Monday, June 22, 2009

Big beauty


CHIEFTAIN PHOTO/MIKE SWEENEY -- Big Hill, as preserved open space, has trails for hiking but is fenced off to motorized traffic.

Dr. Anne Courtright and her late husband, Dr. Clay Courtright, along with their dog, Honey, stand in their backyard on Big Hill overlooking Pueblo's West Side in this 2001 photo.

Big Hill a unique geographical location in Pueblo

One way to feel the true essence of a city is by looking down on it from above, finding its highest point and taking in as much of the view as possible in one look.
In Pueblo, no spot matches Big Hill for a prime vantage point.
With its peak at the south end of Seventh Avenue, the Big Hill open-space park encompasses a rocky outcropping lush with native brush and plants. Its borders of 18th Street, Montezuma Road, 24th Street and the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo lock in one of Pueblo's singular areas on the North Side.
"It's kind of a unique place with a wonderful view of the whole area," said Dr. Anne Courtright, a retired psychiatrist who, along with her late husband, Dr. Clay Courtwright, was instrumental in Big Hill being preserved as open space. "It's a nice place to walk and a little bit of nature in the middle of town."
Big Hill features open prairie along its outer rim, complete with cactus and other native vegetation that provides an ideal habitat for lizards, rabbits and fox. It is also a bird watcher's paradise and there are occasional sightings of bear, scorpions and deer. As the area ascends to its peak, the terrain becomes more rocky. There is an exposed cretaceous limestone bluff and a wetland area fed by a spring that seeps out of the hill.
It is at the top, however, that Big Hill's most valuable resource can be found: It's unparalleled view.
From the south end of the hill, there is about a 320-degree panoramic view unobstructed to the west, south and east. Only the view to the north doesn't stretch to the horizon due to the parallel lay of the land in that direction. "Just being able to have an open view, we enjoy it very much," said Glenn Ross, Anne Courtright's son-in-law who lives at the south end of Seventh Avenue. "We love seeing into the distance, seeing the weather change and develop, and seeing the colors of the mountains change throughout the day."
The view attracted many home builders when the development of Seventh Avene began in earnest in 1956.
"It's a full sweep of the mountains from Cheyenne Mountain and Pikes Peak to Liberty Point, the Wet Mountains, Greenhorn Peak and the Spanish Peaks," Dr. David Morton, who built his home at 2209 Seventh Ave., said in 2001. "We love to watch the sunrises and sunsets, which can be seen to good advantage."
The offerings of Big Hill have provided an advantage to many through the years, all the way until it was preserved as open space in 2000.
Big Hill history Anne Courtright did an in-depth historical study of her cherished Big Hill and unearthed some interesting tidbits.
The first recorded land sale in the area was from the United States of America to Charles B. Kountze in 1870. After the land changed hands several times, the Hartford Co. acquired it in 1890 with the intention to develop it as Hartford Highlands.
Hartford's financial difficulties prevented development and led to the sale of portions of land at a time. William S. Ingraham ended up with the whole of the Big Hill area by 1914.
After two new deeds were issued, Dr. Harvey and Helen Rusk gained ownership of the land on April 14, 1944. The Rusks deeded the strip of land that became Seventh Avenue to the city in 1953 and the beginning of development on the hill began in 1956, the year the first two houses were built at 2125 (the Rusk home) and 2111.
Before any structures existed, there were reports the Ku Klux Klan would burn crosses on the top of the hill, that mining took place for unknown material and that a ball field on the flat southwest corner was a hot spot for kids. During World War II, bombers would fly low over Big Hill to land at the air base and pilots would wave at the kids playing on the hill.
New kids on the block The top of Big Hill was prime real estate for TV and radio, due to the unobstructed signal range.
What is KOAA-TV today built the first structure on top of the hill in 1953 at 2200 Seventh Avenue. Prior to that, the only other building in the entire area was a barn along Montezuma Road, which was owned by a man with two horses.
The television station - KCSJ, which was owned by The Pueblo Chieftain & Star-Journal - also housed KCSJ Radio for a number of years before the radio station moved Downtown.
"As a weather man, it was real handy for me. I could go out behind the studios and see the panorama, watch the storms come in firsthand," said J. Ralph Carter, who was a longtime weather forecaster for KOAA. "It was the perfect geography for a weatherman. I'm sure Mike (Daniels) does the same thing to this day."
