A Portrait for Palmer

Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

John 8:32, King James Version.

As quiet as it is most of the day, Palmer Hall doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Our Colorado-red stone monument is as much a part of the fabric of Colorado College as Block Breaks and sunny blue skies. The Gates Common Room serving as a secondary study carrel space during the Tutt Library renovation also means Palmer is getting a bit more foot traffic than usual. And yet, it’s all too easy to breeze through at 9 a.m. (or p.m.), thinking more about your thesis or oral exams than the history of the stones you’re walking on. It dominates the center of campus in both size and longevity. Walls may not speak out loud, but they have plenty of stories to tell if we stop in silence to find a sense of place and peace.

There’s the famous tale every tour guide recounts about Palmer’s Romanesque arches: Tejon Street was once going to have a trolley railroad connecting the two parts of town, but William Jackson Palmer and the trustees disapproved of the railroad cutting right through campus. As the legend goes, when the campus began building Palmer Hall in 1902, the arches were designed to be just one foot thinner than a trolley car—splitting Tejon Street for good. It’s just the sort of clever pettiness that might be too good to be true, but it’s also the sort of inventive trickery that draws prospective students to CC. Even if that isn’t quite how it happened, the myths we invent for ourselves might be the most telling of all.

There are other, less-publicized anecdotes that never get their fair share of attention. This next one sounds like a terrible joke, but stay with me. Why does the dog in the memorial on the western side of the central staircase have a bright, brass nose? The bas-relief of General Palmer and his hound, designed by Evelyn Beatrice Longman, is made of bronze. Turns out, bronze has a funny tendency to turn bright gold from repeated interactions with the chemicals on human fingers, as generations of desperate exam-takers and fourth-weekers rubbed the nose for luck as they passed by. If there’s ever a fourth Tuesday when all seems lost, there’s always one last ray of hope on the Palmer staircase.

Other features of Palmer are increasingly rare around campus. Anyone who’s ever stepped into a Palmer classroom may have noticed the stubborn “No Smoking” signs pasted on and peeled off every single chalkboard. In ‘60s-era bold Helvetica typeface, they hail from a time not so long ago when students (and professors) still needed to be reminded not to smoke in the classroom. The fact that Palmer still has chalkboards at all is another testament to its age and is one of the few reasons professors still argue over the best brand of chalk. (The basic Crayola is very popular, but I’m told by an anonymous source that now-defunct Japanese brand Hagomoro’s “Fulltouch Chalk” is the Holy Grail of all chalk.) 

All these features show the warm, fuzzy side of Palmer so many of us know and love. Every little quirk—from the way the walls echo, to the way the heater rattles and the windows don’t always open—tells us this building is in the bones of campus. But skeletons have secrets, and Palmer Hall is no exception. When we dip below the façade of our beloved centenarian, ugly truths begin to spill out in a swirl of distasteful memory.  

The first memory we dig up dates from Palmer’s very genesis. The construction of Palmer Hall was one of the crowning achievements of President William Slocum’s tenure (1888-1917). 10 buildings built by Slocum still stand today, including Bemis and McGregor Halls. It was, of course, named after General William Jackson Palmer, Civil War veteran, Colorado Springs founder and first donor to the new Colorado College.  Enormous portraits of General Palmer and President Slocum in their regalia oversee the two halves of the central staircase, and there is a brass plaque in Gen. Palmer’s honor on the western side (the very one we rub for luck). But despite both men’s inordinate contributions to the college, there are uncomfortable realities, about Slocum’s presidency especially, that cannot be ignored. As Alta Viscomi wrote in a Cipher article called “Slocum the Lecher,”  published three years ago, President Slocum regularly intimidated and sexually harassed the women around him during his presidency and in the course of his massive fundraising tour across the East Coast. 

Maude Bard, a CC graduate and college secretary, gave one horrifying example of an event that took place in Slocum’s office. “Mr. Slocum took me by the shoulders, forced me to stand against the east wall of the office, and pressed his whole body against mine, especially emphasizing the pressure at the portion of his body and mine more calculated to arouse and satisfy physical passion,” she said. “I struggled to free myself, and fled from the office.” His daunting figure still looms large, not only with his portrait in Palmer Hall, but across the campus that bears his stamp in so many ways.

Palmer Hall’s grave truths go beyond just its symbolic origins. The physical bricks of the building have their own secrets, too. Studio Art Professor Emeritus Carl Reed was one of three lecturers who delivered a 2013 First Mondays talk entitled “Design Matters. Why?” In discussing the design of Palmer Hall, Professor Reed pointed out that if you look just northwest from Adam F. Press Fitness Center, you can see “the scar on the mountains” from where sandstone for old buildings like Palmer was quarried. Palmer’s own peachblow sandstone was actually quarried in Frying Pan River, close to Aspen. Reed remarked that centuries-old buildings like Palmer leave an un-erasable mark on the very landscape that makes them possible, and questioned the sustainability of designing such buildings today. Parts of Colorado’s mountains are in our own mountain, Palmer.

