The Colorado History Museum, the second major home of the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado), opened in 1977 to replace the Colorado State Museum (1915). Located on the south side of Civic Center in Denver, the modern museum was three times as large as the old State Museum, offering much greater space for exhibitions, programs, and offices, but it garnered less public affection. It served as the society’s headquarters and main museum until 2010, when it was demolished as the society prepared to move to the new History Colorado Center, which opened in 2012.
The Typewriter and the Box
By the 1960s, the Colorado State Museum was bursting at the seams. Exhibits filled every corner, crevice, and hallway, and an ever-growing collection had to be largely consigned to offsite storage. William E. Marshall, executive director of the Colorado Historical Society from 1963 to 1979, made a new building his priority.
Ground was broken for the new building on May 7, 1975, and it opened in 1977. Conceived as part of a modern governmental complex, the Colorado History Museum shared the block immediately southwest of the State Capitol grounds with a new Colorado Judicial Center. Rogers Nagel Langhart (RNL), one of Denver’s best-known architectural firms, designed both buildings, which shared a spacious plaza as well as innovative postmodern designs. On the north half of the block, the Judicial Center rose on two massive piers, allowing passersby to walk under the main structure and peer through a long skylight to the law library below. On the south half of the block, the museum rose at a slant from the plaza to a flat roof, with tiered terraces set in the slope at each floor, and had a flat front wall on its south side. The architects planned a granite cladding for the museum exterior, but the legislature threw it out in favor of dull, gray brick, which was cheaper. The result was unfriendly and formidable, but functional. The combination of unusually shaped structures led some people to call the museum the “typewriter” and the judicial building “the box it came in.”
Inside the New Museum
The building was known as the Colorado Heritage Center from its opening in 1977 until the mid-1980s, when it was renamed the Colorado History Museum. Its main feature was its cavernous underground space below the plaza. The lower level included offices for the curatorial staff and a large exhibition-planning and -preparation studio. In later years, the society placed a glass-curtain wall at the entrance to the storage and staff space so visitors could see the collections storage area as well as staff doing its work.
The museum’s first level included exhibition space, a large auditorium, and a reconstructed 1890s classroom from the Broadway School, which had occupied the museum site. The distinguishing feature of the first floor, its lobby entrance, offered visitors a glimpse of the museum world below. Two large openings in the floor featured a wide cantilevered staircase to the lower level and an overlook for visitors to study objects below, including a forty-foot-high windmill that rose into the entrance gallery.
The museum’s second floor was given over entirely to the library and its substantial book, periodical, photograph, and manuscript collections. In the early years, it included bound runs of Colorado newspapers, many of which were later microfilmed and returned to libraries throughout the state. The Colorado Department of Higher Education, the historical society’s umbrella agency, then took the place of the newspapers, making its headquarters in the western third of the library floor. The museum’s third floor housed the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (OAHP), administrative offices, and the publications office (which later moved to the second floor).
Developing the Exhibits
After the new building was completed in 1977, the next big challenge was to fill some 30,000 square feet of exhibition space. The Colorado legislature had agreed to fund only the exterior of the building, leaving the society to come up with $3 million for the interior, exhibitions, and furnishings. To offer visitors something worthwhile, executive director William Marshall arranged several interconnected geodesic domes in a semicircle, each highlighting two or three of the society’s highly popular Works Progress Administration (WPA) dioramas. This gave visitors a sense of Colorado history in miniature—everything from dioramas of Mesa Verde’s Balcony House to a bustling Arapaho encampment on the South Platte River to an electrical generating plant on a cascading mountain river. Upstairs, the museum installed a temporary exhibit showcasing the diversity of Colorado’s people.
In 1979 Marshall retired and the society’s board selected Barbara Sudler, the former head of Historic Denver, Inc., to become the first female chief executive officer as well as State Historic Preservation Officer. She confronted the challenge of filling the museum’s vast, dark lower level. She hit upon a solution when she met Bill Miner, the designer of the recent US Bicentennial exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, and convinced him to take charge of Colorado History Museum exhibits. What resulted was a whirlwind effort to locate, identify, and interpret thousands of objects in the society’s collection. Completed two years later, the exhibition featured a 150-foot timeline complete with artifacts, at one foot to a year, beginning in 1800 and ending in 1950. The exhibits opened in August 1982 and included a portfolio of William Henry Jackson prints; an evocative look at childhood in early Colorado; the life and work of architect Robert S. Roeschlaub, Colorado’s first licensed architect; an early log house from 1860s Auraria; a glass-enclosed conservation lab lined with artifacts from Mesa Verde; and several refurbished WPA dioramas from the 1930s, including the iconic, intricately detailed model of Denver in 1860, complete with ant-sized cats. Later came a coal-mine tipple from Paonia, which stood in the center of a large-scale exhibition on coal and hard-rock mining in Colorado. Getting the seven-ton coal loader and fifteen-foot blower fan out of the mine and into the museum required two Chinook helicopters.
With Sudler’s resignation in 1990, Jim Hartmann assumed the presidency of the society and the post as State Historic Preservation Officer. Early in the 1990s, the society embraced an opportunity to widen its programming with a unique exhibition of artifacts from the Vatican Museum and Library held in conjunction with Pope John Paul II’s 1993 visit to Denver. Every square inch of exhibition space on the museum’s upper and lower levels had to be adapted to the exhibit. A Vatican-approved reproduction of Michelangelo’s Pietà introduced visitors to a journey through 2,000 years of Italian religious art and architecture in the society’s most popular exhibit to date.
Hartmann also launched a series of annual exhibits, each focusing on a different decade of Colorado history. The exhibits were supplemented by decade-by-decade issues of Colorado Heritage magazine. Meanwhile, the museum’s exhibits and collections were enhanced by an innovative partnership, launched in 1992, with the state Department of Corrections. Inmates, many of them skilled craftsmen, worked to restore damaged artifacts such as carriages, wagons, stagecoaches, and even railroad passenger coaches. Prisoners have also organized newspaper collections, catalogued artifacts, conserved books, and prepared exhibits.
During the final decade of programming at the Colorado History Museum, under the directorship of Georgianna Contiguglia, the society developed a series of exhibits drawing on Colorado’s cultural diversity. One of them, Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, explored Indigenous-white conflict in Colorado following the massacre of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek in November 1864. Other exhibits looked at Buffalo Soldiers, pre-Columbian cultures, and Italian history and life in Colorado.
On the Move
In 2005 the Colorado Supreme Court proposed a newer judicial building that would fill the entire block it shared with the Colorado History Museum. The new judicial center would bring into one building all the scattered Denver-area state judicial offices. To make this happen, the historical society’s director, Edward C. Nichols, began the search for a new location for the museum. After considering various plans, the board agreed to a site a block south of the old museum, fronting Twelfth Avenue between Broadway and Lincoln Streets. Funding for the new history museum did not draw on state money but relied heavily on the State Historical Fund, generated by taxes on gambling.
The prospective move brought an end to exhibit planning and much programming for the old museum. Staff found temporary office space and the society’s millions of artifacts were packed and moved. In March 2010 the Colorado History Museum closed for good. To signify the society’s new direction, in 2008 it assumed a new name, History Colorado, and its new museum, completed in 2012, became known as the History Colorado Center.