DENVER — A historic Italian-style home in Denver, Colorado will house a new center celebrating women who have contributed to the state’s past and present. The Center for Colorado Women’s History, which opened on March 21, is a helpful response to visitor demand for untold stories of local women. Already, it has demonstrated an agile and unconventional strategy driven by outreach and public collaboration.
The Center for Colorado Women’s History, located within the Byers-Evans House Museum, is in the cultural and historic heart of Denver. Nestled among the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver Art Museum, and Denver Public Library, the building was constructed in 1883 by William N. Byers, who was the founder and editor of Denver’s first newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News. Six years later, the home was purchased by William Evans, the son of territorial governor John Evans.
John Evans spurred growth in the state by spearheading Colorado’s first railroad, and his daughter Ann Evans became a powerful force in Denver’s arts and cultural space. She was a member of the Artists’ Club, which eventually became the Denver Art Museum. In the late 1920s, Ann Evans established the Denver Artists Guild and was a founding member of the Central City Opera, as well as the first woman president of the Denver Public Library. “Denver will become, through the use of its fine schools, its art museum and the Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Central City Opera House, the cultural center of the entire region,” she said.
Historic home museums typically don’t enjoy return visitors, according to Jillian Allison, who directs The Center for Colorado Women’s History and the Byers-Evans House. Too often, home museums lock their stories — like those of Ann Evans — in domestic spaces that look backward, not forward.
Two years ago, with these concerns in mind, and in hopes of expanding the uses of the 10,000 square foot home, Allison and museum staff started piloting programs such as book clubs, tea parties, and an exhibition on women of World War I, which is on display now. The effort resulted in a 25% increase in attendance, supporting her suspicion that visitors wanted the unique stories of important Colorado women. Allison made it evident that future programming would continue to “encourage conversation and make history feel accessible.”
This attitude of community ownership of historical storytelling was evident when Allison described an upcoming exhibition. “We are looking for feedback on what to feature,” she said. “We have seen a great deal of interest and questions around the suffrage movement.”
At the same time, her comment is a reminder that the center’s future direction remains in flux. On opening day, Allison, museum staff, and volunteers excitedly shared ideas for future concerts, artist installations, and workshops, but there weren’t any dates or online access points to make the plans concrete. Visitors arriving at Byers-Evans currently will find Carrying the Torch of Liberty: Colorado Women’s Work in World War I, an exhibition in the lobby mostly comprised of reproduced photos and war posters. You will also be offered an impressive and well-presented historic home tour, with minor interjections about the women’s history center.
Beyond those options, patrons curious to learn more about women named on the tour are invited to visit the Denver Public Library’s Western History Collection or the Hart Research Library at the History Colorado Museum, both which are free to the public and less than a 5-minute walk away. The separation between these sites presents a minor hurdle to those who want an overview of Colorado women’s history, but the center has established three fellowships to produce on-site research, which will enrich future exhibitions.
Many successful examples of women history museums support the concept of Colorado’s new effort, such as the Center for Women’s History at the New York Historical Society, which just celebrated its first anniversary. Another women’s museum with modest beginnings is the National Museum of Women in the Arts, established in 1981. That museum operated its first 5 years at the Holladay residence with docent-led tours. They now occupy a permanent location in a 78,810-square-foot Washington landmark.
Beginning in the 19th century, Colorado women helped to create powerful networks promoting social and political reform. They were empowered by the right to vote, granted to women in Colorado in 1893. Without permission or invitation, women like Elizabeth Byers, Ann Evans, and Helen Ring Robinson made major contributions to the state’s infrastructure and cultural legacy. Perhaps Denver’s new history center will inspire the next generation to do the same.