip along the eastern base of the Rockies, where three-fourths of all 3.9 million Coloradans reside, is overshadowed by lofty peaks on the western horizon and fringed on the east by an immense, lonely prairie.

Colorado's 104,247 square miles make it the nation's eighth largest state. If only it could be ironed out flat, Coloradans quip, it would be bigger than Texas. Coloradans are used to a lot of elbow room in their homes, their work places, and their play places. A third of the state is federal land, much of it recreational. This spaciousness is reflected in the architecture: detached single-family housing predominates even in the poorest urban neighborhoods. Outside the cities, residential subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks sprawl as if there were no end to the land.

Coloradans have rarely recognized natural obstacles to development. They have built in the most hostile environments, where gold, silver, or other natural resources lie. Little of the landscape remains virginal. Roads scale remote and rugged mountains and penetrate isolated prairie and canyon lands. Landscapes are branded not only by roads, but also by railroads, irrigation ditches, power lines, and barbed wire.

With an average elevation of 6,800 feet, Colorado is the highest state. Its backbone, the Rocky Mountains, soars two miles high, with fifty-three peaks over 14,000 feet. The elevation contributes to a climate of extremes—heat waves and sudden cold snaps, high winds and heavy snow loads—which challenge architects. Colorado homes generally have basements which provide both winter warmth and summer coolness. Building codes specify foundations at least three feet deep to reach below the frost line. Architects are also challenged by soils, which range from sandy, melting types to expanding bentonite clay that can wreck foundations.

Dryness—the average annual precipitation is only about seventeen inches—has also influenced Colorado buildings. Much of the state is treeless, and even mountain forests do not produce high-grade hardwoods. So Coloradans have often built with sod, adobe, clay brick, and native stone: granite, limestone, marble, rhyolite, and sandstone. Colorado's expansive, high, dry, sunny environment warrants a special architecture, but Coloradans generally have borrowed styles from elsewhere that are no match for the climate or the setting. This architecture, like settlement generally, is concentrated in the four major river valleys—the South Platte, the Arkansas, the Rio Grande, and the Colorado.

Native Americans

The first builders in the river valleys were Native Americans who used the materials, contours, and colors of the earth. Exactly who these people were, and when and where they first constructed shelters in Colorado, will never be known. Archaeologists are continually finding new pieces in jigsaw-puzzle portraits of prehistoric Coloradans that will never be completed.

The Clovis culture (c. 10,500–9000 B.C.) came to light after spear points were found amid mammoth skeletons at Dent, near Greeley. During the 1930s Regis College Professor Conrad Bilgery, S.J., led a team that first excavated and reported Dent's Clovis spear points, named for similar points found in Clovis, New Mexico. Archaeologists are still debating the details and significance of the scrapers, blades, hammer stones, flake knives, choppers, and bone tools also found at Dent. Alluvial activity has greatly disturbed the site, erasing evidence of whatever shelters these prehistoric peoples may have erected.

The Folsom culture (c. 9000–c. 8000 B.C.) created the distinctive fluted spear points first found south of the Colorado border in Folsom, New Mexico. The Lindenmeier Ranch site, Colorado's most important Folsom find, was a camp and Bison antiquuskill site unearthed in 1924. At the Zapata Ranch, just south of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, archaeologist Dennis Stanford is trying to reconstruct the configuration of a large Folsom community.

The Plano culture (c. 8000–c. 5000 B.C.), named for discoveries on the plains of Texas, is evident in Colorado kill sites. At the ranch of Robert Jones, Jr., near Wray, archaeologists have found a wooden pole, possibly a religious structure similar to the medicine poles erected by historic Native American buffalo hunters. At various Colorado Plano sites, organized groups trapped and slaughtered entire herds, returning perennially to the same butchering and meat processing stations. Noted Colorado archaeologists such as Joe Ben Wheat and Marie Wormington have identified butchering stations separated from the kill sites. At the Jurgens camp, archaeologists also found tools for grinding seeds and nicotine-coated pipes. Early Native Americans were beginning to feel at home in Colorado, beginning to build long-term shelters.

