Who Was Thomas MacLaren?

Thomas MacLaren
Photo used by permission of the Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum.

While you might not be familiar with architect Thomas MacLaren’s life, odds are that you are familiar with his work. MacLaren’s buildings form an important part of the unique appearance of Colorado Springs. Whether you walk past them, drive by them, live in them, work in them or worship in them, MacLaren’s buildings play a significant role in the day-to-day lives of local citizens.

Our namesake left the Pikes Peak Region more beautiful than he found it. In his work, he embodied learning that weds the arts to the sciences and the needs of a city with the delight of one's own heart and eye. He was a man of vision, and he made that vision real.

Born on February 19, 1863, Thomas MacLaren was the youngest of eleven children born to John and Janet Downie MacLaren of Perthshire, Scotland. MacLaren attended the village school and the nearby high school in Stirling, where he became increasingly interested in the art of architecture.

At the age of 16, MacLaren moved to London to continue his studies under the supervision of his older brother James, an accomplished architect. He began an apprenticeship with the firm of Wallace and Flockhart while also attending the South Kensington Royal Academy of Art in the evenings. He won numerous awards for his extraordinary artistic abilities, including the Pugin Traveling Scholarship, which enabled him to study architecture throughout Europe.

Although facing a promising future as an architect in Britain, MacLaren immigrated to Colorado in the winter of 1892 for health reasons. Seeking a cure for his tuberculosis, a disease that took the life of his brother James, MacLaren initially moved to Denver, settling in Colorado Springs a year later.

He quickly established a thriving practice and received commissions for businesses, schools, churches and municipal buildings. During his thirty-four years of residency, MacLaren produced the designs for more than two hundred buildings. His body of work includes such significant structures as City Hall, City Auditorium, Parish Hall at Grace Episcopal Church, the clubhouse at Patty Jewett Golf Course, Ivywild School, Pauline Chapel, Claremont (now the Colorado Springs School), Sacred Heart Church, West Middle School, Colorado Springs Fire Station No. 1, Cragmor Sanitarium and the Manitou Springs Carnegie Library. MacLaren viewed architecture as an art form.

He worked diligently to combine his clients’ wishes with a timeless artistry that resulted in an enduring statement of values and culture. As MacLaren said in 1901, “Domestic architecture [is] directly expressive of the lives of the people.”

His broad use of styles reflects the range of his client’s opinions as to what constituted good design. Nevertheless, MacLaren buildings are easily recognizable and when viewed as a whole, constitute a unique vision for the built environment of the west. MacLaren advocated strongly for local architecture that complemented from the stunning natural beauty of the region. He urged the use of flat roofs appropriate to the dry and sunny climate and in harmony with the level lines of mesas and prairies, as well as the exterior paint colors of buff and white which would “…agreeably contrast with the prevailing color of the landscape in which neutral colors predominate.”

When MacLaren died in 1928, the Colorado Springs Gazette called him “one of the foremost architects in the west.” MacLaren’s buildings are more than just functional structures – they are works of art. Through his intricate designs and attention to detail, MacLaren conveyed the aesthetics and cultural values of his time and created buildings that have stood the test of time.

Thomas MacLaren biography is used courtesy of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.

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