Transcribed from the Colorado Springs, Colorado Gazette, which appeared April 17, 2001.
Past times at...Palmer High
Photo courtesy Pioneers Museum
A Nevada Avenue bicyclist passes in front of Colorado Springs High School, circa 1930. The the elegant, 17-classroom Romanesque building, which opened to students in January of 1893, featured a tower that housed a 2,800-pound bell. The $100,000 structure was replaced by the modern building in 1939 and the school was renamed Palmer High School in 1959.
In 1875, Colorado Springs was a young community. Just four years old, the tiny town offered dirt streets, a few trees hauled in from the Arkansas River Valley and mostly crude buildings. Only one high school can trace its roots back to those dirt roads: Palmer High School. This month, the downtown fixture at Nevada and Platte avenues celebrates its 125th anniversary.
In 1875, Colorado Springs was a young community. Just four years old, the tiny town offered dirt streets, a few trees hauled in from the Arkansas River Valley and mostly crude buildings. But community leaders had big plans to attract people of wealth and social standing, and they knew they needed a strong school to attract and sustain a growing population.
They did their job well: The population is booming, and the public school system has boomed along with it. Colorado Springs is home to about half a dozen school districts that operate a dozen or so high schools -- and more, if you include districts outside the city limits.
Only one, however, can trace its roots to those dirt roads and big-city dreams: Palmer High School. This month, the downtown fixture at Nevada and Platte avenues celebrates its 125th anniversary and a history of academic and athletic excellence with assemblies and other events for students and alumni.
But why should anyone outside the Palmer community care? For one thing, says principal Jackie Provenzano, Palmer, along with nearby businesses and churches, has contributed to the vitality of the downtown area. "The other part of it, I think, is that, when you think about Gen. Palmer, The Broadmoor and El Pomar and other organizations central to the development of this city, Palmer High School -- a school that has served so many people and so many generations -- is one of those key pieces of the history of our city," she says.
The first incarnation of Palmer opened in September 1875. Though small, temporary schoolrooms had been opened across town, the "Old Stone School" at the southeast corner of Bijou Street and Cascade Avenue was the first permanent school. Built at a cost of nearly $27,000, it was considered by many to be far too big and expensive. It was made of pure-white stone and was two stories high, topped by a clock tower that provided a bird's-eye view of the entire town. It housed grades first through 12th and was overcrowded within a year.
Like many of the town's early buildings, the school was short-lived. The first graduation ceremony took place in 1879. In January 1890, a fire caused by a defective furnace flue destroyed the school. The school board was not exactly overcome with sorrow in the wake of the fire. A statement from the board noted that "grief at the loss of this old landmark is not quite so deep and heartfelt as it should be. It was old-fashioned and inconvenient, and there was a suspicion that its walls were not quite safe." For three years, until a new high school was finished, the city's teen-agers crowded together in the makeshift classrooms of the old Congregational Church just south of Acacia Park. The next incarnation of Palmer was the elegant and imposing Colorado Springs High School, a 17-classroom building that opened in January 1893 at the current Palmer site. This Romanesque structure, built for $100,000, reflected the prominence and confidence of a 20-year-old city just beginning to reap the benefits of Cripple Creek gold. Like the one it replaced, this school also featured an immense tower with a clock face on each side and a 2,800-pound brass bell that could be heard nearly everywhere in the city.
Some people feared the hourly chiming would hurt the city's reputation as a health resort by interrupting the rest of countless tuberculosis patients. Proponents countered that it would enforce punctuality and ease the "monotony of the hours in which a person lies awake unable to sleep."
Literary societies and music clubs were popular with the school's students, but athletics gave the school its identity. During the 1894 football season, the team drove its opposition from the field like "chaff before the wind." The community and opposing teams started calling them "holy terrors," and the nickname of "Terrors" stuck. The highlight of the school's football program came in 1923, when it won a national championship, defeating St. James High School in suburban Boston. Girls' athletics were not as well organized or competitive. Their physical education classes took place separately from the boys, and they would often walk down the street to the YWCA building, since the school had no designated space for girls' exercise. But other opportunities beckoned for young women. In 1927, a group of African-American girls formed the Howard Club, an organization devoted to the study of black authors.
New building, new name
Annexes were added to the grand old high school in 1913, 1920 and 1929 to make room for the growing student populations and expanding academic programs. By the time the last addition was added, the main building started showing its age. During a 1929 baccalaureate service in the auditorium, a skylight collapsed, slightly injuring a woman. A growing, modern city needed a modern high school. In the late 1930s, the School Board took the recommendation of a Kansas City engineering firm and voted to demolish the 1892 schoolhouse. It was replaced with the building we know today. Edward Bunts, a 1921 graduate of CSHS, designed the simple, angular structure. At the time, the building was called "one of the West's most attractive architectural designs."
Construction began in 1938 and was completed with the assistance of the Works Progress Administration, a Depression-era federal employment program. The school cost nearly $670,000 and offered numerous amenities, including six porcelain drinking fountains and a spacious, well-lit cafeteria.
Bunts' design abandoned the idea of a clock tower and instead included a large, sleek clock facing the intersection of Nevada and Platte avenues. Old, dreary classrooms were replaced with brightly painted ones. "If the kids want color," said the painting contractor, "let 'em have it ... besides, we don't want it to look like a church." In 1959, the city got a second high school, Wasson, and the name of the downtown school was changed to honor Colorado Springs' founder, William Jackson Palmer.
This was not the only change made in the school's image over the years. The first mascot was a bulldog; it was replaced with a picture of a traditional American Indian chief. In 1945, a student, Don Willis, drew a caricature of an Indian that was adopted by the student body and dubbed "Eaglebeak." In the 1980s, as a result of growing awareness and sensitivity to minorities, the mascot changed to a soaring eagle.
Through the years, Palmer has garnered a reputation for academic excellence and high achievement. Since 1993, the school has drawn students from throughout the county for its academically challenging International Baccalaureate program and has sent a student to National History Day almost every year. Alumni proudly point to a lineup of CSHS/Palmer grads who became community leaders, including longtime Mayor Robert Isaac and 4th Judicial District Judge Richard Toth. "Palmer has produced quality citizenry who developed our city," Provenzano says.
school has graduated 33,510 students since its first graduates in 1879, according to the alumni association. Brass plaques honoring former staff members and photographs from the alumni hall of fame hang along the wall. The school's history room, operated by the alumni association, displays a stone block from the first school, the original sheet music to the Terrors' fight song and the wool banner from the 1923 national championship team.
the courtyard is an elaborate archway topped with the clock-tower bell from the ornate 1892 structure. Students pass under it as they move from class to class. On special occasions, it still rings out, reminding them, as it has for so many years, of the passage of time.
Tempest fugit, Terrors.