Fremont People (A.D. 400–1200) painted these Carrot Man pictographs near Rangely in northwestern Colorado.

Prehistoric camps were not confined to the plains. At Caribou Lake, located at 11,000 feet near the Continental Divide, diggers found charcoal, projectile points, waste flakes, and a large knife. The location near Arapaho Pass suggests that Plano people moved from the plains across the high Rockies to upland valleys on their hunting and gathering expeditions.

Between roughly 6000 B.C. and A.D. 1, archaic Native Americans built shelters scattered across the state. During construction of the Colorado–Big Thompson water diversion system, reservoir and pipeline teams unearthed at least forty-two archaic sites in the sagebrush of Middle Park. Traces of firepits, charred rabbit bones, upright ponderosa logs, pine boughs, stone tools, and a jasper quarry led archaeologists to speculate that these people were more permanently settled than earlier hunter-gatherers. Archaeologists further suggested that these archaic Indians lived in wattle-and-daub jacals, constructed of upright pine posts interwoven with branches and plastered over with wet clay.

The Fremont people (c. A.D. 400–1200), named for sites discovered along Utah's Fremont River, left notable art and architecture in the northwestern corner of Colorado. They dug pit houses and constructed masonry homes, granaries, and fortifications. Fremont people fashioned distinctive gray pottery and some of Colorado's most celebrated rock art, which is best seen at Cañon Pintado, now a well-marked site on Colorado 139 about 12 miles south of Rangely.

While archaeologists focus on what they find at Colorado's many prehistoric sites, architectural historians may be interested in the intricate earth excavations done by the archaeologists themselves. At a few places such as the commercial Crow Canyon dig near Dolores, any and all are welcome—for a fee—to observe or to participate in excavations. These excavations are themselves earth sculptures, works of art routinely covered over and hidden.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Who does not remember the interest with which when young we looked at shelving rocks, or any approach to a cave.… The savage owns his shelter because it costs so little, while in modern civilized society not more than one half the families own a shelter.” Unfortunately, no examples of Colorado's oldest extant architecture—Native American rock shelters—have been converted to house museums, but rock shelters were the ancestors of pit houses and elaborate cliff dwellings and pueblo villages. The greatest extant Native American architectural achievements in the United States are the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in the southwestern corner of Colorado, the first park devoted to preserving the architectural ruins of a prehistoric people, the Anasazi (Navajo for “ancient ones” or “ancient enemies”). Mesa Verde was also the first World Heritage Site in the United States, so designated in 1978 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Between A.D. 1 and 1300, the Anasazi built mud and masonry habitations, first on mesa tops, then in recesses eroded into canyon walls. The cliff villages of Mesa Verde are the best known of many such dwellings scattered throughout Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. These settlements sometimes sheltered several hundred people in structures as high as four stories. The cultural and architectural achievements of the Mesa Verde builders have been compared by architectural historian Vincent J. Scully and others with those of medieval European city builders of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The novelist Willa Cather likened Mesa Verde's black-on-white pottery to that of ancient Greece. Although thousands of scholarly reports have surveyed the cliff dwellings, no one has captured their magic as vividly as Cather, in her novel The Professor's House (1925):

Far up above me, a thousand feet or so, set in a great cavern in the face of the cliff, I saw a little city of stone, asleep. It was as still as sculpture—and something like that. It all hung together, seemed to have a kind of composition: pale little houses of stone nestling close to one another, perched on top of each other, with flat roofs, narrow windows, straight walls, and in the middle of the group, a round tower. It was beautifully proportioned, that tower, swelling out to a large girth a little above the base, then growing slender again. There was something symmetrical and powerful about the swell of the masonry. The tower was the fine thing that held all the jumble of houses together and made them mean something.

Cliff Palace is the largest of the stone cities preserved in Mesa Verde National Park.

