We all want to rebuild our downtown, don't we? We want to kick the parking lot magnates in the butt and somehow persuade them to rip up the asphalt and build something. Maybe mixed-use, low-rise retail/apartment structures, multi-story hotel/condo complexes — anything!
Without remaking downtown Colorado Springs as a diverse employment/entertainment/residential center, much of the city will continue to decay. Young families will flee to the periphery, followed by retailers, employers, apartment builders and city infrastructure investment.
Live by growth, die by growth. William Butler Yeats understood: "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold."
It was interesting to read City Council candidate responses to a questionnaire that the Downtown Partnership posted on its website. Brandy Williams, Jill Gaebler and Bernie Herpin were thoughtful and creative (especially Williams), but Jim Bensberg made one devastatingly simple point.
"My hope," Bensberg wrote, "is that no more historic structures, like the Burns/Chief Theater, are razed. In visiting other cities across the country, I think the most interesting aspects are the old original buildings and the relevance they have to the present. Fort Collins comes to mind. So, my motto is: First, do no harm."
Eternal vigilance may be the price of liberty, but it's also the price of preservation. Historic structures outlive their original uses, lose value through deterioration and disuse, and suddenly face the wrecker's ball or the kind of renovation that diminishes rather than enhances their value. That's why it makes sense to discuss the future of one of downtown's finest buildings — the Winfield Scott Stratton post office, at the corner of Pikes Peak and Nevada avenues.
Stratton donated the land for the building, but it took years to pry construction money from the federal government. Congress appropriated funds in 1902 and passed seven additional appropriation bills between 1902 and 1911, when the structure was finally completed. One such appropriation included an additional $15,000 to use granite instead of sandstone, while the final appropriation funded the roof balustrade.
James Knox Taylor, who headed the Treasury Department's "Office of the Supervising Architect," was the building's architect of record. Taylor knew what he wanted: "The department [has] decided to adopt the classical style of architecture," he wrote in 1901. "The experience of centuries has demonstrated that no form of architecture is so pleasing to the vast mass of mankind as the classic. ... The government therefore enjoys in its building operations a tremendous opportunity for good in the judgment of all who regard architecture as one of the important factors of the higher civilization."
Taylor built for the ages. Like Stratton's magnificent Mining Exchange Building across the street to the west, the downtown post office will stand on its corner for centuries, even millennia — if we care for it.
Our post office has yet to appear on the Postal Service's list of aging buildings planned for sale or closure, but it undoubtedly will. Post offices, to paraphrase Arlo Guthrie's "City of New Orleans," suffer from the disappearing mail-delivery blues.
What should it become: a museum, art gallery or restaurant? I asked Perry Sanders, the visionary who created the Wyndham hotel out of the old Mining Exchange, at the adjacent Springs Orleans on a recent balmy evening.
"I want that building," he said. "That's a Stratton building. It goes with the Mining Exchange. I'd have to figure out a use for it, though. ... Let's go measure it."
Leaving our spouses at the bar, we walked to the post office and measured.
"It's about 120 by 120 [feet]," Sanders mused. "Two stories plus a basement — high ceilings on the first floor, then the second, and the roof — love the balustrade ..."
Then he laid out plans for re-use that seemed practical, achievable, logical and, potentially, amazing. That was off the record, so the details will have to wait. But much as I love the venerable old post office, I can't wait for Sanders to buy it and start renovations. And if Sanders isn't the buyer, let's hope it doesn't go to any tear-down artists.
As Bensberg says, "First, do no harm."