Old North End Neighborhood
The presence of medians in Colorado Springs probably began when the town founders decided to provide for wide streets. The plat of the original Town site specified street right of ways of 100 feet for streets and 140 feet for avenues. Intended to preclude the possibility of traffic congestion, the generous width has been attributed to General William Jackson Palmer, who intended to allow a multiple-horse carriage to turn around without having to back up.
The original roadways were dirt and the citizens objected to the resulting pools of water and subsequent dust. Local quarries eventually provided gravel for the streets. A street sweeping district was formed to remove animal droppings, but dust remained of primary concern. In 1872, the edges of the roads were first improved by extending the El Paso Canal, which diverted water from Fountain Creek to irrigate grass and trees along the streets. This practice continued until 1956 when Colorado Springs Utilities closed the canal. Thereafter the medians were watered by hand until sprinkler systems were installed. Photographs from the turn of the century show substantial trees in the middle of Cascade and Nevada Avenues, irrigated by narrow ditches.
The first identified reference of a landscaped median on Nevada Avenue occurs in an article in The Weekly Gazette in June of 1899. A 1905 report to the City Council prepared by Charles Robinson, Secretary of the Municipal Art League of America, noted that grass and maple trees grew in the median on Wood Avenue north of Colorado College; however, in spite of its high crown, the street lacked a concrete curb. North Cascade Avenue had a more elaborate median with trees, grass, shrubs, and concrete curbs. Robinson’s report noted Nevada Avenue already had medians except for the two blocks at Colorado College. At that time, Robinson proposed medians and landscaping on a number of wide streets in the City including Wahsatch Street. His report showed that beautification was not the only reason for the medians. Planted medians in the center of the roadways would provide a cost savings because the entire width of the roadways would not need to be paved. With great prescience, Robinson strongly endorsed the use of native plants in natural groupings. Robinson would later pen his “Colorado Springs, the City Beautiful” plan in 1912 which became the City’s first comprehensive civic vision for the future.
In 1910, the Civic League of Colorado Springs weighed in on the case for landscaped medians. The League pointed to advantages such as the reduction of dust, shade from the sun, and visual relief. In 1911, the city of Colorado Springs had the dubious distinction of being the largest city in the country with unpaved streets. Efforts to pave the streets began in earnest with the formation of paving districts. However, plans for paving and for providing additional medians stalled, perhaps as a result of waning revenue from the Cripple Creek Mining District, and the entry of the United States into World War I.
On June 3, 1920, The Gazette Telegraph published an editorial called “It’s Up to the Springs.”
“The point which we all have been trying to overlook but which cannot be ignored much longer is that Colorado Springs has not kept herself up. We not only have failed to undertake new work, which should have begun, but we have neglected needed improvements and ordinary maintenance. The net result is that we are far behind and we must speedily get behind and push thru a large and comprehensive program if we are to catch up. It will cost money, to be sure, and part of that money will represent neglect, but we have got to begin hitting the ball if we expect to amount to anything at all. We cannot continue to do nothing. The sooner this fact is faced, the sooner an honest effort is made to meet and correct the conditions which have gradually grown up, the better it will be for all of us. Nothing will come from sitting idly by and hoping against hope that some kind angel will pass by and help us out of our difficulties—nothing, that is, but regret. We have to help ourselves if we are to be helped.”
By the summer of 1926, all the landscaped medians were in place in the historic portion of the city. Their configuration, however, has changed over time with the increase in automobile traffic and the need for turn lanes and traffic lights.
Much of the character and uniqueness of the city’s central neighborhoods may be attributed to General Palmer’s desire for Colorado Springs to be a “garden city”. The landscaped medians contributed to Palmer’s inspiration “to provide open space so that city residents could never be deprived in their walks, rides, or sports of that glorious sense of being all out of doors”. The landscaped historic medians, along with uniform setbacks, varied historic architectural styles, and mature landscaping are the unifying elements in the neighborhood.
In 1991, the Old North End Neighborhood created a Master Plan that was passed as City Ordinance. It states that one of the tenets of the Plan is to “preserve the historic landscaped boulevards and tree-lined streets”. Some of our medians are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and most are protected through the Historic Preservation Overlay zoning by the City.
More recently, Colorado Springs experienced a number of years of drought. Combined with a budgetary shortfall, our historic trees suffered when the City was forced to stop watering the medians. The Old North End Neighborhood paid to have the trees watered by hand, but it was not enough. Our trees were nearing the end of their natural lifespan, further weakened by the lack of moisture. And now for safety reasons these dead and dying trees must be removed. As sad as it is to face the loss of any living thing, face it we must. And take action we must. Some of us are moving beyond our sadness to create a fundraising group called North End Woodlands whose purpose is to raise funds to replace and maintain our historic trees. We aim to leave the legacy of a beautiful urban forest for our children and for our fellow citizens.
Judith Rice-Jones-her personal notes and papers
Tim Scanlon-Report to City Council, February 12, 1996