The Anasazi were cultivators of corn and other crops as well as hunters and gatherers of food. Their remarkably stable and long-lived culture rested on their building abilities. Faced with a dry climate, the Anasazi developed dams and ditches, clay vessels, and stone cisterns. Despite their water-conscious building and culture, the drought of 1275–1300 probably forced them to evacuate their cliff cities. They moved to, among other places, the Rio Grande Valley to build the pueblos still occupied by their descendants.

While the Anasazi culture is enshrined at Mesa Verde, prehistoric Plains Indians left less to inspect. Known sites include caves, rock shelters, pit houses, and earth lodges. Burial sites, sometimes containing multiple corpses and grave offerings, have been discovered in various places, including Denver's suburban subdivisions. Historic Plains Indians, such as the Arapaho and Cheyenne, often used a portable architecture of buffalo hides and pine poles. Only a few tipi rings—either functional or ceremonial—survive as stone circles near Cowdrey in Jackson County, Keota in Weld County, and Virginia Dale in Larimer County. The Utes or their predecessors constructed rectangles, circles, or semicircles made of a course or two of stone that may have been vision quest sites. Circular stone bunkers found in high places were built so Native Americans could crouch under brush and bait to catch eagles for their much-prized feathers.

Historical accounts of Native Americans were first recorded in the 1600s with the Spanish explorations of present-day Colorado. The Spanish reported settlements such as El Quartelejo along the Arkansas River, where Plains Apaches lived in villages and cultivated corn, squash, beans, melons, and sunflowers. The Apaches constructed lodges by making round and rectangular earth pits with posts holding up roofs of brush and mud. During the 1700s the Apache, along with the Comanche, began moving south out of Colorado as Cheyenne and Arapaho pushed in from the east. The Arapaho and Cheyenne occupied eastern Colorado from around 1800 until the 1860s, when they were forced onto reservations in Montana, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.

Since the 1880s only two tribes have had Colorado reservations: the Ute Mountain Utes and the Southern Utes. The Utes, who have inhabited the state for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, adapted to the extremes of Colorado climate by developing leather clothing and by using seasonal shelter: tipis for winter and open wood and brush wickiups for summer. Today the Ute Mountain Ute and the Southern Ute reservations, in the southwestern corner of Colorado, are the only refuges left for Native Americans in a state which once hosted not only the Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Comanche, but also the Kiowa, Pawnee, Shoshone, and other tribes.

Ute wickiup, photographed by John K. Hillers, with the John Wesley Powell expedition, in 1873

Hispanic Roots

Hispanics, as the mestizopeoples carrying both Spanish and Native American blood often call themselves, were the first Euro-Americans to erect structures in a state they christened. They named it for the muddy red color of its major river, the Colorado (Spanish for red, ruddy, or embarrassed). Spanish missionaries, soldiers, and adventurers explored parts of southern Colorado during the Spanish Colonial period, beginning with Don Juan de Oñate's 1598 settlement of the lower Rio Grande River valley. Two Franciscan friars, Fray Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez, made the most important expedition in 1776. They mapped Colorado for the first time, and Fray Escalante provided a full report, mentioning Anasazi ruins and the “tents,” “huts,” and “tiny dwellings” of the Utes.

Discouraged by the dry plains and canyon lands and forbidding mountains, the Spanish did not attempt to colonize the lands that now make up Colorado. Only after the Mexican Revolution of 1821 did Hispanic pioneers settle the San Luis Valley, along the upper Rio Grande. To encourage agricultural settlement, the Mexican government made five large land grants in or near the San Luis Valley. Small adobe plaza towns were established, first along the Culebra River, where San Luis (1851) claims to be the state's oldest permanent town.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which ended the Mexican-American War, promised U.S. citizenship and property rights to Mexican Americans. In spite of the treaty, much of their property passed into the hands of Anglo settlers. Frequently Anglo town founders ignored previously existing Hispanic communities. Denver, for instance, dates its origins to an 1858 gold strike by U.S. citizens rather than to an 1857 claim known as Mexican Diggings. Yankees did not think much of the indigenous Mexican communities. Francis Parkman, for example, derided Mexican “mud” buildings in his classic, The Oregon Trail (1849). Discussing El Pueblo, the 1840s nucleus of the modern city of Pueblo, Parkman, a proper Bostonian, called it “a wretched species of fort, of most primitive construction, being nothing more than a large square enclosure, surrounded by a wall of mud, miserably cracked and dilapi-dated.…”

