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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. 

Gen. William J. Palmer may have founded Colorado Springs, but Scottish architect Thomas MacLaren designed many of the city’s most important and historic buildings.

The Scotland-born architect moved to Denver briefly to recover from tuberculosis but spent most of the rest of his life in Colorado Springs, where he designed more than 200 buildings (a partial list is available at History Colorado). His projects ranged from the first building of Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the downtown area in 1894 to the Colorado Springs Psychopathic Hospital, now called Cedar Springs Hospital, south of the downtown area in 1924.

“He made a huge contribution to the architecture of Colorado Springs. He did so many historic public buildings, residential properties and many other structures,” said Sheva Willoughby, architect and project manager for the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and treasurer of the American Institute of Architects Colorado chapter. “You can see with different styles and building types he was able to respond to his client’s need and keep his own style. 

Willoughby credits MacLaren for helping to get her start in architecture — she received her master’s degree in architecture from the University of Colorado College of Architecture and Planning in Denver. MacLaren left much of his estate, $75,000, after his death in 1928 (valued at nearly $1.2 million today), to the university to endow an architecture school, though the school wasn’t started until the 1960s.

MacClaren’s work spans everything from the Colorado Springs City Hall and City Auditorium, many schools, the Cragmor and Modern Woodmen of America sanatoriums (now Main Hall at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the Mount St. Francis complex, respectively), the Petite Trianon building at the Colorado Springs School, the Orchard House at Rockledge Ranch, carriage houses at Glen Eyrie and the Penrose House, the Pauline Memorial Chapel near The Broadmoor and many others.

Join Gazette business writer Wayne Heilman, senior project manager for HNTB Corporation, Jim Childs, and Cheyenne Zoo Architect Sheva Whilloughby for a round table discussion on the contributions of Thomas Maclaren.

“MacLaren was an artist. He turned many building types into the cityscape we enjoy today. He brought art to what we as architects do,” said James Childs, an architect and senior project manager for Kansas City, Mo., engineering and architecture firm HNTB. “He in so many ways optimizes what architects are — they are providing a service to the community with public buildings and many other structures. The variety of building types he designed — churches, schools, public buildings, the Patty Jewett (Golf Course) Clubhouse and so many others — is amazing.”

Childs, an AIA Colorado board member, has worked as an architect on restorations, replacements and planning on several MacLaren-designed buildings, including the Colorado Springs School, the Penrose House and The Broadmoor Golf Club and Spa, which replaced the MacLaren-designed Broadmoor Casino that housed the golf club for decades. He is now working on a $1.5 billion project to expand the A and B concourses at Denver International Airport.

The two architects participated in a roundtable discussion of McLaren’s legacy organized by The Gazette and hosted at El Pomar Foundation’s Penrose House. The 20-acre estate near The Broadmoor was built on a former apple orchard (El Pomar means the orchard in Spanish) and was acquired by Spencer and Julie Penrose six years later; MacLaren designed the estate’s carriage house and several other structures.

MacLaren was born the last of 11 children of a Scottish farmer in 1863 and followed his brother, James, to London for his architectural training, according to a biography on the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum website. He received several notable awards, became a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects and won scholarships to travel to several European countries to study classic architecture. He worked with his brother until James died of tuberculosis in 1890.

After contracting the same disease that killed his brother, he went to Switzerland and later to Denver to recover, and settled in Colorado Springs in 1894. When he arrived, he found the city “only 30 years a settled country” where “no active native Coloradan” architectural style existed, according to the museum’s biography. The lack of an established style allowed MacLaren to adapt and experiment with his designs to develop what the museum historian Barry Binder called in the biography “an eclectic mix of architectural styles.”

Willoughby said MacLaren’s buildings have “an understated beauty that gave Colorado Springs its own style. He did a good job of making his buildings fit into the natural landscape — they don’t disappear (into the landscape) but have a beauty on their own and they fit with where they are sited.” She said MacLaren designed many of his buildings in “the Gothic or Revivalist styles — he was taking European styles and making them fit here in this environment, making tweaks that made it local architecture.”

MacLaren’s early work included the Grace and St. Stephen’s church and the Everhart Building (now called the Saks Building), both in downtown Colorado Springs. At the beginning of the 20th century, he designed Steele Elementary School and City Hall. He was hired in 1906 to design a home for Charles and Virginia Baldwin on a site near The Broadmoor as a replica of the Grand Trianon in Versailles, including a trip to France to study the building. The home now houses the administrative offices and middle school of the Colorado Springs School. MacLaren wasn’t “particularly fond of the project, since it was simply a copy of another design,” the museum biography said.

