The year is 1919, the “War to End All Wars” has just ended, the Treaty of Versailles has been signed, and President Woodrow Wilson is organizing the League of Nations. There is a jubilant spirit across the United States. Soldiers are home, and the nation is ready to enter the “Roaring Twenties.” Out west, in a little town, Monument, at the foot of Pikes Peak and the Front Range, there, too, is a sense of purpose and moving forward.
The El Paso County School Superintendent, Inez Johnson Lewis, petitioned the State of Colorado and local Monument citizens to raise funds for building in Monument a new, state of the art school that would house the numerous students scattered in and around the Palmer Divide. There was a concerted effort at that time to consolidate the many little, one-room school houses and school districts for the sake of educational reform and a better, quality education beyond grade school. Thus, began the story of “Big Red.”
Thomas Maclaren, a noted, local architect who designed wonderful, beautiful buildings in the Denver and Colorado Springs areas created the design. Some of his works in Colorado Springs included City Hall, City Auditorium, The Acacia Hotel, Colorado Springs School (Trianon), Pauline Chapel in the Broadmoor, and Steele School (now renovated apartments on S. Tejon).
Big Red was built in 1919 and opened in 1920. It was originally known as the Inez Johnson Lewis School, and the stone, engraved nameplate is still visible today on the front of Big Red. In the early 20th century, it was recognized as one of the finest school buildings in the region. In honor of its fine design, the blueprints are still kept on the back of an original drawing of the Inez Johnson Lewis School. They hang on the second floor.
Through the years and decades, Big Red served the community well, though not all its features survived the passage of time. Originally there were two main stairway entrances that led into the building, one for girls and one for boys. Plus, two fire escapes on the outside of the building led from the third story to the ground. Even now, if looking at the north side of the building, a person can see the stained outline of where the fire escape was attached.
In 1929, a gymnasium was added to the west side. Almost 2 ½ decades later, in 1953, a cafeteria/music area and kitchen were built on the north side of the gym. As the district expanded, busses were used to bring students from the outlying areas. The ability to transport students across increased distances enabled educators and community leaders to consider the idea of consolidating the little schools and districts into one school district. In 1948 as the one-room school houses were abandoned and Big Red expanded, Lewis School District 5 and Palmer School District 33 consolidated. Lewis-Palmer School District 38 was born.
As the district grew, so did the need for new facilities. In 1957, a new Lewis-Palmer High School was built next to Big Red (currently known as Grace Best). No longer used to house students, parts of Big Red served other needs while high school students still walked over to Big Red for instrumental music classes in the old gym and to eat in the cafeteria, where there were kitchen facilities. Ever evolving, later the gymnasium became the District’s warehouse and maintenance facilities. The old cafeteria became home to Tri-Lakes Cares. Old classrooms became areas for District administration.
Growth required things to change rapidly, much like today. From the 1970s to the present, Big Red remained the District’s focal point while it added facilities for more students. In 2001, when Creekside Middle School, now Bear Creek Elementary, opened with a new, basement warehouse, it made way for consideration of renovations at Big Red for added meeting space, offices, and District technology. Tri-Lakes Cares began plans to find a new, expanded location so the former Big Red cafeteria that had served TLC needs for years and the old locker rooms could be renovated into the district’s technology department. Growth and progress touched both Big Red and Tri-Lakes Cares, increasing both to better serve their community.
I remember first seeing Big Red in 1970 when I was in the Army and stationed in Colorado Springs. I brought a youth group to Monument to go swimming in Monument Lake (yes, there was a beach and swimming area then). When the bus drove into Monument, one of the kids asked what that big red building was, and the bus driver said it was the Monument High School. Eighteen years later I returned to work in this amazing and historic monument to Monument.
In 1988 I was hired as principal for the new Ray Kilmer Elementary School east of Hwy 83, which is in its 30th school year. For the next fifteen years, Big Red became an enormous part of my life. As assistant superintendent and later superintendent, I spent many days and late nights in my office working on curriculum revisions, school board meetings, meetings with teachers and parents, and catching up on the day-to-day responsibilities. Very late at night while alone and working, I thought I could hear the faint sound of doors closing, floors creaking, basketballs bouncing on the old, wood, gym floor, and on occasion, thought I smelled a whiff of cigarette smoke. Now, I can only speculate if these were ghosts of days past, but if they were, they were friendly and reminded me of the many things that occurred here for the better part of a century. I sometimes wandered around the building just to check, chills up my back and hair raised on my arms, only to find that everything was in fact okay, and it was probably time to return home to my wife and daughter, who were usually fast asleep.
Then, in 2001, there was discussion about tearing down Big Red, selling it, or abandoning the building because it was old, and out of date. More room was needed for an up-to-date central office for the growing district. In 1977 the building was listed on the National Historic Register, which limited what could be done. Therefore, the school board decided to renovate the building using reserve dollars and prepare for the future. The Big Red that stands today is a result of that two-year renovation. The old gymnasium, warehouse, maintenance areas became the Learning Center; and the offices and registration area replaced old classrooms, student locker areas, and bathrooms. Today, if you visit Big Red, you can still see remnants of the old classrooms.
During the renovation, many interesting items were discovered. In the attic above the third floor, there were old desks, text books, a typewriter, and world globe. They are now in the Learning Center. On the rafters of the attic, student names were written and hearts were carved with inscriptions, like “HK loves ST.” How did those carvings and writings get there? Well, talking to several, former students, I learned they would climb up the big, metal air shafts, which are still there in places, leading to the attic. There they carved or wrote their names. Believe it or not, we left them, and they are still there today. Under the old stage we found cigarette butts, a pair of vintage boxing gloves, and an assortment of candy wrappers. So, I visited with an old, former student about this, and he described to me how he and a few friends used to sneak under the stage to smoke a cigarette and have a snack during school hours. Although he is dead now, the smells sometimes seemed to float up to my office, I think?
Over the years, while at Big Red, former teachers and students would visit the building and ask if they could look around. Of course, I loved to give tours and would treat them to see the new changes, and they would treat me to the old stories. How fascinating for me, and how fun for them to relive a special part of their lives.
This school year, the community celebrates 100 years of Big Red. It houses memories long past and the creation of new memories. Big Red serves its functions well and still retains significant design features, making it a wonderful, local landmark. The building continues to support the superintendent, administrators, and personnel to carry on the “pursuit of excellence” for which Lewis-Palmer School District 38 is known. Being one of the best school districts in Colorado, as indicated by numerous academic awards, the school district relies on the community support to continue on a great path. Being good always means a commitment to getting better.
Is there anyone out there who would like to help make this a celebration year for Big Red?! If so, please contact me and together let us plan a community celebration at a future date in 2020, that recognizes the amazing educational experience that was started 100 years ago. Big Red is a magnificent feature of the Monument community and of the school district with its central location and its grounds utilized for local artists’ displays. Big Red retains its integrity to convey the feelings of dedication to education and the community. It continues to stand as a stately commitment to excellence and as a foundation for the future of District 38.
Article by Ted Bauman