El Pomar Honors Penrose Heritage as Colorado Springs Commemorates Sesquicentennial
By Sarah Woods, Curator of Historic Properties & Archives
El Pomar Foundation has long recognized the significance of its history and that of the Penroses and has enjoyed sharing this history with the people of Colorado through the stewardship and operation of our historic properties free of charge. This year, as the city of Colorado Springs commemorates its sesquicentennial, we also celebrate the community’s rich history and are committed to doing our part to honor our heritage this year and in the years to come through engaging exhibits and programs.
The Foundation owns and operates three historic properties – Penrose House, Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun and Penrose Heritage Museum. Penrose House, formerly known as El Pomar, was the historic home of the Penroses from 1916 when they purchased it until Spencer’s death in 1939. Julie remained in the home until she gifted it to the Sisters of Charity in 1944. El Pomar Foundation acquired the home from the Sisters of Charity in 1992 and renovated the property. Since 1992, El Pomar has operated Penrose House and its expansive grounds as a conference center where 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations and government agencies can use the space for strategic meetings, seminars and trainings.
Spencer Penrose had Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun constructed in the 1930s to serve as his final resting place and that of Julie Penrose, as well as two of their closest friends. Using local Pikes Peak granite, employing Civilian Conservation Corps workers and commissioning a renowned regional muralist (and fellow polo enthusiast) to create sweeping, larger-than-life mural art in the interior spaces, Penrose facilitated a unique and enduring gift for the community in so many ways. The Shrine was dedicated on September 7, 1937 in honor of beloved American humorist Will Rogers who tragically died in a plane crash in 1935. Despite the fact that their worldviews differed from Rogers’ the Penroses dedicated their memorial in his honor as numerous others across the United States dedicated schools, theaters, hospitals, airports and roads in tribute to the treasured humorist. Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun has provided visitors a unique setting for decades in which to appreciate the natural beauty of Colorado Springs, its history and the legacy of the Penroses. The scenic drive up Cheyenne Mountain above Cheyenne Mountain Zoo culminates in a bird’s-eye view of the city and its many iconic features. The Shrine’s historic instrument, the Deagan, chimes every quarter hour and on the hour and plays three musical programs daily on its enchanting Westminster chimes. As El Pomar Foundation contemplates the ways in which the Shrine will continue to serve Colorado communities in the years ahead, emphasis has been placed on restoring and preserving the Shrine’s sophisticated Deagan instrument as well as finding new ways to engage visitors with the history of the property. We recently created all new exhibits in the Shrine’s Education Center which tell the most complete story we have yet to tell of the Shrine, those buried there and the significance of Will Rogers’ legacy. While the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented us from safely sharing these new exhibits with our visitors, we hope that in 2021 we will be able to safely open our new exhibits to the public.
Julie Penrose created the El Pomar Carriage House Museum across from The Broadmoor in 1941 to share Spencer’s impressive collection of 19th and 20th century carriages with the community. Julie hired Bauhaus architect Jan Ruhtenberg to construct the original museum, an oval-shaped building of modern design featuring a concrete block exterior, cruciform steel posts wrapped in copper and structural glass that was rippled and translucent. The museum was Ruhtenberg’s most beloved design. The original building was razed in 2003 to make way for The Broadmoor’s expansion and the collection was moved to its current location across from El Pomar’s executive offices. In 2014, the El Pomar Carriage House Museum was expanded to incorporate the history and collection of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, the automotive race up Pikes Peak created by Spencer Penrose in 1916. It was at this time that the museum was renamed Penrose Heritage Museum.
This October, the museum celebrates its 80th anniversary. To honor this anniversary and the legacy of the Penroses, new exhibits at the museum are currently in development. Penrose Heritage Museum has served Colorado communities by providing high-quality exhibits focused on the history of the Penroses and their significant contributions to the community. The aim of our new exhibits is to focus on heritage – what we as a community have inherited from the Penroses, and how this inheritance affects our lives today. This requires us to approach exhibit design in a new way. Rather than continuing with an object-based approach, we will instead take a narrative-approach to exhibit design. This means that our new exhibits will aim to tell a story supported by objects, archival materials and artwork, rather than focusing on objects as singular items. This new approach allows us to better serve Colorado communities by exhibiting the stories they already know about the Penroses but in greater depth and accuracy through a combination of new research and never-before-exhibited items from our collection. Our hope is that we can safely share these new exhibits with the public this fall.
Sarah Woods is the Curator of Historic Properties & Archives at El Pomar Foundation.