As the oldest academic building on campus (since Cutler Hall now serves as the Admissions Building), Palmer Hall is the living monolith that bears the visible weight of CC as an institution through all its mistakes and triumphs. Though there are several dorm buildings on campus from the early 1900s, living spaces cannot quite embody that weight in the same formal way. Palmer also sits in the center of campus as an ever-present reminder of a time when CC, as well as the world, did not always prioritize women, people of color, non-heterosexual and non-gender-conforming individuals at the institutional level. While it is a harbinger of, and home for, critical thinking, the liberal arts, and humanism, Palmer also represents centuries of a white, masculinist, imposing and unrelenting locus of power that CC is so desperately working to leave behind.

The history of CC is held within the architecture as a physical entity that we move around and inside. That space is constantly (re)defined by the stories we tell about it (or don’t). Palmer has been beloved for generations, but it harbors a complicated history, like other places on campus. In another example, although Slocum sexually harassed dozens of women and quietly resigned in disgrace, he also successfully kept Colorado College from near economic disaster at the turn of the century. As goes the world, so goes Palmer Hall.

Even an unmoving edifice like Palmer Hall can be pulled into a new drama by someone else’s invention. Lukey Walden’s (‘17) Studio Art thesis show, “They! Them!! Here!!!” used the second floor landing and second floor of Palmer to display portraits they’d painted of transgender, queer and gender non-conforming individuals from the CC and Colorado Springs community. The title of each painting is the subject’s name, and a note reminds viewers to refer to each subject with “they” pronouns. Chairs underneath the portraits invite viewers to sit for their own portrait, a meta-theatrical reminder of the daily gender and race performativity none of us can avoid. Symbolically, one also has to stand in the corners of the second floor landing to see the whole show at once, a not-so-subtle reminder of the physical and emotional marginalization people of color and gender non-conforming individuals are made to feel on a daily basis, even in an often-progressive institution like CC.

The formal portraits of President Slocum and General Palmer loom over Walden’s, twice as large. The quiet battle for power between all these portraits in this space is a political drama of its own. Walden has very intentionally disrupted the histories Palmer Hall represents and shown that any member of the CC community can nudge history in a new direction with something as “simple” as a thesis show. 

A painter since only third block of this year, Walden also exhibited works of two other transgender individuals at the CC Student Art Show on March 4. I sat down with them to discuss the show, their artwork, Palmer Hall and their experience of being trans at CC. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. I also gave Walden a chance to review and revise some of their comments.

Portraits of Stoney and Peyton in Palmer Hall

Portraits of Stoney and Peyton in Palmer Hall

KS: The first thing I wanted to ask you: The name of the show is definitely interesting, and I think it’s a really cool pun, but tell me a little bit about how you came up with it, where that’s coming from.

LW: Yeah, I was trying to come up with names, and one of my friends proposed that as a joke, because it sounds kind of corny—but I ended up really loving it because it has the oompf of like an old-school protest slogan. The other thing I liked about it is, in a similar way, it sounds like a carnival hawker or something, or a spectacle of some sort. 

KS: And do you see this as a sort of spectacle?

LW: Yeah, that’s one of the aspects that I hope people come away from the show with. These paintings are a record of moments of intimacy between two trans people. There’s a voyeuristic aspect to any cis person looking at it. And my hope is that initiates some thought about people’s complicity in turning our privacy into a public spectacle, which is a much wider issue than just portrait painting. Like these ridiculous processes trans people are subjected to to get hormones or get their ID changed. And it’s not just policy stuff. You get questions from strangers about surgery, about hormones, about sex practices. Cis people everywhere feel entitled to that kind of information, and when it comes at you from all sides it can leave you feeling like a raw nerve.

KS: And, in terms of that spectacle, in terms of having it be very present in a public place, how did you decide to have Palmer Hall be the gallery for the show?

LW: Yeah, there [were] a couple things; the first thing that works out is just that the light is really, really cool.

KS: That’s true!

LW: And there’s these two giant portraits, right, of General Palmer and of William Slocum. And I realized I could start some conversation about the canon of portraiture and get people to think about that as well. I also liked it because it’s a liminal space, it’s a stairwell, somewhere people pass through; I knew a lot of people could see it. And I like that if you’re coming from the bottom, you have to go through this giant institutional doorway, and then you have to come up these stairs and then you’re suddenly already in it, and already under the gaze of these people–

KS: “These people” being your portraits or the two Williams?

