The Summer White House In The Clouds

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Perched on Mount Falcon as the mist rose and the cloudcapped towers caught the first rays of the morning sun, it would seem a dream palace, the residence of the Great Khan or a Dalai Lama, remote, unapproachable, yet somehow the center of the world. The rational air of midday would give the granite battlements and vast donjon the more formidable aspect of the krak des Chevaliers or Marienburg of the Teutonic Knights. A road hewn out of solid rock would curve sharply upward to the sally port below grim quadruple towers and a terrace that ended in a sheer traitor’s drop. The evening light would again lend a softness, an enchantment to the turrets and pinnacles. Here, it might seem, lay the entrenched power of the lord of the earth.

It was to be a summer White House near Denver, Colorado. But this massively awe-inspiring structure would exist only in the fancies of the Denver entrepreneur John Brisben Walker and the drawings of his architect, James B. Benedict. Walker, who owned thousands of acres that included Mount Falcon, first conceived his idea in 1910. In October, 1911, to stimulate public interest, he placed his White House cornerstone—a large block of Colorado Yule marble—on exhibition in Denver. President Taft when told of the plan said that no better location than Mount Falcon could be found, although he may have had private doubts about his own ability to climb so high. The Denver Civic and Commercial Association gave the project its endorsement. Walker spent a lot of money building a winding road to Mount Falcon’s summit.

Yet the three hundred thousand dollars that he hoped to raise by public subscription was not forthcoming. Even the Denver city fathers dawdled over voting the fifty thousand dollars Walker had requested of them. Undaunted, he proposed that each school child in the country contribute ten cents. Some of them did.

In July, 1914, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News announced that President Wilson would lay the cornerstone for the Colorado summer White House on August 15. All the western governors would be present. Two weeks later the News corrected itself to say that Wilson’s trip had been postponed until October. Yet October passed and the cornerstone remained unlaid. At last, in February, 1915, an architectural journal, The Craftsman , ran an article noting that President Wilson had consented to lay the cornerstone and that the main building would be completed in time for him to spend part of the following summer there. But by summer the cornerstone still rested in Denver: money was again the problem. No one then seemed to feel that the government should step in, although the palace was to be public property rather than part of Wilson’s estate. Not for another generation would the technique of extracting federal funds for such purposes be adequately developed. As the war moved inexorably closer to the United States Walker’s summer White House receded into the limbo of forgotten prospects. He himself is remembered, if he is remembered at all, as the man who proved that alfalfa could be grown profitably in the Rocky Mountain region and as one of the pioneers in planning a park system for Denver. His towering vision has melted into air leaving no rack behind, although its gorgeous possibility makes Camp David and San Clémente and the rest seem just a little prosaic.