Elizabeth Fraser Iliff Warren (1844–1920) was one of Denver’s most influential early citizens and was instrumental in founding the Iliff School of Theology. After arriving in Denver in 1869 as a twenty-four-year-old sewing-machine saleswoman, she married wealthy cattleman John Wesley Iliff. When Iliff died, Elizabeth Iliff became one of the wealthiest women in the West. Her second marriage, to Methodist bishop Henry White Warren, gave her a platform for using her fortune to advance educational and religious training in the state.
Elizabeth “Lizzie” Sarah Fraser was born on May 24, 1844, in Fitzroy, Ontario, Canada, to Sarah Wright and William Henry Fraser. Lizzie had at least three brothers: Brock, Samuel, and John Jay. Their mother died early, and some of the children, including Lizzie and John Jay, were sent to Henry County, Illinois, to live with Elizabeth and William Miller.
In the 1860s, Lizzie Fraser moved to Chicago and went to work for the Singer Manufacturing Company, teaching women how to use their new sewing machines. When Singer expanded into Colorado, she got the job of establishing the company’s presence there. She arrived in Denver by stagecoach on July 18, 1869, along with a fellow female employee. The two women found a display room owned by William Byers, editor of the Rocky Mountain News, and set up their business.
Fraser soon met a rancher named John Wesley Iliff. Iliff had come to Colorado Territory in 1859, during the gold rush, and invested in a grocery and provisioning store. In 1861 he sold this interest and invested in cattle. By the end of the decade, Iliff was a successful rancher with nine properties spread across Wyoming and Colorado and more than 100 miles of river frontage. He was also a widower with a four-year-old son, William Seward Iliff.
Iliff was so taken with Fraser that he followed her back to Chicago in the winter of 1870, and they were married on March 3 of that year. As a wedding gift, the Singer company presented her with a sewing machine inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The couple settled in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and had their first child, Edna, in September 1871. Elizabeth’s brother John Jay Fraser moved to Colorado and became a foreman for the Iliff cattle operations.
Finding Suffrage Insufferable
When the Iliffs settled in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory had just passed the first women’s suffrage bill in the nation in December 1869. By October 1870, women were voting in the general election. But suffrage brought a new responsibility for women: jury duty. Elizabeth Iliff worried that if she were called for jury duty, she would be confined in a room with dance-hall girls, gamblers, and saloon-keepers. Opposed to suffrage and its possible social consequences, the Iliff family left Wyoming in late 1871 or early 1872 and moved to Denver, where women could neither vote nor serve on juries. Colorado would not give women the vote for another two decades; when the state debated the issue in 1877 and later enacted suffrage in 1893, Elizabeth Iliff seems to have remained silent.
Elizabeth and John Iliff’s second child, Louise, was born in Denver on August 15, 1875. To accommodate their growing brood, in 1877 the Iliff family bought a house known as the Shaffenburg Mansion, at the corner of Eighteenth and Curtis Streets. The family did not enjoy the house for long. December 1877 brought both the birth of their third child, John Wesley Iliff, Jr., and a devastating illness for John Wesley Iliff Sr. The elder Iliff died on February 9, 1878, leaving Elizabeth with an infant son, two young daughters, and a thirteen-year-old stepson.
Iliff died without a will. Elizabeth was appointed an administrator of her husband’s estate, which was valued at $463,345.71 (more than $10 million today). The administrators petitioned the court to be allowed to carry on Iliff’s business and were granted three years. Elizabeth took on the responsibility, leading one of the largest cattle operations in the United States. A shrewd businesswoman, she invested in Denver real estate and had stock in the German National Bank and the Union Stockyards in Chicago.
After Elizabeth Iliff’s infant son, John Wesley Iliff, Jr., died in April 1879, her interest in religion grew stronger. In May 1880, she met Henry White Warren, who was attending the Methodist Episcopal Church Annual Conference in Georgetown, Colorado. At the conference, Warren was elected bishop of Atlanta, Georgia. Warren, a widower with three children, was no stranger to Colorado—in 1877–78 he had been president of the Rocky Mountain Climbing Club—and after meeting Elizabeth Iliff, he began spending more time in Denver. On December 27, 1883, the couple were married in a ceremony officiated by their mutual friend, Bishop Matthew Simpson, who had given the sermon at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral in Springfield, Illinois. Warren’s bishopric was transferred to Denver, where the couple lived in the Shaffenburg Mansion.
