Celebrating 140 years of the University of Colorado

CU Denver’s Dr. Colorado chats about the birth of the institution’s four campuses
Cathy Beuten | CU System
Community, Education

CU Denver Professor Tom Noel

CU Denver Professor Tom Noel

Dr. Colorado is about as colorful as his namesake state, and as knowledgeable about the history of Colorado as they come.

Tom Noel, professor of history at the University of Colorado Denver, is Dr. Colorado and author or co-author of 49 publications.

The Centennial State, Colorado was granted statehood in 1876. And part of qualifying for statehood meant establishing a university. Thus the state of Colorado and the University of Colorado both turned 140 years young in 2016.

“We’re celebrating CU Boulder, founded in 1876, and as you may know there was some controversy there,” Noel said. “Cañon City was also in the running for the university. Cañon City thought it over and thought, ‘Would you like the state university here or would you like the state penitentiary here?’ [They decided] ‘No we want the pen, because you could rent out a prisoner for a dollar a day.’ Where all can you rent out a student for a dollar a day? So, poor Boulder got ‘stuck’ with the University of Colorado,” he said.

But Boulder, which now boasts more than 28,000 enrolled students, didn’t mind a bit.  

“I think Boulder was very excited to get it – they always thought of themselves as the Athens of the West,” Noel said. “They donated land and made that great hilltop site for the university. It started out in what’s now Old Main, in the museum there. In that one little building, the students lived, the faculty lived and they also taught classes. It must have been an interesting place in those days.”

They also had cows on the grounds, possibly to help support the university. “You see old photographs of cattle grazing in what is now the Norlin Quadrangle,” he said.

The university grew and thrived and although Cañon City is still likely seeing the benefits of the penitentiary, the state as a whole is reaping the benefits of the University of Colorado’s four campuses.

CU Colorado Springs was founded in 1965 and last year celebrated its 50th anniversary. The university now has about 12,000 students.

“The University of Colorado Colorado Springs started out in the old Cragmor Sanatorium, one of the most impressive of all the buildings for people with TB, complete with heliotherapy decks on top where supposedly you’d lie out in the nude and get full solar heliotherapy treatment,” he said. “Interestingly enough they did allow smoking there in this TB sanatorium.”

The institution was converted into the core building of the Colorado Springs campus, and now has plenty of company. “Every time I drive down there they seem to have a new building and are emerging as a very strong, independent campus,” Noel said.

UCCS is located on approximately 521 acres in northeast Colorado Springs at the foot of Austin Bluffs, a rugged natural cliff formation. The campus provides a spectacular view of the Rocky Mountains, including Pikes Peak.

Noel has had the honor of teaching at CU Denver since the 1970s. “I was actually a student there at the Denver campus and started out there as a part-time teacher, paper-grader and worked my way up to full professor.”

Established in 1974, the Auraria Campus comprises the Community College of Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver with the University of Colorado Denver.  

“It’s about 46, 000 students now, so it’s by far the largest campus in the state,” he said.

In the 1970s, CU President Bruce Benson was among the supporters of Auraria being an autonomous, shared campus. The campus is 169 acres and was an urban renewal district inhabited by an underserved, largely Hispanic population, Noel said.

CU Denver now has about 13,000 students, but it wasn’t always that way. When Noel first engaged with the university as a student, his fellow students and faculty met at the old Insurance Exchange building at 14th Street and Glenarm, above a bar called Collins Finer Foods, he said.

“Whenever you have the word finer or better or quality, you need to assert that because it may not be obvious,” he said. “You could get a pitcher of beer in there for a dollar fifty cents and everybody was in there – the faculty, the classrooms and the students in this old building.”

The CU School of Medicine, now one of many health career offerings at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, was birthed more than 100 years ago at CU Boulder. “But they didn’t have enough patients, enough people with trauma injuries or any kind of trouble for students to practice on so they moved down to Denver at 14th and Welton, where the Convention Center is today, into the old Archer Mansion,” Noel said.

“Then in the 1920s they get the wonderful campus out at Ninth and Colorado and build a really big and impressive campus, which lately is a pile of rubble.”

That’s because the health sciences center thrived and grew . . . and then it got crowded.

“Philip Anschutz has given more than $100 million, saying, ‘You really need a new and less crowded campus,’ which was painful for a lot of people who were attached to the old one. But things worked out with a square mile out there to expand on in this very impressive new campus,” Noel said.

“My mother was a graduate in 1938, one of the first early women doctors to graduate from CU Health Sciences Center. It’s impressive now at the new campus where they still have pictures of the graduating classes,” he said. The photo now resides in what was once Fitzsimons General Hospital, built in 1941 with a large focus on TB care and just in time for World War II. “That was the most impressive building in the whole state when it was built.”

The hospital, renamed Building 500, is now in the national register of historical places. “I think still it is now as handsome as any of the new buildings,” Noel said.

The university has a colorful history, graduating more than 480,000 students and overcoming challenges such a state funding that ranks 48th in the nation. Through it all, CU remains strong, continuing to benefit its students, society and the state with an estimated $7 billion economic impact. With record enrollment and groundbreaking research and discoveries, the university still has many colorful stories to tell. And you can bet Dr. Colorado will be on hand to make sure those stories are told.

Find books by CU Denver Professor Tom Noel