It’s not very big. In fact, it’s rather small when compared to other houses around it, but the McAllister House, at 423 North Cascade Avenue is far more important than the imposing mansions down the street. The McAllister House has the distinction of being the first brick house built in Colorado Springs, and as such, set the standard of living for pioneers coming to this city. The house and its occupants are a Springs legacy.
The foundation for the house was laid in 1873, and the McAllisters lived in a shanty while it was being built, like many other pioneer families did. McAllister had seen shanties and a frame house blown down by a storm in January of 1874, so he employed architect George Summers to design a house that could withstand any weather. The resulting walls, twenty inches thick and reinforced with two-inch thick iron bars, are what make the house not only weather proof, but somewhat time proof, even though that was not McAllister’s original intent. It has a Downing Gothic-style charm that makes people look twice when passing it.
One of the most interesting things about the house is the woodwork. A lowly three-dollar-a-day carpenter named Winfield Scott Stratton designed and installed the trim around the doors, using his signature “knobs and notches” that were contrary to the traditional Victorian style of the rest of the house that was popular at the time.
Stratton also created the unusual wood designs around the outside of the house, to include the railings on the porches. As talented as he was, Stratton only worked during the off-season; during the summers he spent his time wandering around the mountains of Cripple Creek. After 17 years, he finally struck it rich: in 1891, he discovered gold at his Independence mine and became an instant millionaire, which is how most local history buffs know him. One glimpse into the McAllister house, though, and you will see his true gift.
The house has a tailor-made floor plan, with three fireplaces on the main floor. The dining room, study, and parlor all have marble fascia with unique keystone designs. These marble fireplaces were all brought by McAllister from Philadelphia.
Although the house was built to withstand harsh Colorado weather, after 142 years, it is showing its age. Some restoration was suggested during the 1980s that caused the brick to deteriorate faster than normal. Sealant was applied that didn’t allow the brick to expand and contract. Also, the wrong mortar was used to shore up a sagging foundation, and recent storms broke original glass windows. A lightning strike four years ago damaged the ceiling in the children’s bedroom. Through it all, the house remains a steadfast display of the grit and fortitude of Colorado Springs pioneers as they sought to make a permanent mark on the city’s history.
General William Jackson Palmer, founder of Colorado Springs, and Henry McAllister were born three days apart in the same county in Delaware. There is no record that they knew each other then, but both of their families moved to Philadelphia when they were boys which resulted in them both serving in the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry during the Civil War, where they became fast friends. After Palmer founded what he called “Fountain Colony,” later known as Colorado Springs, he wanted “a host of good fellows from my regiment” to come work in his new city. Palmer chose McAllister, a fellow Quaker, as the first Superintendent of Fountain Colony in 1872 because they shared the same values and vision for the city.
McAllister went on to wear many hats as the city gained its feet. As the colony’s Superintendent, he oversaw the planting of over 5,000 trees along its main thoroughfares, attaching signs that read, “Do not hitch horses to young trees.”
He was instrumental in bringing Colorado College to the city, serving on the college’s board from its founding in 1874 to his death in 1921. He was editor of the Out West newspaper and was a member of the State Horticultural Society, the Board of County Commissioners, the El Paso Pioneers Association, and more. He also raised funds for the first public library.
McAllister was an avid suffragist, believing women should vote and have an equal partnership with their husbands, so it is likely that the McAllisters made a joint decision to move here. McAllister brought his wife, Elizabeth, and their baby Henry (called “Harry”) from Philadelphia as soon as he was able. Leaving a home with hot and cold running water and easily available goods and culture, Elizabeth might have said, “What were we thinking?” But she was determined to make a new life in the colony. She did her best to impart her simple Quaker values to others, baking bread and giving water from her well to the native Utes and pioneers who often wandered by. She was known to be smaller than average, about four-feet-eleven-inches tall. It’s amazing that this tiny woman had the fortitude to open her door to wandering souls, not knowing what might happen.
