Colorado’s iconic, gold-domed Capitol looks out over the city of Denver from atop Brown’s Bluff, exactly one mile above sea level. Built between 1886 and 1908, the Capitol’s exterior remains largely original, but the interior has been subject to modernization and modification.
The Capitol is part of a larger Civic Center that includes multiple other government buildings, including the State Museum, Ralph Carr Judicial Center, State Office Building, Capitol Annex, McNichols Civic Center Building, and Denver City and County Building. As the home of the state legislature, Colorado’s State Capitol has served as a marker of statehood since the nineteenth century. It continues to be a gathering point for activists from across the state.
Location and Design
In 1861 the secession crisis and concerns over lawlessness amid a rapidly growing population due to the Colorado Gold Rush prompted the creation of Colorado Territory. For the next twenty years, even after Colorado became a state in 1876, legislators fought over the location of the capitol. Legislative sessions held in temporary quarters in Colorado City, Golden, and Denver debated the issue, while legislature members lived out of hotels and boardinghouses. Finally, the question was placed on the 1881 ballot, and voters chose Denver over the closest runner-up, Pueblo.
The Colorado State Capitol was built on ten acres of land donated by Henry Cordes Brown. Brown and his wife, June, had settled atop a bluff just east of the city and bought the land for $200 through the Homestead Act. Hoping that the new capitol would increase the worth of his other land, Brown sold nearby plots to Denver’s wealthy inhabitants, creating the neighborhood now called Capitol Hill.
The Board of Capitol Managers was created in 1883 to oversee construction. Members began the process by touring other recently constructed capitols in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan to get ideas. All built after the Civil War, these capitols were constructed in the image of the US National Capitol as a symbol of commitment to the Union, and Colorado soon followed suit.
After securing $1 million from the state for construction, the board invited architects to submit designs. Elijah Myers—a controversial figure who was never formally trained as an architect but who had designed several other government buildings, including the Michigan and Texas state capitols—won the competition.
Myers’s winning design was in the shape of a Greek Cross topped with a dome. The design emulated the National Capitol, making a statement about the permanence of democracy and the United States. Myers’s design also placed offices for executive officials on the ground floor with chambers for the legislature above, indicating the superior importance of the people’s representatives. In addition to chambers for the Colorado Senate and House of Representatives, the Capitol design included offices for the governor, lieutenant governor, various state officials, and commissions, and the Colorado Supreme Court.
The first contractor hired by the Board of Capitol Managers, William Richardson, quickly ran out of money owing to unforeseen construction difficulties, and by 1888 the board hired local contractors to finish the basement. In accordance with the law, the board made an effort to source construction materials from Colorado even when they were more expensive. The foundation floors are gray granite from the Zugelder Quarry south of Gunnison, which more than doubled the original estimate.
Although the walls had hardly risen above grade, a dedication ceremony was held on July 4, 1890. After a two-mile-long parade wound its way through downtown, the twenty-ton cornerstone was laid. A time capsule included with the cornerstone contained a copy of the Colorado and US Constitutions, an American flag, a copy of Denver’s 1890 Directory, and various coins. The ceremony was followed by a celebration, where 60,000 attendees ate 30,000 pounds of barbequed beef and drank gallons of lemonade served by an army of 200 waitstaff.
Impatient with the lengthy construction timeline, some state leaders moved into the partially finished Capitol in 1894, and the first full legislative session there was held in 1895. City landscape architect Reinhard Schuetze laid out the Capitol grounds in 1895–96. Finally complete in 1908, the Capitol was composed of 30,000 tons of granite, 5.5 million bricks, and 210 tons of cast iron for the interior and shell of the dome. In keeping with requirements to source construction materials from Colorado, the interior featured bricks from the Denver Terra Cotta and Lumber Company and rose onyx inlays quarried by hand from near Pueblo. Visitors and legislators alike could enjoy a variety of technological innovations added to the Capitol, including telephones, a wire bulletin system, and two elevators.
While the original designs specified a copper-covered dome, popular opinion called for a material that was more symbolic of Colorado, as the state had almost no history of copper mining. Bowing to public pressure, the Board of Capitol Managers recommended the dome be covered in gold leaf, the mineral that prompted the creation of the state (this suggestion is often attributed to board member Otto Mears). In 1908, 200 ounces of gold, pounded paper-thin, was added to the dome, and a glass ball was installed at the top of the building.
Early Use and Development of Civic Center
Even before the Capitol was completed in 1908, it was apparent that there would not be enough room in the building to house the entire state government. A Civic Center was planned around the Capitol to create a centralized area for the state government and other civic institutions. The Denver Public Library (now the McNichols Building) opened in 1910, followed by the State Museum in 1915. Prior to its opening, more than 120,000 visitors had flocked to the Capitol to view the collections of the State Historical Society, Natural History Society, Bureau of Mines, and Horticultural Society. The State Museum provided a new home for the most popular collections and reduced tourist traffic to the crowded Capitol.
