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Landscape and Memory: Wildfires Threaten Colorado’s Built Heritage

Landscape and Memory: Wildfires Threaten Colorado's Built Heritage 1


Landscape and Memory: Wildfires Threaten Colorado’s Built Heritage

Mesa Laboratory

I.M. Pei’s Mesa Laboratory, home to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder Colorado.

When people think of the devastation being wrought by western wildfires, it’s damage to the natural environment that comes most readily to mind. Yet in the last few days, we in Colorado have seen fires breach the wildland-urban interface (as it’s called here) and threaten cities. On Tuesday, June 26, the lightning-sparked Flagstaff fire caused sections of western Boulder to be put on pre-evacuation notice (i.e., pack your things, get the cat in its carrier, and be ready for the evacuation call). Meanwhile, in an even more serious development, winds in the Colorado Springs area drove the already-expanding Waldo Canyon fire down the foothills into the western suburbs of the second-largest city in the state.

The worst consequence of such fires is the threat to lives and neighborhoods, yet also under threat now are some of the built landmarks that embody a region’s history and contribute to a sense of place. As I watched the news (safe in central Denver), I found myself wondering about the fate of two structures, one at the edge of each city, whose connections to the wider world are not well known.

I.M. Pei’s Mesa Laboratory, part of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, was evacuated late Tuesday ahead of the Flagstaff fire. As environmental writer Bill McKibben noted on Twitter, the evacuation of the nation’s center for research into global warming in response to a wildfire fueled by drought conditions and an unprecedented heat wave, is “beyond irony.” The center is a striking monument to the mountain west of the Cold War years, when much of the region was flush with government investment. (The region offered wide open spaces — such as White Sands or Area 51, as well as a dry, sunny climate, and was presumed to be out of reach of Russian bombs.)

Pei, who designed the building in the early sixties, drew inspiration from the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde in far southwestern Colorado, as well as memories of mountaintop Buddhist retreats in his native China. But the building is best known to the wider world as one of the locations for Sleeper, Woody Allen’s futuristic scifi comedy of 1973. It’s there that Allen and Diane Keaton find themselves caught up in the plan to clone the future state’s beloved Leader from cells in his nose, the only body part to survive assassination. (I’ve written before about the current fate of Colorado buildings used in Allen’s film, notably the iconic Sleeper House, and how ironically apt they are, given the movie’s dystopian mood.)

Far less known, its links to the wider world of arts and letters obscured by the passage of time and by cultural shifts its builder could hardly have foreseen, is Glen Eyrie. A Tudor-revival castle perched above Colorado Springs, Glen Eyrie was the home of General William Jackson Palmer, a railroad baron of the Gilded Age who founded the city (as well as the Denver and Rio Grande railroad) and oversaw its growth into the elegant “Newport of the Rockies”, frequented by European aristocrats sampling the Wild West and wealthy tubercular patients from back east seeking a cure in the mountain air. Further south, in Pueblo, he built the Colorado Coal & Iron Company plant which grew into the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron, whose nearby coalfields were the scene of the Ludlow Massacre of 1914.

Glen Eyrie Castle

Glen Eyrie castle, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Glen Eyrie was originally a conventional, if very large, Victorian house, but after the death of his wife, Mary, known as “Queen”, Palmer replaced it with a more lavish structure. “As Colorado is peculiarly free of old castles, he had to build one for himself,” a journalist noted in 1914.

So far, all very local. But during Queen’s lifetime, she had left Colorado to live with her daughters in England. She is said to have been advised to move to a lower elevation after a mild heart attack, yet the fact she went as far as England lends credence to the stories she found Colorado Springs too raw and remote for her liking. In England, she installed herself and her daughters in Ightham Mote, a moated manor house in Sevenoaks, Kent, dating to the fourteenth century and now a National Trust property. There Mrs. Palmer and her daughters lived by candlelight, staged Christmas feasts for the manor’s tenants, and pursued the acquaintance of artists and writers. And there, in the manor’s Tudor chapel, her daughter Elsie Palmer was painted by John Singer Sargent, resulting in one of his most memorable portraits.

If this all sounds like an episode in a Henry James novel, that’s perhaps because Henry James was one of the figures whose acquaintance Mrs. Palmer sought. In Confronting Elsie Palmer: John Singer Sargent as a Painter of Real Women, an honors thesis completed at Emory University in 2010, Alexa L. Hayes quotes a letter from James describing a Christmas visit to the Palmers at Ightham Mote as “ ‘a queerly, uncomfortable yet entertaining visit’ with ‘General Palmer, a Mexican-railway-man, and his wife and children. I didn’t know them much . . .and the episode was the drollest amalgam of American and Western characteristics . . . in the rarest old English setting.’” (General Palmer had by then founded the National Railroad of Mexico). The Palmer family’s relationship with John Singer Sargent seems more of a success; in addition to painting Elsie, Sargent also depicted the family and their house in A Game of Bowls, Ightham Mote, Kent.

Sargent’s portrait of Elsie Palmer is aesthetically bold, unique among his works, as far as I know, for its flirtation with a Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic . Elsie faces the viewer head on, posed more like a saint in an icon, or a medieval picture of an enthroned royal, than a fashionable sitter. Her simple white dress, whose flowing lines owe more to the Aesthetic movement of William Morris than to Victorian high fashion, also evokes the middle ages. The repeated pattern of the Tudor linenfold paneling behind her creates a decorative surface rather than an illusionistic space. Her pale, unsmiling face and loose, straight hair recall the women painted by the Pre-Raphaelites.

Elsie Palmer’s ties to the English intelligentsia would only grow stronger. In 1908, she married L. H. Myers, an independently wealthy English writer on the fringes of the Bloomsbury group. Myers is best known for The Root and the Flower, a collection of novels set in sixteenth-century India in which the inner lives of characters at the court of the Mughal emperor reflect the spiritual and psychological upheavals of Myers’s own world. (The Root and the Flower is currently available in a single volume from NYRB Classics.)

Given Myers’s sympathetic portrayal of a milieu in which Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian currents mingle, it’s strange to think of him in relation to contemporary Colorado Springs, now known not as the Newport of the Rockies, but as the “Evangelical Vatican,” even if it’s only a relationship by marriage. (Boulder, now… They’d take him in with open arms, a vegan chai, and a visiting professorship at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. He’d probably like Crestone, too.)

The mental distance between the different worlds Elsie Palmer occupied does not seem to have lessened in the past hundred years. Nevertheless, her portrait hangs in the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, which is not only remaining open during the fire, but also, according to their website, offering free admission “as a resource for staying indoors [out of the smoke- HH], avoiding the heat, and enjoying art, “ — a wonderful move.

Glen Eyrie has long been the property of a Christian organization, The Navigators, which restricted access for many years but has since opened the property on a limited basis to visitors and hikers. It remains a beloved landmark, judging by the many expressions of concern posted on social networks even as the fire spread to residential neighborhoods. Preliminary reports indicate the castle has survived; another much-loved local landmark, the Flying W Ranch, was not so fortunate. I hope Glen Eyrie — and the Mesa Laboratory — will continue to stand, emblems of the region’s history and of the sometimes surprising cultural currents that have shaped this part of the world.

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