DU History / History / Magazine

The Phipps Legacy

Lawrence Phipps and his dog

Sen. Lawrence Phipps was known as a kind man and generous philanthropist. Photo: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

Denver society gasped back in 1911 when multimillionaire steel magnate, philanthropist and Colorado business tycoon Lawrence Phipps announced his third marriage.

Phipps’ intended bride was Margaret Rogers, the daughter of wealthy attorney and former Denver Mayor Platt Rogers. She was smart, attractive and eligible, but 26 years younger. Local wags wondered.

They needn’t have, says grandson Graham Phipps. The couple was close and loving, and the marriage proved a successful union of two of the era’s most important Denver families. One way or another, each family has been aiding the state as far back as 1876, when Rogers’ grandfather Amos Widner helped found the University of Colorado.

“The Phipps clan have made innumerable contributions to the betterment of Colorado,” says historian Tom Noel (BA ’67, MA ’69).

Of particular benefit to DU was the donation of the sprawling family mansion in Denver’s Belcaro neighborhood to the University in the early 1960s. DU’s stewardship continued for nearly five decades, perpetuating the family’s legacy and preserving the landmark estate. The mission ended in late 2010, when the University sold the property to private buyers.

“One of the tenets of the family was always to give back to society and be as much of a philanthropist and supporter of the city as you possibly can,” Graham Phipps says.

That legacy was well under way by the time Lawrence Phipps and Margaret Rogers wed, the industrialist having by then given nearly a million dollars — more than $23 million in today’s money — to charitable causes in Colorado.

About half of that went to build the Agnes Memorial Sanatorium, a medical campus for low-income, early-onset tuberculosis victims who could be treated and returned to work. The complex — built in 1902 — was on what is now Sixth Avenue in Denver’s Lowry neighborhood and was a memorial to Phipps’ mother, who had died of TB. Other projects included raising funds for the newly founded Children’s Hospital and for what is today the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Phipps’ impact didn’t stop there. Charismatic and determined, he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1918 as a Republican and won, focusing on important bills to improve business, agriculture and road building in the West. Six years later he won re-election.

“[Phipps] was a generous man, a kind man, a fair man, but he had a huge temper if you crossed him,” Graham Phipps says. “He was an aristocrat without an education.”

Lawrence Phipps’ spirit was honed in a Pittsburgh steel mill, where he went to work at age 16 to help support his family after his father died. He was talented and tenacious and he rose in the company, riding a wave of Eastern industrial development from wage clerk to vice president and treasurer with stock holdings worth millions. He retired to Colorado in his 30s to enjoy his fortune and the outdoors. He fished with Dwight Eisenhower and Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, among others, read avidly, raised dogs and enjoyed boxing, horses, automobiles, bowling and his family.

“Mom used to call him austere,” recalls Phipps’ granddaughter, Sandra Phipps Dennehy. “But my father used to say if he knew he scared you, it would break his heart.”

Building the Phipps family name

Margaret Phipps was as driven as her husband, but toward music, art and sports. She played the piano and organ, co-founded the Denver Symphony Orchestra and was an active supporter of the Central City Opera and the St. John’s Cathedral choir. Piano virtuoso Van Cliburn was a regular in her home.

She helped numerous artists and young people obtain college educations, and she collected important 19th-century French paintings and American landscapes.

She brought some of the world’s best tennis players to the state to compete, give exhibitions and teach young people the game, providing Colorado a national stature in tennis it would not have otherwise enjoyed. For that patronage, and for winning three state doubles titles, she was enshrined in the Colorado Tennis Hall of Fame in 2000.

The couple’s sons, Allan and Gerald Phipps, were luminaries best known for buying the struggling Denver Broncos football franchise to keep it from being moved to Atlanta and then building the club into a Super Bowl contender. Gerald Phipps is today the only non-player among 21 Broncos enshrined in the Ring of Fame at Invesco Field at Mile High. The family’s GH Phipps Construction built the complex in 2001 to replace Mile High Stadium — which it also built.

“I know quite a few ex-Broncos,” Dennehy says, “and what they say about my father [Gerald Phipps] is that if he gave you a handshake, it was the law. He didn’t need to sign a piece of paper if he said it was a deal. That’s the kind of man he was.”

