The Colorado State Museum (200 E. Fourteenth Avenue, Denver) opened in 1915 as the first stand-alone home for the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado). The last work of Frank E. Edbrooke, Colorado’s best-known architect of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the building has the appearance of a Greek temple. After the Colorado Historical Society moved to new, larger quarters in 1977, the building was converted to legislative offices.
Finding a Home for the Historical Society
The Colorado State Museum ended a long search for a suitable building to house the State Historical and Natural History Society. The society was established in 1879, when Colorado representative William D. Todd introduced House Bill 134 with an appropriation of $500. Governor Frederick W. Pitkin and the state legislature approved this measure to collect and preserve the human and natural history of Colorado before “the men who have been the actors, and the material for collections, will be quite beyond our reach.” In 1881 the society found its first home in a room of the Glenarm Hotel at Fifteenth Street and Glenarm Place. Although then serving as the state office building, the hotel also continued to house a bar and billiard room on the first floor. In 1885 the museum moved into the new, more dignified Arapahoe County Courthouse on the block between Fifteenth and Sixteenth Streets and Tremont and Court Places.
A year later the society moved to the new Denver Chamber of Commerce Building at Fourteenth and Lawrence Streets. There it shared the fourth floor with the Mercantile Library, a predecessor of the Denver Public Library. Librarian Charles R. Dudley also served as secretary of the society’s museum, with which he was not impressed. The museum’s collection, he complained, “became a nuisance, as the generously inclined gave liberally of the things for which they had no use . . . you could find almost anything from a New England meeting house foot stove to a Fiji Islander’s head rest.”
Dudley no doubt rejoiced in 1895, when the State Historical and Natural History Society moved into eight rooms in the basement of the partially completed State Capitol Building. There the society continued to collect items, including pottery, basketry, and prehistoric tools from what would become Mesa Verde National Park. The capitol basement filled up with artifacts and the office of the museum’s first paid employee, curator Will C. Ferril. Its holdings included the 1,200-item Wetherill Collection, the most extensive ever gathered from Mesa Verde. Other treasures on display ranged from Zebulon Pike’s sword to the Clark Gruber Mint machinery, as well as an extensive library of books on Colorado.
Colorado State Museum
As the collections expanded, growing tensions rankled those interested in historical collections and those favoring natural history. A separate Colorado Museum of Natural History (now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science) was formed in 1900, and it moved to its own neoclassical building overlooking City Park in 1908. The separation was not entirely amicable; not until 1927 would the Historical Society turn over all of its natural history artifacts and documents.
To keep up with the natural historians, the renamed State Historical Society of Colorado began planning its own Colorado State Museum. In 1909 Colorado history supporters pushing for an equally grand building cheered Governor John Franklin Shafroth when he persuaded the legislature to approve $100,000 for the Colorado State Museum. The legislature approved an additional $10,000 to purchase the site just across East Fourteenth Avenue from the State Capitol. This key location in Denver’s new Civic Center testified to the prominence and importance of the museum.
Colorado’s leading architect, Frank E. Edbrooke, designed the museum building as a neoclassical palace with Greek Revival detail. It faces and complements the State Capitol, another Edbrooke design. Both buildings use the same gray granite from the Aberdeen Quarry near Gunnison as their base. For the museum, Colorado Yule Marble from Marble sheathes the upper three stories as well as the interior. Built entirely of Colorado materials, the building and furnishings ultimately cost $542,940.52. The three-and-a-half-story museum has a flat roof and the shape of a Greek temple. Its entrance portico features four fluted marble columns with Ionic capitals. Exquisite detailing includes brass doorknobs with the state seal. The building originally had a subbasement heating plant that provided steam heat for the State Capitol and other state buildings in the area until 1940, when a new power plant was built.
Opened to the public on September 2, 1915, the building remained home to the Colorado Historical Society and its museum for the next sixty-two years. State representative William D. Todd, who had introduced the bill to create the institution many years earlier, was on hand to help celebrate and was elected the society’s fourth president.
Inside the museum, the subbasement contained the archives and storage vaults, a microfilm room, a workshop, and a boiler. One floor up, the basement held war relics, study galleries, and storage. The first floor had a lobby as well as galleries for prehistoric and historic American Indian life, the fur trade, and a large library room in the sunny southwest corner. This floor later housed the museum’s most popular exhibit, the eleven-by-twelve-foot diorama of Denver in 1860. The second floor featured mining, and the third (top) floor had additional exhibits, including water, cattle, railroading, and Tabor family souvenirs. In addition to offices for the historical society, the museum building also housed a number of other state agencies for many years, including civilian-related World War I activities, Depression-era offices and programs, the State Bureau of Mines along with its rocks and minerals collection, and the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
In 1947 the Colorado State Museum became the State Archives as well when the Colorado General Assembly declared it should be responsible for the preservation, destruction, or microfilming of all state records. In 1959 the Division of State Archives became a separate department and moved to a different building.
The Colorado State Museum saw a tremendous expansion in activities under the leadership of longtime executive director and first state historian LeRoy Hafen. From 1924 to 1954, Hafen led the State Historical Society in overseeing the Colorado Magazine, publishing books, guides, leaflets, bulletins, pamphlets, and maps, and building historical markers all across the state. During the mid-1900s, the museum acquired some of its most notable collections, including the Tabor collection with Horace Tabor’s gold watch fob and Baby Doe Tabor’s wedding dress, 7,000 glass plate negatives of William Henry Jackson’s photographs, the Thomas McKee and Joseph C. Smith Native American collections, the Woodard textile collection, and the Dwight D. and Mamie Eisenhower collection.
Legislative Services Building
As early as 1923, the State Historical Society had complained of inadequate space in its then eight-year-old building. By the 1960s, the Colorado State Museum was bursting at the seams. Schoolchildren touring the building filled it with joyous but distracting glee. An ever-growing collection had to be largely consigned to offsite storage. Exhibits filled every nook and cranny. William E. Marshall, who became executive director in 1963, made a new building his priority, but not until May 7, 1975, was ground broken on a new building at 1300 Broadway. On November 5, 1977, the Colorado Heritage Center opened to the public.
After the society and museum moved to the new building, the old Colorado State Museum building was restored by Pahl, Pahl & Pahl Architects of Denver as legislative offices. These architects worked with a light touch, appreciating what historian Richard Brettell had recently written in his 1973 book Historic Denver: “The building is architecturally pure and its imagery exudes a hardened pomp and grandeur. Its memorial, almost funeral [sic] appearance is appropriate because it is a museum—a historical society—and because it was Edbrooke’s self-consciously last building.”
Now officially known as the Legislative Services Building, it houses the Joint Budget Committee and a variety of other legislative offices and hearing rooms. Remarkably unaltered on the exterior, in 1974 it was included in the Civic Center Historic District, and in 2012 it was included in the Civic Center National Historic Landmark District.