Other Yankees expressed similar contempt for Hispanic architecture. Delta, a town in west central Colorado, built its first schoolhouse out of adobe, but the pioneers dipped each brick into red paint to make it look like a Yankee brick. Denver passed ordinances requiring that bricks be kiln-fired and measure no more than 8 1/4 by 4 1/16 by 2 1/4 inches. Such laws discouraged the use of traditional sun-dried adobe bricks, which measure roughly 12 by 3 by 6 inches. Such discrimination, intentional or not, discouraged Hispanic building traditions.

A few U.S. citizens had a higher opinion of adobe. Charles and William Bent, two St. Louis traders operating on the Santa Fe Trail, admired structures in New Mexico and used adobe to construct Bent's Old Fort on the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado. This prairie castle measured 142 by 122 feet and had adobe walls 2 feet thick and 15 feet high. As the regional trade center of the 1830s and 1840s for French, Indian, Mexican, and U.S. trappers and traders, Bent's Old Fort became a model for later structures, ranging from forts on the South Platte to The Fort, a 1960s adobe restaurant in Morrison. The National Park Service reconstructed Bent's Old Fort in 1976 and, like the Bents, used adobe and skilled Hispanic laborers.

Adobe buildings were traditionally organized around plazas, none of which survive intact in southern Colorado. Rail and auto age developments have left only adobe remnants, subjected in many cases to later alterations, ranging from gable roofs to solar panels. Many adobe walls now wear new skins of concrete, stucco, tarpaper, wood, or metal siding.

Town plaza of Garcia in the Rio Grande Valley, photographed by Russell Lee for the Farm Security Administration, 1940

After 1900 the architecture of Native Americans and Hispanics gained greater respectability. Pueblo and Mission revival, Spanish Colonial, and Territorial styles became the choice for some of the state's finest residential neighborhoods, such as the Broadmoor area in Colorado Springs and Denver's Country Club area. Indigenous southwestern architecture inspired I. M. Pei's National Center for Atmospheric Research (1966) in Boulder. It is clad in bush-hammered exposed aggregate of concrete mixed with the local reddish soil and stone to capture natural colors and textures in modern-day “mud.”

Mining-Era Architecture

A different architectural tradition arrived in Colorado beginning with the 1858–1859 gold rush. Although it is stereotyped as Anglo immigration because English-speaking, U.S.-born immigrants predominated, the westward movement was multicultural. In Colorado, German-speaking peoples were the most prevalent nineteenth-century foreign-born group, intermingled with Canadians, English, French, Irish, Scandinavians, Scots, Welsh, Chinese, and others. A few African Americans arrived with the fur trade, cattle drives, and mineral rushes, but many more came with the railroads after 1870. After 1890 southern and eastern Europeans, especially Greeks, Italians, Jews, and Slavs, became more numerous, while Mexicans comprised the largest single immigrant stream by the 1930s.

As this 1879 view of Leadville suggests, many mining towns sprang up without benefit of planning.

Most fortune seekers rushing into Colorado after the 1858–1859 gold strikes built as quickly and cheaply as possible. They used canvas, dirt, and logs from cottonwoods, the only common native tree on Colorado's eastern plains. Under broad-leaved cottonwoods, argonauts (named for Jason and the other sailors of the Argo, who sought the Golden Fleece in Greek mythology) camped, socialized, and slept. To build houses, the pioneers used cottonwood logs for walls and draped cottonwood ridgepoles with split saplings. They piled on sod to complete the roof. When rain or snow fell, muddy water might drip for days indoors, and roofs bloomed with wildflowers.