Childs said MacLaren’s designs for City Hall, Ivywild School and other public facilities “provide an air of dignity about the facility that is perceived as having more importance.” He said MacLaren had to “create a design solution for the project at hand. He didn’t have one style that had to fit with the (client’s) commission. He had a sense of style that is in the eye of the beholder. He seemed to have an eye to create art and a solution that was based on the challenge given to him.”

Despite his reputation, MacLaren wasn’t selected for three of the four most important local architecture commissions of his lifetime — the second Antlers Hotel (replaced in the 1960s) in 1901, the El Paso County Courthouse (now the Pioneers Museum) in 1903 and The Broadmoor in 1918. He also designed churches in Boulder, Cañon City, La Junta and Pueblo, libraries in Boulder, Manitou Springs and Salida, and schools in Denver, Durango, Manitou Springs and Monument.

“It would be interesting to know what he was asked to do with each commission. Was he given a list or allowed to create his own solution,” Childs said. Based on MacLaren’s reputation, “he was probably given more free rein as an architect and master builder. I assume he was given a lot more freedom that many other architects, and he excelled at it. He was quite prolific” during his long career in Colorado.

Childs and Willoughby said Cragmor Sanatorium is a good example of how MacLaren combined his client’s wishes — a southwestern design, the requirements of the its medical use needing outdoor sleeping porches and open-air rooms — and incorporating his own design and style. A biography in the Directory of Scottish Architects said MacLaren’s “personal experience of tuberculosis caused him to take a particular interest in hospital design.”

MacLaren never married or had a family and lived in the El Paso Club for most of the 34 years he was in Colorado Springs. He liked to smoke cigars, despite his earlier bout with tuberculosis. He died in 1928 at age 65 in Glockner Hospital (now Penrose Hospital) from complications following surgery for stomach ulcers and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery. His drawings were donated to the University of Colorado.

A kindergarten through 12th grade charter school in southeast Colorado Springs focused on liberal arts was named for MacLaren in 2008 because the founders wanted the name to be “someone who models the values in our mission: goodness, truth and beauty. So we were really excited to discover Thomas MacLaren, a classically trained architect. We realized that an architect was perfect for a liberal arts school because it’s a field that brings together mathematics, the sciences, the arts and a deep commitment to the beautiful,” said Mary Faith Hall, executive director of the Thomas MacLaren School.

About 80 of MacLaren’s buildings in Colorado remain standing, mostly in Colorado Springs — 12 are on the National Register of Historic Places and three are on a similar state register. Some, like South Junior High School and original St. Mary’s High School, have been demolished. South became the site of the Police Operations Center on the south end of the downtown area and St. Mary’s was replaced by a parking lot for St. Mary’s Cathedral on downtown’s western edge.

Two of MacLaren’s most significant buildings, the City Auditorium and West Middle School, are in disrepair, need millions of dollars in maintenance, and as a result, face significant changes. A nonprofit that wants to turn the auditorium into a local arts facility under a nearly $60 million plan, while Colorado Springs School District 11 proposes an extensive renovation and rebuilding of West if the district’s voters approve a bond issue in the Nov. 2 election to upgrade many of the district’s aging schools.

“My hope is that these buildings will still be in use 50-100 years from now. Hopefully they will be more sustainable. It makes sense to reuse what we already have, even if the use changes,” Willoughby said. “I love old buildings, but no one may want to take on the risk and responsibility” of renovating them, since in some cases the cost of renovation can greatly exceed the cost of demolition and building a new structure, she said.

The Community Cultural Collective, a newly formed nonprofit headed by Colorado Springs Conservatory CEO Linda Weise, has proposed taking over ownership of the nearly 100-year-old City Auditorium and turning it into a hub for the arts, culture and education. The plan calls for nearly tripling the square footage of the building, making room for a restaurant, a speakeasy-style bar, rehearsal space, offices for nonprofits and renovated performance venues, among other additions.

Devra Ashby, District 11’s chief communications officer, said West needs more than $19 million in repairs and a task force that studied the district’s $700 million maintenance backlog identified the school as a candidate to be razed and rebuilt. However, conversations with the Organization of Westside Neighbors, the Historic Preservation Alliance of Colorado Springs and other groups convinced district officials to “maintain the architectural integrity of the building.”

District 11’s plan would retain much of what MacLaren designed but demolish or renovate some later additions as part of a nearly $35 million project. The district’s Board of Education likely will put the bond issue on the ballot in late August or early September and if approved, the district would have public meetings on the plan, then begin planning and design early next year with construction starting in early 2023 and completion scheduled in early 2024, Ashby said.

The project “is a balance between maintaining the architectural integrity of the building, being cost-efficient for the taxpayers and providing the most up-to-date and safe learning environment for our students,” Ashby said.

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. 

Contact Wayne Heilman 636-0234

This content was originally published here.