Westminster University at 3455 West 83rd Avenue in Westminster is an imposing, red Richardsonian Romanesque building that gave the city its name and still serves as an important local visual landmark. Started in 1892, the building languished before opening in 1908 as the main building of Westminster University of Colorado, a Presbyterian school originally envisioned as the “Princeton of the West.” In 1917 Westminster University closed its doors, and in 1920 the building was acquired by Pillar of Fire, which has operated a Christian school there ever since.
A University on Paper
In 1882 the Presbyterian Synod of Colorado appointed a committee of twelve ministers and laymen to study potential sites for a Presbyterian college in the state. The committee had been formed at the instigation of the Denver Presbytery, which believed Denver was the best spot for such a school. In 1883, however, strong enticements from Del Norte led to the establishment there of a Presbyterian school called the College of the Southwest.
The idea of starting a “Princeton of the West” in or near Denver was revived in the early 1890s. New York native Henry J. Mayham owned land on Crown Point and dreamed of building a great Presbyterian university there, at least in part because it would cause the value of his real estate to rise. He persuaded Reverend T. H. Hopkins of Denver to back his plan, and the Denver Presbytery incorporated the university later that year. Mayham donated 640 acres of land, of which forty acres would be used for the campus, eighty for the school farm, and the rest divided into lots and sold.
Westminster University’s main building was originally designed by architect E. B. Gregory in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, which was popular at the time. Gregory’s plan called for an irregularly shaped building with heavy, rusticated stone walls, large round-arched entryways, and a variety of towers and turrets, including a six-story tower rising from the building’s southeast corner. Mayham got his friend Stanford White, a prominent New York architect, to revise Gregory’s design, with the main change being the use of red sandstone instead of gray stone for the exterior walls. The cornerstone was laid in 1892 and most construction was completed by 1893. The prospective university soon fell victim to the Panic of 1893, however, causing the building to sit vacant for years.
Mayham maintained his support for the school throughout the late 1890s and helped secure two donations of at least $100,000 to keep it alive—one from an anonymous Eastern woman, the other from Horace and Augusta Tabor’s son N. Maxcy Tabor. In 1901 the Denver Presbytery briefly considered abandoning the stalled university project and converting the main building into a hospital, but officials ultimately decided against the change. In 1902 Del Norte’s College of the Southwest announced its closure, and Denver Presbytery officials started to focus on making Westminster University a reality.
The long-planned Westminster University finally held its first classes in September 1907. During its first year, the school operated out of Central Presbyterian Church in Denver while the main building on Crown Point was repaired after its long vacancy. By September 1908 the building was ready for use. That fall the university attracted sixty students and had a faculty that boasted several professors who had relocated from prominent eastern colleges. The university also opened a preparatory school to help ensure a steady supply of students.
Westminster University experienced a rocky start, largely because of financial problems lingering from the Panic of 1907. In April 1909 the entire faculty either resigned or was fired—the exact sequence of events is murky—after they complained about not getting paid. But the university survived that disaster and soon saw signs of success. It hired a new president, Salem Pattison, who managed to get a faculty in place by the start of classes that fall. Pattison also launched a fundraising campaign centered around selling land adjacent to the campus. In 1910 the school was able to build a president’s house for Pattison as well as a women’s dormitory. That year the Denver & Interurban Railroad ran a spur to the campus from its main Denver–Boulder line, and in 1911 the nearby town of Harris decided to rename itself Westminster after the university. By the spring of 1912 the school was able to retire its debt. Later that year, it opened an evening law school organized in Denver by a group of local attorneys.
Yet the university remained on precarious footing, especially after the trustees decided in 1915 to turn the coeducational school into an all-male institution, effectively cutting the potential student body in half. The change proved disastrous when the United States started drafting men for military service after the country entered World War I in 1917. The school soon lost so many of its students that it had to shut down later that year. The ornate main building was rented to a local farmer, who used it as a huge chicken coop and granary.
Despite the demise of Westminster University, Westminster Law School lived on as an evening program in Denver. For forty-five years it served as the only evening law school between Kansas City and the West Coast, graduating nearly 750 students. In 1957 it merged with the University of Denver’s College of Law, which started an evening program and renamed its library the Westminster Law Library as part of the merger agreement.
Pillar of Fire
In January 1920, a Denver Christian group called Pillar of Fire acquired the former Westminster University campus. One condition of the sale—which bundled the main building, women’s dormitory, president’s house, and forty acres of land for only $40,000—was that the property continue to be used for its original purpose of religiously influenced education. After investing about $75,000 to repair the main building, Pillar of Fire started a Christian coeducational school called Westminster College and Academy.
During its early years in Westminster, Pillar of Fire supported the Ku Klux Klan, which was then at its height in Colorado. The Klan burned crosses on the Crown Point campus, and in 1927 the statewide KKK convention was held on the hill. Pillar of Fire later renounced its association with the Klan.
Meanwhile, Westminster College changed its name to Belleview College and was accredited in 1926. Pillar of Fire founder Alma White’s son Ray served as the school’s president until his death in 1946. He was succeeded by his brother, Arthur, who expanded the school through the acquisition of nearby land and the construction of new classroom buildings for Belleview’s K–12 program. Belleview College has since closed, but Pillar of Fire continues to use the campus for Belleview Christian School, which offers preschool and K–12 programs.
The historic Westminster University building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Today it houses Belleview’s middle school as well as Pillar of Fire’s KPOF radio station, which started in 1928 and is now one of the oldest continuously licensed stations in Colorado.