Saloons epitomized frontier-era structures. As the first and most common public buildings on the Euro-American frontier, they often housed pioneer local governments. Saloons also doubled as theaters, art galleries, and dance halls and even housed church services. Some barkeepers graduated to spiffier structures boasting the finest fixtures in towns—classical mirrored-back bars, plate glass windows, and corbeled brick fronts. This saloon hall legacy was largely erased by the Prohibition era and the tendency of preservationists to save more “respectable” buildings.

Stagecoach stops, another common pioneer building type, have fared better. Many communities have preserved their hewn log stage stops. Denver's Four Mile House and Grand County's Cozens House are particularly well-preserved museum specimens. These and other surviving stage houses typify the tendency of later residents to dress up log buildings with clapboard siding and Carpenter's Gothic trim.

Western Mining Corporation, Centennial Mine, Georgetown, by Muriel Sibell Wolle (crayon and watercolor, 12 by 15 1/2 inches) depicts one of many now-vanished mining structures captured in this prolific artist's work between the 1920s and her death in 1977.

Log and frame construction dominated early mountain mining towns. Ernest Ingersoll, an eastern journalist who enlisted with the U.S. Geological Survey party mapping Colorado in 1874, wrote in his 1882 bestseller, Knocking around the Rockies:

The miners hastily throw up little log cabins, six or eight logs high, covered with a roof of poles and dirt, and having nothing better than the hard-tramped earth for a floor. In one end is the fireplace (the chimney is outside, like that of a negro's hut in the South), and at the other end are rough bunks, where the owner stuffs in some long grass or spruce boughs or straw, and spreads his bed or blankets. These rude little cabins are packed close together up and down the sides of the gulch, so as to be as near as possible to, and yet out of the way of, the mining.… I have known of such a gulch-mining settlement [Leadville] in a single year converting an utter wilderness in the mountains, long miles away from anywhere, into a city of ten thousand, or more.

Miners transformed the landscape radically. Isabella L. Bird, an English world traveler, painted a dark but accurate picture in A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879):

Mining destroys and devastates, turning the earth inside out, making it hideous and blighting every green thing, as it usually blights man's heart and soul. There was mining everywhere … with all its destruction and devastation, its digging, burrowing, gulching and sluicing; and up all along the seemingly inaccessible heights were holes with their roofs log supported, in which solitary and patient men were selling their lives for treasure.

The Federal Mining Law of 1872, which is still in effect, regards mining as the highest and best use of public lands. If miners make certain minimal improvements they may “patent” (i.e., purchase) their claims. Mining claims, given grandfather protection even within wilderness areas, pay no royalty for their use of public lands. Giving miners a free hand has left Colorado with some unnatural wonders, such as collapsed Bartlett Mountain, with its innards oozing down Fremont Pass. Its miles of molybdenum mill waste and settling ponds for the Climax Molybdenum Mine, the largest and richest in Colorado, have buried the mining towns of Robinson and Kokomo.

Mining towns usually sprang up along creeks where someone found placer gold. Placer (surface) claims often fronted on the creek and stretched uphill in rectangles, establishing an unplanned pattern followed by mines and mills, then residences and businesses. In mining towns—and mining supply towns such as Denver—local governments struggled to stop private citizens from erecting structures in public thoroughfares. One of the first ordinances passed by “The Peoples Government of Denver” in 1861 outlawed “the occupancy of any of the streets, levees or alleys set apart for the use of the public, and also the erection of buildings in the center of Cherry Creek.… Such possession by individuals of public property is an infringement upon the rights of the community.…” This granddaddy of all Denver ordinances was the first of many laws passed to address an ongoing struggle between public and private interests over the location, size, and use of buildings.