During World War I, the clamor for space in the Capitol quieted as the War Board took precedence over other state activities, and the dome was closed to public viewing. But as soon as the war was over, the fight for space continued. In 1921 the State Office Building opened, freeing up fifteen legislative committee rooms in the Capitol.
By the 1930s, increasing government programs during the Progressive Era and New Deal created even more demand for space atop Brown’s Bluff. The Board of Capitol Managers searched for space to house the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps, the State Hail Insurance Department, State Meat and Slaughterhouse Inspector, and the Automobile Driver’s License Department. In 1932 the City and County Building was built to the west, facing the Capitol from across Civic Center Park. The City and County Building replaced the city hall and the city courthouse, both in disrepair. In 1937 the State Capitol Annex and a new heating plant were completed, providing rentable space for New Deal agencies. During this time, eight new murals were added to the interior of the Capitol, depicting a poem by Thomas Hornsby Ferril describing the history of water in the West.
While many state employees served overseas during World War II, other war and federal administration employees crowded the Capitol. War production activities brought the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and the Denver Ordnance Plant to Colorado. At the same time, the State Capitol Buildings Civil Defense Unit created blackout protocols, and the Denver Salvage Committee melted down unused machinery and shelving from the Capitol basement. To find more space for wartime activity, the legislature created the Colorado State Archives. The archives freed up storage space in the Capitol by destroying unnecessary papers and books and placing many records on microfilm. State Archivist Herbert O. Brayer claimed this freed up 98 percent of the storage space previously required by the state.
Late Twentieth Century
After World War II, legislators began to demand modern conveniences in the aging Capitol. The integrity of the interior was not always preserved. Acoustic tile was installed in legislative chambers, and the original columns in the governor’s chambers were covered with wood. Colorado’s postwar economy boomed, and newly middle-class families took to their cars for family vacations, including visits to the Capitol. To accommodate the increasing number of visitors, Governor Dan Thornton created the visitor services department, which hired college-age women in western attire to lead tourists around the Capitol. As the state government continued to grow, office space was again in demand. The State Services Building was finished in 1960.
Since the 1970s, many art pieces and installations have been added to the Capitol and Civic Center to reflect the history and diversity of the state. Portraits, busts, and stained-glass works throughout the Capitol honor influential individuals in Colorado’s history. Inside the Rotunda, the Hall of Fame is composed of sixteen stained-glass portraits, including the Nuche (Ute) leader Ouray, second Colorado governor John Evans, and philanthropist Frances Jacobs. In 1977 seven other stained-glass portraits were added to the Capitol. The “Heritage Windows” in the old Supreme Court chamber honor Latino, Black, Indigenous, and Asian individuals in Colorado history, including Chinese community leader Chin Lin Sou and Japanese entrepreneur Naoichi Hokazono, territorial businesswoman Clara Brown, and mapmaker Don Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, among others. Memorials added to Civic Center honor Colorado veterans and Japanese Americans interned at Amache.
Although the Capitol had been a rallying point for displays of patriotism and activism since its completion in 1908, the 1960s and 1970s saw the building become a central backdrop in the fight for civil rights and social justice. The Black Panthers, second-wave feminists, students opposed to the Vietnam War, and Chicano activists all held peaceful protests at Civic Center.
Concerns over the structural integrity of the State Capitol arose in the 1980s and 1990s. Modifications made the building more accessible to Americans with disabilities and increased security after the 9/11 attacks, but these updates have not addressed the underlying structural aging of the Capitol. As of early 2021, the Capitol Complex Master Plan recommends setting aside 2 percent of the Capitol’s replacement costs per year to address deferred maintenance and required upgrades.
In the twenty-first century, the Capitol and surrounding Civic Center remain an important cultural and tourist attraction and a rallying point for activists of all kinds. The Capitol welcomes more than 300,000 visitors per year and offers free public tours to those interested in learning about the history of the building and the work of the legislature. In recent years, activists associated with the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter movements have convened on the Civic Center grounds to agitate for a continued focus on civil rights and social justice for all residents of the state of Colorado.
Perhaps no recent event more clearly reflects the contested nature of the Capitol’s symbolism than when protesters took down a Civil War memorial statue during demonstrations against racism and police brutality in late spring 2020. Built to honor the First Colorado Cavalry for its role in the Civil War, the memorial listed the Sand Creek Massacre as a “battle,” misrepresenting the cavalry’s slaughter of more than 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people in 1864. Following the statue’s removal, the Capitol Building Advisory Committee voted 7–2 to have it replaced with a statue depicting an Indigenous woman mourning the dead at Sand Creek.