LW: Both, I suppose. And I knew I didn’t want it to be just a white box gallery, just because I wanted something more organic and dusty. The first thing I wanted was just to be an old institutional space, where these would be disruptive.

KS: So obviously you talk a little bit about what you want this show to mean for people who see it [in the show abstract], but how do you think it will reflect on CC as an institution and on Palmer Hall as a building?

LW: [Pause] I don’t mean to indict the school or the men here [Slocum and Palmer], just to say “take note.” And I tried a little bit to dig up to see if they were both horrible, because then I would include that information. But General Palmer was really great: He was an abolitionist who taught freed slaves, although I’m sure there’s plenty of nasty stuff that’s covered up. And I honestly figured I didn’t have to do that much research because I thought if I set this conversation up, those connections would come out. And, I mean, there’s definitely something here about access to public space, rights over institutional spaces for trans people. There’s also the primary thing, the conversation with the canon of portraiture, who gets painted and how they’re shown. You know, I didn’t put them in robes and have them stand with a cane and look imperial. 

KS: Would you say this has been a very emotionally motivated project for you?

LW: Yeah, the biggest point being that I was able to sit and talk and chat and complain and joke with other trans people for multiple hours a day, and that was most of the social contact I got. It was great, you know, I sometimes go weeks without seeing another trans person. 

KS: If you could have anything on campus change for trans people in the next year, what would that be?

LW: Bathrooms come to mind because it’s such an easy fix, we’re pretty far behind on that. It’s part of a wider issue of the ways cis people make decisions about trans people’s safety without actually consulting trans people. Like signage for all-gender bathrooms, just put a picture of a toilet, it doesn’t have to be a little split dress with a man, a half-dress creature. It’s like, “half of each gender is welcome here.” I don’t think a trans person designed that thing…But our student resources for each other are pretty good. The queer community here does a really good job of supporting each other and supporting itself. And there’s nothing specific to CC that I want to change that I wouldn’t want to change everywhere, you know? I know tons and tons of nonbinary people here have a really shitty time when it comes to hooking up and dating. There’s other social stuff, like pronouns. Just checking [in] and people not giving themselves such a huge pat on the back for getting it right. Just being mindful of trans people’s physical safety, emotional safety.

KS: If you could give one piece of advice for helping trans people with their physical and emotional safety, what would that be?

LW: I don’t know–it’s just a matter of normalization, I think. People often think they’re being supportive when I walk by and they’re like, “Ohmygod! Like, earrings! Slay!” but would never think to ask me if I know I’m getting home safely. But I’m lucky that I can nitpick at those little issues because for a lot of trans people, their normal public conditions are a lot more hostile. 

KS: Anything else you would want readers to know? Either about the show, or about yourself? 

LW: I don’t speak for all trans people. And, in terms of the show, my hope is that people see beyond just the basic social impact of the fact that these are “our portraits” and were put in this space. Yes, these people have been excluded from the canon of portraiture, and that’s part of the conversation, but you can know that without looking at the painting, that’s not the whole picture, and I want you to actually spend some time with them, see the color, et cetera, and see [how] all the other formal elements and differences and similarities speak to the grander conversation too.

By making the halls and corners of Palmer into their gallery, Walden has not only redefined a space traditionally only seen as a pathway across the building, but has created new possibilities for artists and queer students to see themselves in this time-worn structure that was not made to include them. The symbolism of the fact that they’ve used the hallway between the History and Education departments cannot be overlooked, either. Though temporary, the portrait subjects sit for Walden, but possess an unforgettable stare as passersby climb the stairs and turn the corner. Using a signature squiggly but arresting brushstroke, Walden has captured the attitudes, pain and joy of their sitters in a way that roots their presence in this space at this time. As seen even in its title, “They! Them!! Here!!!” asserts presence and even resistance where once there was only absence, in both Palmer and in portraiture. 

Architecture is a remarkable medium, an art installation that is meant to be used, touched and adapted all at once, without forgetting the time and place it came from. Buildings are a tactile entity that we interact with every day, and it is vital we both cherish them and keep conversation with their origins. And indeed, Palmer Hall has not forgotten its beginnings. Each corner of the building still bears some mark of its 113 years in the middle of Tejon Street, from the Gates Common Room’s old chandeliers to the iron steps on the west end. Walden’s show is an unavoidable reminder that even though Palmer Hall is as much a part of CC’s twenty-first century as our new Tutt Library, it’s taken a labyrinthine path through the last hundred years and has the scars to prove it. The intellectual interrogation of students like Walden reminds us of what this space once was, and points to what it could be. The more avidly we pursue those truths, fuzzy and ugly, the closer we may get to finding our way toward freedom from them.

Part of the Ritual Issue