Miners founded many Colorado towns and extracted billions in gold, silver, coal, oil, zinc, lead, molybdenum, and other minerals. If gold and silver mining camps prospered, they generally evolved from log and frame to brick and stone. Masonry construction was required in commercial cores after fires destroyed many first-generation wooden buildings. Despite the fortunes taken out of these towns, most of them are gone today. They were “git-and-git-out” towns, places to try to make a fortune and then push on. Some towns were torn done for scrap or to avoid taxes on abandoned buildings. Only traces of streets and foundations remain amid the scars of deforestation, mine tailings, and hazardous wastes. Other towns have been victims of weather, fire, or vandalism. Ghost town prowling has become a favorite hobby of Coloradans, and to avoid disappointing tourists, the U.S. Forest Service has stabilized several ghost towns such as Ashcroft and Independence in Pitkin County. Unfortunately, the Forest Service has also burned down towns to discourage squatters on public lands.

In some “ghost towns,” mining camp structures have been converted to vacation homes. Such frame dwellings helped inspire a contemporary style that architectural historian David Gebhard named “Mineshaft Modern.” Asymmetrical compositions, frequently executed in raw wood with shed roofs; strong, spare lines; and diagonal and vertical patterns characterize this style. Mineshaft Modern log homes likewise are variations on the log tradition introduced by miners.

The ghost town of Ashcroft, shown in a Farm Security Administration photograph taken in 1941 by Marion Post Wolcott. was partially reconstructed during the 1980s by the U.S. Forest Service and the Aspen Historical Society.

The Rush to Respectability

During its Native American and Hispanic eras, Colorado remained sparsely populated. The gold and silver rushes after 1858 brought tremendous growth as some 100,000 fortune seekers arrived in Colorado within a few years. A majority became disappointed “go-backs,” but enough stayed to justify establishment of Colorado Territory in 1861. After the railroads arrived in 1870 Colorado boomed, becoming the thirty-eighth state in 1876. The population jumped from 34,277 in 1860 to 412, 198 in 1890.

Frank E. Edbrooke, Colorado's leading nineteenth-century architect, was caricatured in The Rocky Mountain News, 1909, by Frank “Doc Bird” Finch.

Frank E. and Willoughby J. Edbrooke designed Denver's grandest lost landmark, the Tabor Grand Opera House, at 16th and Curtis streets.

During the flush times between 1870 and the silver crash of 1893, a fourth architectural period emerged—the rush to respectability. Coloradans exported pay dirt and imported architects, hoping to catch up with the eastern United States and Europe in matters of taste and refinement. Mining millionaires demanded elegant mansions in fashionable neighborhoods. They frequently left the crude mining towns where they made their fortunes for cities such as Denver and Colorado Springs. There, the mining kings and queens sought architectural refinements to help distinguish themselves from run-of-the-mill miners.

Vernacular mining-era structures gave way in the 1870s to Italianate and other Victorian-era styles. Frame false fronts evolved into elaborate brick facades and metal cornices. Coloradans built modish mansions and commercial blocks, lavishing money on fine masonry, fancy wood-work, and cast iron facades. The Denver Mansions Company, organized by English and Scottish investors in 1878, undertook to satisfy the need for fine homes and commercial structures in Colorado's Queen City. It constructed Denver's first fine hotel, the Windsor, and a pretentious adjacent office block, the Barclay.

Leadville's silver king, Horace A. W. Tabor, exemplified Colorado's rush to respectability. He gave that silver city its Tabor Opera House and Vendome Hotel, then moved to Denver after his 1879 election as lieutenant governor. As Tabor recalled later, “Denver was not building good buildings and I thought I would do something toward setting them a good example.” Tabor went to Chicago to interview prospective architects and selected Willoughby J. Edbrooke. Although Tabor initially balked at Edbrooke's $4,500 fee, Willoughby and his brother Frank came to Denver from Chicago in 1879 to design the Tabor Grand Opera House and the Tabor Block. Willoughby soon moved on to design buildings at the University of Notre Dame, the U.S. Government Building for the World's Colum