The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at 30 West Dale Street was built in 1936 as a community center for the visual and performing arts. Originally designed by John Gaw Meem using a mix of Pueblo Revival and Art Deco styles, the Fine Arts Center houses art galleries, teaching facilities, art studios, a live theater, a shop, a library, and administrative offices. In 2016 Colorado College began the process of merging with the Fine Arts Center to share resources and alleviate financial concerns.
Early History and Construction
Colorado Springs was founded in 1871 by railroad tycoon and philanthropist William Jackson Palmer. Palmer envisioned Colorado Springs as a health resort and bastion of fine culture in the West. In 1891 the discovery of gold near Cripple Creek ignited the final great Colorado gold rush and prompted the rapid expansion of Colorado Springs. The city grew in population and affluence, attracting a variety of residents, including ordinary miners, mining magnates, and aspiring artists.
In 1919 Julie Penrose—wife of local entrepreneur and philanthropist Spencer Penrose—opened the Broadmoor Art Academy in their home, the El Pomar Estate. In the early 1930s, Julie Penrose wanted to expand the academy and relocate to a larger, more public space. With her colleagues Alice Bemis Taylor and Elizabeth Sage Hare, she opened a grand community center for the creation, preservation, and display of art. Penrose provided the land for the project, located on a bluff overlooking Pikes Peak and Monument Valley Park. Taylor donated her large collection of Hispanic and Native American art, materials for a research library, and $400,000 in start-up capital. Hare contributed her collection of modern American art. At first the three philanthropists envisioned a modest folk-art museum, but that vision eventually grew into an enormous enterprise.
In 1936 the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center came to fruition. Penrose, Taylor, and Hare aimed to create a destination for artists and patrons alike during the height of the Great Depression while also demonstrating their commitment to the creation and preservation of culture. They hired the New Mexico–based architect John Gaw Meem to design the building. Meem was famous for his refinement of the Pueblo Revival style, and the Fine Arts Center would widely be considered his crowning achievement.
Meem designed a two-story building featuring a red Manitou pumice foundation and poured concrete walls. The massive building emulated Native American Pueblo dwellings with uniform walls, a flat roof, exposed interior vigas, and stepped terraces. Meem modernized the style by incorporating Art Deco elements such as towers, smooth, unornamented surfaces, square columns, and vertical windows to produce a sleek, elegant, monolithic, and streamlined building. His use of glass, concrete, and aluminum contributed to the modernism of the structure. Meem also incorporated Native American designs in Art Deco-style ornamentation patterns.
The Fine Arts Center boasted several recognizable murals from the start. Artists Boardman Robinson and Frank Mechau decorated the building with exterior murals, and Andrew Dasburg, Kenneth Adams, and Ward Lockwood painted murals on the building’s interior.
The Fine Arts Center opened in April 1936 and attracted 5,000 visitors in its first week. Elizabeth Sage Hare served as the first president of the Board of Trustees for the center, which continued to grow throughout the century. In the 1950s, the Fine Arts Center expanded its permanent collection dramatically by obtaining works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Milton Avery, and Walk Kuhn. In 1968 the center opened the Bemis Art School for Children, designed by Dietz Lusk and John Wallace. In 1972 the center opened a new wing designed by Carlisle Guy, who adapted the original materials and design and enclosed the courtyard. The Fine Arts Center was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, and is widely considered to be one of the most historically significant buildings in Colorado.
Twenty-First Century Growth and Merger with Colorado College
Beginning in 2003, the Fine Arts Center displayed a series of extremely popular exhibitions featuring artworks by Dale Chihuly, Andy Warhol, and Peter Max. The 2005 Chihuly exhibition attracted over 71,000 visitors and prompted a massive renovation and expansion. Colorado Springs native David Owen Tryba—founder of Tryba Architects and preservation specialist—designed the more than 66,000-square-foot expansion and conducted museum-wide restorations. In 2007 Tryba completed the $28.4 million renovation and expansion, which updated the theater and added space for new art galleries, meeting and event spaces, classrooms, studios, and a restaurant. The expansion built on Meem’s original design and incorporated natural lighting and integration with the natural environment. In addition to the Fine Arts Center, Tryba Architects’ other important historic preservation projects in Colorado include Denver’s Union Station, Mercantile Square, Hotel Teatro, and Daniels and Fisher Tower.
The expansion left the Fine Arts Center with substantial debt just as the Great Recession hit, putting it in a precarious financial position. In 2016 the center was awarded a State Historical Fund grant of $200,000 to help fund a restoration of the building’s exterior. The same year, nearby Colorado College began the process of acquiring the Fine Arts Center, hoping the merger would alleviate the center’s financial concerns while expanding the college’s art program. In the summer of 2016, Rebecca Tucker, associate professor of art at Colorado College, replaced David Dahlin as museum director. On July 1, 2017, Erin Hannan took over as director and the center was renamed the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College.
Today, the Fine Arts Center is home to more than 4,000 cultural artifacts and holds a permanent collection of more than 20,000 pieces of art. The theater has hosted more than 10,000 performances, and the center continues to draw more than 100,000 visitors each year. The center’s collection includes works by Salvador Dali, Stephen Batura, James Surls, Charmaine Locke, Claudia Mastrobuono, Larry Hulst, Mary Chenoweth, Don Coen, Floyd Tunson, Dáreece Walker, Wendy Mike, Delane Bredvik, and hundreds of other artists.