One of the first things the McAllisters did was plant a garden. Unlike today, people had to grow their own food, since they didn’t have grocery stores. Unfortunately that was the hottest summer on record, and the new colony soon found itself infested with grasshoppers. McAllister paid three boys to wave towels over his fledgling plants to keep the pests away. They also owned a cow, and a local cowboy came by each day to round up the cows and take them to pasture. At the end of the day, he’d bring them back, and legend has it that each cow knew her own address, and would turn out of the herd when she saw her home.
It is unclear whether the McAllisters had moved into the house by the time their second child, Mary, was born, but their daughter Matilda followed in 1876. The three children shared the bedroom across from their parents’ room, and played in the attic and small playroom just through the keyhole door between the bedrooms.
Elizabeth knew that without much protection from the elements or from wandering Indians, her kids would be safer inside, so that’s where they spent a lot of time. Matilda is said to remember looking through the upstairs windows to see covered wagons crossing the road in front of their house.
Harry grew up to become one of the most prominent, influential lawyers in Colorado history, setting up his offices in the Brown Palace in Denver. Mary attended college in the East and came back to teach Latin and Greek at Colorado Springs High School. Harry inherited the house, which he eventually signed over to Matilda, who remained in the house before renting it to a friend, Fanny Robbins. Ms. Robbins was a young widow who lived in the house from approximately 1922 until her death in 1958.
Matilda McAllister, the rebel of the family, was once stopped for speeding by General Palmer. She graduated from Colorado College and taught school locally, living with the Taylors after her father’s death. It is said that the two sisters had radically different teaching styles: Mary was very direct and disciplined, confronting students directly when there was a problem; Matilda, on the other hand, would likely go jump rope with the student and talk the problem out as they played.
The house was almost demolished to make room for a parking lot. It sat dormant for a few years until it was deeded to the Colorado Springs branch of the Colonial Dames of America, “whose direct ancestors held positions of leadership in the Thirteen Colonies. The organization’s goals are education of American history and historical preservation.” The Dames have taken special care of the McAllister House ever since, hosting teas and tours during varying hours depending on the season (the best way to keep track of visiting hours is by visiting their website at http://mcallisterhouse.org/).
Visitors start their tour in the carriage house, accessed via an alley behind the main house. The carriage house has a nice book selection available for purchase, and displays many interesting family artifacts, including a fragment of the flag flying over Fort Sumpter on the date of its surrender, April 24, 1861. McAllister joined the regiment just a year and a half later, on September 14, 1862.
There is also a picture from the 1961 museum opening of Matilda coming to visit the house. She can be seen getting out of a carriage in front.
After a short local history lesson during which the curator assesses the needs of the guests in order to tailor the experience to them, the tour begins. Guests are asked to meet the curator at the front door of the house, which allows them to take their time as they explore its exterior. It’s kind of fun having someone open the front door as if expecting guests. It made me hope it would be Elizabeth, and she would offer me fresh homemade bread and well water.
The door opens to an entryway with an impressive mirror that belonged to President Lincoln.
The curator said school kids on field trips like to take turns looking at themselves in the glass, but when one boy refused to let the next girl have her turn, the curator asked him why. “Because I can’t see him yet,” he replied. The boy had been expecting to see Lincoln in the reflection.
Because the house is so small, the parlor was sometimes used as an extra bedroom when there were overnight guests. Mary was married to George Taylor in that parlor, and her writing desk graces the front corner. A chair set gifted to the McAllisters by William and Queen Palmer sits centrally in the room.
A melodeon in the corner attracts attention because it looks like a spinet, but is actually a small reed organ built only before the turn of the century. After 1900, they weren’t made anymore, so they are quite rare. This one still works, but it needs some repairs, which hopefully will occur sometime this summer.
A settee on the other side of the room displays a half-finished lace project that Matilda had been working on. Lace making is a dying art, the curator told me, and that particular kind of lace was especially intricate. If you look closely, you can see the pattern stamped on the paper, ready to be stitched.
