The History Colorado Center (1200 Broadway, Denver) opened in 2012 as the headquarters, museum, and research center of History Colorado. Established in 1879 as the State Historical and Natural History Society, History Colorado had outgrown a succession of previous buildings, including the State Capitol, Colorado State Museum (1915), and Colorado History Museum (1977). Its new home, designed by Denver-based Tryba Architects, was praised for adding an elegant modern touch to Civic Center, but its expense and its troubled exhibits led to several years of turmoil and turnover at the organization.
For decades, the Colorado History Museum shared the block south of Lincoln Park with the Colorado Judicial Center. In 2005, however, the Colorado Supreme Court decided that it wanted a newer building that would occupy the whole block in order to bring together scattered Denver-area state judicial offices. History Colorado began to search for a new home. One possibility was on the south side of Civic Center Park as a twin to the McNichols Building, a location where the art museum was originally planned a century earlier. Opponents objected to losing more of the park’s green space. Instead, History Colorado found a site at Twelfth Avenue between Lincoln Street and Broadway, a half-block south of its previous location.
In 2010 the Colorado History Museum was demolished to make way for the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center. The History Colorado Center (HCC) opened to the public in April 2012. Critic Michael Paglia called the building an “architectural triumph” with “something gorgeous everywhere you look.” Designed by Tryba Architects, it is a four-story, 200,000-square-foot structure. A modern building made of glass and limestone, its central feature is a sky-lighted, four-story atrium with a terrazzo floor depicting a forty-foot-by-sixty-foot map of Colorado by artist Steven Weitzman. The airy edifice houses the History Colorado administration, the State Historical Fund, the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, classrooms, a restaurant, a museum store, an auditorium, large public spaces, and 30,000 square feet of exhibit space. The fourth floor is home to the Stephen H. Hart Research Center, which provides public access to all of History Colorado’s artifacts and library materials.
The HCC incorporates many environmentally friendly features as well as recycled and regional materials, including terrazzo flooring made of 20 percent recycled glass and wooden surfaces made of beetle-kill pine. The design also promotes water and energy conservation by incorporating native landscaping and by taking advantage of natural light and heat through the skylit atrium. These features helped make the HCC the first history museum in the country to attain Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold status.
A new museum meant all-new exhibits had to be completed on a phased schedule between 2012 and 2014. State Historian Bill Convery and Chief Operating Officer Kathryn Hill directed design and installation of the exhibits, including many interactive experiences. Convery planned the exhibits to include, as he put it, “something to do as well as something to see.” Visitors can drive a simulated Model T, descend into a simulated mine shaft, or try out a simulated ski jump. One of the largest exhibits, in the southeast corner of the atrium, is a mock railroad depot for Keota, now a ghost town on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s “Prairie Dog Special.” Inside, artifacts showcase farm life on the Great Plains, an often-neglected part of Colorado. Interactive features allow visitors to milk a cow, gather eggs, and explore a general store.
The second floor contains “Colorado Stories”: exhibits of communities such as Silverton, a mining town in the San Juan Mountains, and Steamboat Springs, a ranching and ski town. Other exhibits showcase the fur-trading post of Bent’s Fort, the World War II–era Japanese internment camp of Amache, and the Black summer resort of Lincoln Hills. One reviewer appreciated the museum’s mix of “irreverence . . . with Colorado boosterism” but lamented the absence of “a full sense of context.” Others were dismayed by what they called the “Disneyfication” of the past and wondered why the museum didn’t feature more items from its vast collections. Most damaging to the museum’s reputation was a “Colorado Stories” exhibit on the Sand Creek Massacre that had to be closed after the affected tribes—who were not consulted during the exhibit’s development—found the display inaccurate and offensive.
Another core exhibit, “The Living West,” opened in 2014 to tell stories of survival in a dryland geography. Sponsored by Denver Water, the exhibit features Mesa Verde as well as contemporary Colorado with its wildfires and water shortages. A virtual stay in a wind-blasted, rattling shack brings the Dust Bowl to life.
In the years after the HCC opened, high payments on the $110 million building and complaints about the exhibits took a toll. After a 2014 audit revealed serious financial problems, History Colorado’s leadership resigned, the board was reorganized, and one-fifth of the staff was cut. Steve W. Turner, previously director of the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, took over as executive director, and Patty Limerick, a distinguished professor of history at the University of Colorado–Boulder, became state historian. In 2018 Limerick, frustrated by an ongoing emphasis on exhibits that she called “history lite,” was replaced by a council of five state historians.
The new team’s first major exhibit was the installation “Zoom In: Colorado History in 100 Objects.” This 3,700-foot gallery displays some of the museum’s most prized artifacts, including Mesa Verde baskets, Jack Swigert’s Apollo 13 space suit, an 1894 ballot box from the first Colorado election in which women could vote, and Molly Brown’s opera cape. In addition, the beloved old Works Progress Administration diorama depicting Denver in 1860 was retrieved from storage and placed on the second floor.
Accelerated by the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, History Colorado has increasingly digitized its work on all fronts. The building itself, with its airy atrium and generous public spaces, proved functional during the pandemic. In June 2020 the museum reopened after a three-month closure with exhibits on John Denver and Colfax Avenue. The HCC also began to offer in-person support for students in remote learning.