Iliff School of Theology
With her marriage to Bishop Warren, Elizabeth Iliff Warren was not merely a wealthy cattle queen but now in a position of considerable social influence. She had also become interested in expanding her study and knowledge, joining the women’s Fortnightly Club in 1883.
Her first husband had often expressed an interest in funding technical and religious education, so in 1884 she and the Iliff children promised the University of Denver $100,000 to establish a school for ministers as a memorial to John Wesley Iliff, Sr. The gift came with two conditions: first, that the university should select a suitable home for the campus; and second, that an additional $50,000 be raised. A gift of eighty acres five miles south of the city from “Potato King” Rufus Clark satisfied both conditions. The Warrens soon built a house in the new settlement of University Park, moving into Grey Gables in 1889. On July 4 of that year, the Iliff School of Theology was established as part of the University of Denver. William Seward Iliff paid for the building, while Elizabeth Iliff Warren and Louise Iliff funded the endowment.
The cornerstone for Iliff Hall was laid in 1892, but the next decades were not easy for the school. After the Panic of 1893, Elizabeth Iliff Warren’s checkbook was often the only thing keeping the school open. With the finances of the university as a whole still shaky in 1900, the Iliff School of Theology closed until a larger endowment could be secured. It did not resume operations until 1910, with Warren having to sell diamonds from John Wesley Iliff to pay for Iliff Hall to be refurbished before the reopening. The Iliff School now became its own entity, entirely separate from (though still adjacent to) the University of Denver.
Travels and Home Life
The Warrens had barely moved into Grey Gables in 1889 when they began planning another house, Fitzroy Place, named for the Canadian town where Elizabeth was born. The elegant new residence was completed in 1892. Located at 2160 South Cook Street, Fitzroy Place was well suited to the type of entertaining the couple enjoyed, with a dining room that could accommodate thirty people. The Warrens often opened their home for musicals, readings, and social gatherings and for the benefit of students at the Iliff School. When this latest house was built, Elizabeth Iliff Warren gave the Shaffenburg Mansion in downtown Denver to the Methodist Church, which turned the building into the Frances Merritt Deaconess Home, a hospital and refuge for the sick and needy.
As part of his job as a Methodist bishop, Henry Warren traveled extensively. Elizabeth Iliff Warren and some of the couple’s six children from their previous marriages often accompanied him. Iliff Warren’s papers for the Fortnightly Club reflected her travels to places such as Alaska, Paraguay, India, and the Philippines. She filled Fitzroy Place with art from around the globe. With her eye for beauty, Iliff Warren was also known for funding and personally directing the decorations at Methodist churches throughout Denver.
In 1910 an electrical surge sparked a fire at Fitzroy Place, gutting the dining room and turning the family silver into a molten mass. Smoke and water damaged nearly all the rest of the house, too, including the books in their extensive library. A white marble statue of Isaac that Elizabeth Iliff Warren had purchased in Italy became solid black. Cleaning removed the blackened layer, but the marble underneath had changed permanently to a coppery color. The family relocated to 857 Grant Street, staying for nearly two years while Fitzroy Place was restored.
In May 1912, the General Conference of the Methodist Church voted immediate retirement for Bishop Warren, who was then in his eighties. Disappointed, the bishop soon grew very ill. His wife moved the family back into Fitzroy Place, which was still undergoing renovations, to care for him. He died on July 23 and was buried at Fairmount Cemetery.
In 1903 Elizabeth Iliff Warren, William Seward Iliff, and Louise Iliff were appointed trustees of the Iliff School of Theology. Warren continued that work until her death on February 14, 1920. She was buried at Fairmount Cemetery. Louise Iliff had her father’s remains—along with a sixty-five-ton statue that Warren had ordered as a memorial—moved from Riverside Cemetery to Fairmount, ensuring that Elizabeth Iliff Warren would rest between her two husbands. She is remembered for her lasting legacies in the fields of education and religion in Denver, and the Iliff School awards annual Elizabeth Iliff Warren Fellowships to students pursuing further study.