Shrine of the Sun
A common question I hear often from visitors to Colorado Springs is, “What is that little castle up on the mountain?” the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun does look like a little castle since it is built in a Romanesque Revival style, so I can understand why people think it is one. I encourage tourists and natives alike to visit it, since it has an interesting history as well as views of our city unlike anywhere else.
The Will Rogers Shrine can only be accessed via the road that goes through the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. This means you must either secure a special invitation via the El Pomar Foundation, which owns the land and building, or do what I did: purchase admission to the zoo, which includes admission to the Shrine. I suggest that you visit the animals, and when you’re done, drive the short but winding road up to the Shrine where you will find an unexpected treasure that is worth the trip, even if you are afraid of heights.
The Shrine was built in 1935-36 by Spencer Penrose, a Philadelphia-transplant Springs magnate who made his fortune in gold and copper, as a memorial to himself and his wife Julie. He considered calling it the “Penrose Memorial” but was told that was a little too self-serving. He was still trying to figure out what to call it when his friend and longtime Broadmoor patron Will Rogers was killed in a plane crash. People across the country were shocked at the untimely death of such a beloved humorist and philosopher, and it was common to name structures in Will Rogers’s memory. Penrose followed the trend and called his monument The Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun. The last part pays homage to the Shrine’s fantastic views of the sunrise and sunset.
At 100 feet tall, the Shrine took two years to build and sits on the eastern ridge of Cheyenne Mountain. When it was built, a flare was lit at the top, which made the Shrine visible for miles. Chimes were installed that still sound every 15 minutes during the daytime and can be heard for 20 miles. Listen while you’re at the zoo or take a walk around Cheyenne Lake at the Broadmoor, and you’ll hear them—but try to time it so you are inside the Shrine at the top of the hour to get the full effect.
Here’s my advice when taking a tour of the Shrine:
When you park at the base of the Shrine, first enter the education center to the south. Here you can see a model of the Shrine as well as a timeline of Spencer Penrose’s life and a video biography of Will Rogers narrated by Bob Hope. On the way out of the building, be sure to note the display on the east wall which features all the projects the El Pomar Foundation (established by Spencer Penrose in 1937) has sponsored. El Pomar continues to sponsor many local landmarks and programs, even such endeavors as the Pueblo Riverwalk.
If you’re from out of town, take a couple of minutes to relax and breathe, because the climb to the top of the Shrine can be a challenge for the unacclimated. Since the top of the zoo is 1000 feet higher than its entrance, which starts at 6,500 feet, and the Shrine is easily 1000 feet above that, you’re standing at about 8,500 feet above sea level. And you still have 100 more feet to go, up a winding staircase.
Start by walking through the gate and going up the front steps. Take pictures next to the shi shi dogs on either side. Penrose brought those, along with a quite large collection of other antiques found at the Broadmoor Hotel, from his trips to Asia. Go forward toward the front door of the Shrine, but don’t go in: go to the right, and enter the balcony area to the south.
Tour your way around the edge of the balcony. On each part of the parapet, you’ll see a little plaque that indicates a landmark of the city, and which direction to look to see it (The Cooking Club building doesn’t exist anymore, though, so don’t strain yourself). From here, you get a great panoramic view of the city and can view it up close using the binoculars provided.
Circle around to the north, and when you come through on the other side, note the steps going down to the chapel. You can save the chapel for last, but I like to visit it before I see the rest of the Shrine. The chapel is a tomb for Spencer and Julie Penrose as well as the remains of the first two friends Penrose made in Cripple Creek: Harry Leonard and Horace Devereux. A sixteenth-century Baroque painting of the Madonna watches over the chapel which is lined with choir stalls from the same century that were a gift to Julie Penrose from a good friend. Side note: Spencer Penrose was not Catholic, but Julie was, so he made arrangements for his body to be cremated before Julie could stop it. When she died in 1956, her body was interred in an ornate bronze casket next to his urn.
Now that you’ve had some time to get used to the thin air, it’s time to enter the Shrine itself. Notice the doors throughout the complex: they are hand wrought of iron, and are very unusual. They have just the right creepy creak if you swing them shut.
On the main floor of the Shrine, you’ll notice some interesting artwork depicting Native Americans covering the walls and ceiling. This is the craft of Randall Davey, an artist from Santa Fe who was hired by Penrose to paint the frescoes inside the building. Turn left, and go into the first room.
This room is my favorite of all, and worth the trip just by itself. Davey must have taken months to finish the almost life-sized frescoes that surround the room, depicting momentous occasions in early Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek life: Tutt and Penrose in front of their real estate office; Palmer with his baby railroad engine at the depot; Bob Womack hanging out in a brothel, playing cards with ladies of the evening gathered around; the Penroses flanked by Devereux and Leonard on the lawn of the Broadmoor; is that Stratton near the mines in the background? On the adjacent wall the big Cripple Creek miners’ war is depicted, and following around are miners at work next to Lewis and Clark and their pack animals. There is not an inch of wall space that isn’t painted, and you’re surrounded with amazing art, even on the ceiling. Photos do not do it justice.
When you’re done admiring the artwork, make your way up the winding stairs, stopping to see the life and witticisms of Will Rogers depicted in photos and drawings all the way up.
At each landing, there’s a small room with even more pictures, so stop in and admire. The windows, made of leaded glass, are worth noting, too. Make your way to the top. The stairway amplifies even the merest whisper, so most people choose not to talk too loudly, which adds to the solemnity of the visit.
When you step out at the top of the Shrine, a vast, unique view will be visible that will take your breath away. To the north, you can see Cheyenne Canyon, Pikes Peak, Cameron’s Cone, the start of Old Stage Road, the Waldo Fire burn scar, and Garden of the Gods all at once. Nowhere else can you see all these things at once! To the east, you can see the Broadmoor, the zoo below, and the entire expanse of Colorado Springs as it stretches toward the prairie. To the south, you can see Fort Carson, Fountain and Security, and Cheyenne Mountain. Be sure to take lots of pictures, because it’s hard to explain how amazing the view is without them.
After you make your way back down the stairs, you’re not done with the tour just yet. Take note of the busts of Penrose and Rogers on either side of the complex; I always touch Penrose’s perfect moustache, because I’ve always wanted to touch the real thing. It’s a beauty. Behind the bust of Penrose is a slightly hidden trail. Take the trail down the hill, and rest on one of the benches along the way. The wind whispers in the pines so peacefully here. It’s very tranquil and the perfect place to be inspired.
When you come out of the gate, take a last lingering look at Colorado Springs before you get in your car to drive back down Cheyenne Mountain. Images from the day will stay in your memory a long time, and it may be a while before you get back up there, so cherish them. I know I do.