Constructed in 1908, Bemis Hall stands at 920 North Cascade Avenue in Colorado Springs. A three-and-a-half story dormitory building located on the Colorado College campus, Bemis Hall is historically significant as an early example of a coeducational dormitory and for its distinctive architecture. Today, Bemis Hall still serves as a Colorado College dormitory and acts as a center for on-campus life.
Bemis Hall and Coeducation
Colorado College was founded as a coeducational school in 1874 because there was not enough money to establish separate men’s and women’s colleges and not enough qualified male students to sustain the school. The college’s administrators required that out-of-state female students live on campus and restricted sororities to purely social organizations, so three women-only dormitories were built between 1891 and 1903, with a fourth following in 1908.
Colorado College’s fourth women’s dormitory was funded largely by Colorado Springs founder William Jackson Palmer and local merchant Judson Bemis, after whom the building was named. Bemis had spent much of his life in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1881 his wife had contracted tuberculosis, leading the Bemis family to relocate to Colorado Springs, where the high, dry climate alleviated the severity of her symptoms. By 1885 the Bemis family had put down roots in Colorado Springs, constructing a residence at 506 North Cascade Avenue. Bemis’s longstanding reverence for education led him to pursue developments at the nearby Colorado College.
The large Bemis Hall possessed luxury features intended to reflect Colorado College’s growing reputation as an educational institution, namely its large dining hall—capable of seating all the women who lived there—and its performing arts theater. Bemis Hall’s most noteworthy addition was its lounge, featuring a large fireplace, comfortable seating, and a view of the Women’s Quadrangle and the other three coed dormitories. Within Bemis Hall, the lounge became a center for campus social life, serving as the location for receptions, lectures, and sometimes panel discussions. Even as the campus expanded and other buildings provided the same functions, a large portion of the student body favored Bemis Hall for living, dining, and socializing.
An example of the Tudor Revival architectural style, Bemis Hall also reflects the school’s English-inspired visual style. The building was designed by Maurice B. Biscoe, a prominent Denver architect known for his knowledge of English, French, and Colonial Revival architectural styles. Bemis Hall sits 300 feet back from the street and forms the southern terminus of the “Bemis Quadrangle” along with Ticknor (1898), Montgomery (1889), and McGregor (1903) Halls.
Bemis Hall’s roof is gabled and steeply-pitched, with flaring eaves interspersed with numerous small gabled dormers. Built primarily with ignimbrite stone from Castle Rock, Bemis Hall features narrow stone courses at the lower-level window lintels, lending a strong sense of horizontality to the entire structure. The east and west wings of Bemis Hall are half-timbered, and a smaller half-timbered gable forms the building’s façade. The building’s upper story features half-timbered ornamentation and a light buff stucco finish between the dark gray timbers.
Bemis Hall’s interior features numerous public spaces on the first floor, including an English-style refectory that seats 250 diners, a reception room, a large open parlor, and the Cogswell Theater. Student rooms on the second story were originally designed to accommodate eighty-three female students.
Despite Colorado College’s early adoption of coeducation, men and women were strictly segregated on campus, especially in the dormitories. During the 1920s, when young people rebelled against the tightening restrictions of Prohibition and conservative national politics, the college saw several challenges to its rules against fraternizing between men and women. A late Saturday night tradition called the “Fraternity Serenade” emerged, in which fraternities took to the Women’s Quadrangle with instruments and props, vying for the attentions of the women in Bemis Hall. During those years, the college’s dean of women often reported the sounds of women dancing on the rooftop of Bemis Hall and sneaking out of the building’s fire escapes to join the revelry on the Women’s Quadrangle.
During the Great Depression, funding and enrollment at Colorado College declined, and the college was forced to shutter three of its women’s dormitories. This budgetary move left Bemis Hall as the only women’s dormitory on campus. Although the total number of students shrank, Bemis Hall and its lounge remained one of the centers for social life on campus. The other women’s dormitories reopened later in the 1930s, as enrollment started to climb again before World War II. One of those dorms, Montgomery Hall, was extensively remodeled upon its reopening in 1937 to resemble the look of Bemis Hall.
In 1956 a new dining hall was constructed on the east wing of Bemis Hall and named for Judson Bemis’s daughter, Alice Bemis Taylor. Taylor served as the college’s first female trustee. That same year, Colorado College elected to demolish Hagerman Hall, its oldest men’s dormitory, which had deteriorated over the decades. The men’s dining hall in Cossitt Hall closed, too, and any male students who did not receive their meals through a fraternity were instructed to dine with the women in the Taylor Dining Room. This was the first time since the school’s construction that Colorado College permitted men and women to dine together on a regular basis.
The rules dictating appropriate interactions between men and women at Colorado College continued to relax during the 1960s and 1970s. During those years, rules against men and women interacting in dorm rooms were removed, along with the campus’s prohibition of alcohol. Furthermore, each dormitory was permitted to make and enforce its own social rules through a vote, and halls that voted to do so could have both men and women residents.
Bemis Hall’s alterations throughout the years have been driven largely by new regulatory codes and have generally retained the building’s original historical character. In 1997 the dormitory was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 2001–02, the State Historical Fund awarded Colorado College two $150,000 grants to restore and rehabilitate the building’s exterior.
Today, Bemis Hall still serves as a dormitory for upper-level undergraduates at Colorado College and boasts single-occupancy rooms aimed at students who wish to remain on campus while retaining their privacy. Bemis Hall still serves as the location for numerous on-campus events and remains one of the centers for on-campus life at Colorado College.