A Bible under glass is open to the page that shows the McAllister wedding registry, listing Henry and Elizabeth (Cooper), Mary and George Taylor, and Harry’s wedding in June of 1896. Considering that the Bible was found in a Colorado College dumpster, recognized as significant by a dustman, and returned to the McAllisters, it’s amazing how it got there.
The dining room, or “Little London Room,” boasts genuine Chinese-patterned china and many artifacts donated by the Colonial Dames. The McAllisters’ silver set is Quaker-plain compared to the ornate donated silver set.
Of particular note is a commemorative decanter presented to McAllister at the 35th regimental reunion at Glen Eyrie in 1907. His name and regiment are etched into the glass—too bad they didn’t know he was a teetotaler.
The study contains some great relics from the McAllisters. Henry’s sword and canteen from the War are there, along with some original leather chairs and a (frankly ugly) quilt made by Matilda. It’s nice to imagine she might have made it out of mismatched scraps, deliberately piecing the ugliest parts together because she’d rather be outside than quilting.
The library table in the study was a gift from Matilda to her attorney, Leon Snider, before she rented the house. When the house opened as a museum, Mr. Snider returned it to the home.
The kitchen, a much-later addition, is cold, so I had to imagine the stove heating up this frigid room. The original kitchen was a separate building behind the house. Most kitchens were built separate from the house to reduce the risk of a blaze setting the main house on fire. The cabinets in this kitchen have recently been refinished, but a portion of the lower section of one door has been left alone, so people can see what it used to look like. Matilda’s play stove, complete with miniature pots and pans, sits next to the stove.
A beautiful set of Wedgwood china that once belonged to Julie Penrose graces the corner bureau.
Up the narrow stairway is the sleeping area. The parents’ bedroom is on the left, and the children’s is on the right, with a keyhole doorway in between that leads to a playroom and attic. The children’s room has lots of dolls and period clothing, including hand-stitched shoes. A porcelain chamber pot with lid sits in the middle of the room garnering curious stares, especially from the kids in the tour. They are surprised to hear that such an ornately decorated pot was used as a toilet.
The master bedroom holds a surprise. By the time visitors get to this point, they are used to seeing a mixture of donated antiques and original McAllister-owned pieces. The surprise is finding Mary’s wedding dress on the bed, and Matilda’s hand-beaded jacket on the wardrobe.
Another interesting feature is the cradle. Instead of having the rockers on the bottom, where they would easily warp the native-pine wood floor, the rockers are right under the cradle, which provides a smooth, soundless motion. Elizabeth’s chair sits next to the cradle, so it’s easy to imagine her reading or singing to her daughters after they were born.
The attic is normally off-limits to visitors, but it features a trefoil-shaped window that looks out over the Front Range, with a snow-covered Pikes Peak at its center. This is my favorite picture in the whole tour.
I had visited this lovely house as a small child, but never as an adult, and I spent years doing what a lot of people do—driving past it every day wondering what it was like inside, and meaning to stop in “sometime.” It surprises me how many people live here but have never heard of the McAllister House, or know of it but have never been there. The admission prices are cheap, and the tour is informative and fun—well worth the time and money. It takes a lot of love and upkeep to make the museum fresh each time guests come through, and the Dames work hard to keep the museum alive by providing an interactive tour with the most accurate historical information available. Donations, which only make up ten percent of the museum’s upkeep costs, are badly needed; if you go, give generously. It would be a shame if the museum had to close due to lack of funds or interest.
Last August, the board of the McAllister House Museum lost another bid for a historic preservation grant. Most grants of this type are rather small and require a matching amount to be raised in advance, so the grants are hard to get and the application process is cumbersome. The competition is fierce, too. This time, $14 million was requested, but only $4 million was available. There is hope, though—the board has been asked to re-apply in February, so hopefully this time the McAllister House will beat the competition.
Just like it did in 1873.