Does Colorado Springs have a "mansion district"? Most of us would say certainly — in the Broadmoor and the North End. Are those homes in danger of demolition, to be replaced by apartment buildings or condos? Not likely, unless the local economy skyrockets, minting multimillionaires who buy historic mansions, scrape 'em off and build new megahouses.
Homes in the North End and Broadmoor neighborhoods also are protected by restrictive zoning, long-established homeowner associations and powerful owner/occupants. Want to tear down the old Jimmie Burns mansion on Wood Avenue (now a somewhat shabby apartment house) and build shiny new condos? Forget it — you'd have a better chance of opening a strip club on the ground floor of the U.S. Olympic Committee offices.
But the city's first mansion district, where the wealthy Easterners attracted by Gen. William Palmer's vision of a gracious, cultured city at the base of Pikes Peak built their homes in the last quarter of the 19th century, today is fragile and vulnerable. Many of its buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. But few remain as single-family residences, and many have fallen to the wrecker's ball.
The area is roughly bounded by Uintah Street, Cascade Avenue, Boulder Street and Nevada Avenue. It includes at least 100 Victorians, many significant to local history. And while the city gives abundant lip service to historic preservation, no ordinance prevents the destruction of significant buildings — much less neighborhoods.
The mansion district's importance is both in individual structures and the remaining fragments of the Palmer-era streetscape.
The east side of the 400 block of North Cascade is intact. The 1873 McAllister House Museum is one of the city's oldest structures. It's safe for posterity, saved from demolition in 1960 by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. Its four neighbors, all far more imposing, were built as single-family residences between 1888 and 1903. Three have been converted into apartments, one an office building, but the streetscape is unchanged — Palmer would recognize it. In striking contrast, four spacious Victorian homes that once graced the west side of that block are all gone, replaced by the office building that now houses Young Life.
Diagonally across at 506 N. Cascade stands a graceful Queen Anne, built in 1885 by Boston industrialist Judson Moss Bemis. It was the childhood home of Alice Bemis Taylor, arguably the city's most notable philanthropist. Converted to apartments in the 1920s, the building became a bed-and-breakfast in the 1970s and was subsequently connected to its equally grand neighbor at 514. Both are now vacant and for sale, combined at $1,295,000.
At that price, or anything close, the two buildings effectively are protected from demolition despite sitting on a prime half-acre. Similar buildings in the district enjoy the same kind of protection, according to commercial real estate broker Tim Leigh, whose firm has listed the buildings in the past.
"If you wanted to build in the downtown area you'd go south or east," Leigh says. "You can assemble sites for $20 a square foot. It doesn't make sense to go north. But who knows what things will look like in 20 years?"
The area's history is one of slow change, elegant Victorians replaced by nondescript commercial structures. Those that have survived have done so through benign neglect, beneficiaries of economic stagnation. Lack of growth in central downtown has meant little demand for upgraded commercial and residential space in the mansion district.
Now change is in the air, with City for Champions and other ambitious ventures close to realization. The long-awaited downtown renaissance may be closer than we think, and it may have some unexpected side-effects.
Another city might protect such a built landscape with ordinances incentivizing preservation and/or penalizing demolition. That's not in the cards here, so what can we do to prevent the scrape-off-and-build scenario?
The optimist would hope for cooperation among property owners, preservationists and downtown advocates. The pessimist would rely upon continuing economic stagnation. In other words, roll on, City Council. We don't need no stinkin' economic development!