Carter's most vivid memory of working atop Big Hill is his twice daily walks to work. He lived on the north corner of the 2400 block of Seventh Avenue, and it was his mission to trudge up the steep hill on foot regardless of the weather to get some exercise.
A byproduct of those walks was gaining a special friend. Carter said a Siamese cat began waiting for him outside the station following the nightly news broadcast. It would follow him until he went into his house and this routine continued for some time.
One night, it was raining and Carter took the cat into the studios. He couldn't find it and discovered the next day that it had been making itself right at home in the station.
"I found that cat curled up on the set on my weather chair," Carter said. ‘‘At that point, I said ‘OK, that does it. I guess you’ve found yourself a home.’ ’’
Carter named the cat Gypsy for its wandering ways.
Uncertain future Residential development began in 1959 and within a few years, nice homes lined both sides of Seventh Avenue north of 24th Street. The street ended in a cul-de-sac a couple hundred yards from the southern end of the hill.
J.D. and Janet Macfarlane purchased the entire south end of the hill in 1964 with the thought of developing a housing area. They built 2109 Seventh Ave. on a design by Elizabeth Wright Ingraham, a granddaughter of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Macfarlanes' plan for development was delayed by moving to Denver after J.D. was elected attorney general, in addition to finding difficulty gaining zoning. They sacked the idea and sold the property to the Lighthouse Baptist Church, which also had plans to develop the top of the hill.
Another change hinted at heavy development in the area when the Kona Kai Apartments were built in 1971-72. Kona Kai is just west of the steep dropoff toward Montezuma Road.
The church, which became Lighthouse Bible Church, fell on tough times financially and was forced to sell the land. Several companies took out options on the land but withdrew after learning of the cost and difficulties of developing it.
It was around this time the Courtrights began looking at ways to preserve Big Hill's natural beauty.
Visionaries After Rusk's widow, Faye, died in 1997, the 9 acres between Seventh Avenue and CMHIP went to their sons. Residents along the west side of Seventh Avenue became more concerned about what would happen to the open space behind their houses.
The Courtrights and neighbors David and Kayoko Morton, Wayne and Norma Harr and Gene and Mary Pflum purchased the land for $50,000 and donated it to the city for open space.
While the west strip of the area now was protected, the Courtrights were concerned about the south end of the hill. Following a meeting with all of the homeowners on the hill, they decided to purchase the remaining 33 acres of the Big Hill area from the Lighthouse Bible Church for $300,000 and began plans to donate it to the city as a park.
City officials planned to help with the project by applying for a $100,000 Great Outdoors Colorado grant to offset the Courtrights' cost. Anne Courtright said then-City Manager Lou Quigley and Jim Munch and Steve Meier of the City Planning Department were a tremendous help in facilitating the project.
City Council approved the plan to apply for a GOCo grant, but the first application was denied in 1998. Meier rewrote the application for City Council to resubmit in 1999 and it was accepted.
The city acquired the land after giving the Courtrights the $100,000 GOCo grant and an additional $30,000. The deal was finalized in 2000 and Big Hill was dedicated as open space on Oct. 27 of that year.
The area is now fenced off to motorized traffic and is under the management of the Pueblo Parks and Recreation
Room with a view The Courtrights retained two 1-acre plots at the southern tip of Seventh Avenue. In 2000, they moved into the "Ingraham House," a unique structure with a central atrium and greenhouse top that once housed services for the Lighthouse church.
Clay Courtright died in a plane crash in April 2005, but Anne still lives in that house today.
They built a house on the other lot at 2110 Seventh Avenue, primarily to

cut auto access to the southern tip of the hill. For decades, the location was prime for people looking for the best view in town.
Now, when Anne Courtright steps onto her back porch or looks out the window, she knows the spectacular scene laid out in front of her will remain undisturbed.
"I feel real glad it will be available, hopefully in perpetuity, for the people of Pueblo," she said.

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