Gerald’s older brother, Allan, guided development of the Winter Park ski area, where a run is named for him, and served the University of Denver for 45 years as a trustee and donor. A Rhodes Scholar, Allan earned a law degree from DU in 1937 and received the University’s prestigious Evans Award in 1980 for his numerous civic contributions. These include heading the Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center board of managers and being active in the Denver Symphony Society and the Colorado chapter of the American Red Cross.

“Allan saw himself as being part of a prominent family with a huge responsibility to the community,” Graham Phipps says. “This was a duty.”

Good deeds notwithstanding, the family name today is far less distinct in the public’s mind than in decades past, Phipps says. Some ex-Broncos he’s spoken to think the Phipps in the Ring of Fame was a long-ago kicker for the team.

All the public remembers, Graham Phipps laments, is the construction company and the Phipps mansion, which DU sold for $9.2 million in December 2010. The University operated the 6.2-acre estate as the Lawrence C. Phipps Memorial Conference Center, and due to periodic operating deficits and the University’s ample on-campus meeting space, an off-campus facility became unnecessary.

Proceeds from the sale are being used for scholarships and professorships at the Lamont School of Music and the School of Art and Art History, and as matching funds for a campaign to support the Newman Center for the Performing Arts, the theater department and Lamont.

The property was a gift based on Margaret Phipps’ friendship with then-Chancellor Chester Alter. The chancellor was living in a house on High Street that the Phippses previously owned. “Grandmother decided to go over there and knock on the door,” Dennehy says. “She wasn’t shy. They became very, very good friends. They had great visions for what could be done with the house.”

The storied estate

The Phipps estate sits on a sweeping, tree-lined curve just south of Exposition Avenue and has witnessed everything from weddings, reading groups, yoga classes and varsity basketball practices to a gathering of world leaders. President Clinton and members of the G8 met and dined there in 1997, scholars gathered for academic confabs, and trustees charted the University’s future. City officials hammered out public policy, DU stored and displayed important art holdings by painters Albert Bierstadt and Jean- Baptiste-Camille Corot — among others — and thousands of people entered the travertine marble entrance for holiday soirees, nuptials or a chance to marvel at how wealthy business aristocrats once lived.

“The craftsmanship is amazing,” says Allan Wilson, DU’s director of building services.

Phipps Mansion Interior

The 33,123-square-foot Phipps mansion has 14 rooms on the first floor and required a staff of seven. Photo: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

The 33,123-square-foot mansion has 14 rooms on the first floor and seven bedroom suites upstairs. The dining room is colonial pine hewn in America, shipped to England in the 1750s and used in an English manor house — then returned to the United States for the mansion. The house required a staff of seven, plus another seven to maintain the grounds.

“The main house is very conventional Georgian Revival layout, but amazing construction,” says DU art curator Dan Jacobs. “It looks like a brick house, but it’s actually a modern cast-in-place reinforced concrete structure with brick and stone facing.” In other words, a high-end industrial-grade structure with modern conveniences, including an early form of swamp cooler.

Even more striking is the tennis house, which Graham Phipps calls “one of the finer architectural buildings in Denver.” Sporting a glass-domed ceiling over a cork court, the tennis house is notable for combining athletics with social functions in a warm, manor-house style. Jacobs describes the building as rustic English with an interior of exposed steel reminiscent of a 19th-century train station.

“It’s beautiful,” he says. “You could put the window hinges and latches in a museum.”

When the two buildings were constructed in the early 1930s, they were Lawrence Phipps’ way of marrying business interests, family wishes and community betterment.

From a business perspective, the estate was the centerpiece of his plan to develop then-vacant land between Colorado and University boulevards into what today is the prestigious Belcaro neighborhood. The Belcaro Shopping Center at Exposition and Colorado was his key to pushing commercial development south.

From a community perspective, the estate was a “works project” that employed scores of Denver tradesmen idled by the Great Depression. The project’s impact, Graham Phipps speculates, may have been as important to Denver’s economy then as Coors Field was to LoDo some six decades later.

Plus, the project aided the construction company owned by Lawrence Phipps’ brother-in-law Platt Rogers Jr., which went on to become GH Phipps Inc. The company built a slew of high-profile buildings including the Cherry Creek Mall, Children’s Hospital, the Wellington Webb building and Olin and Nagel halls on the DU campus.

From a personal perspective, the mansion project was intended to overcome Lawrence Phipps’ wife’s resistance to giving up Capitol Hill social life for the boonies of south Denver.

“Grandfather said, ‘If I build a tennis house for you, will you move?’” Graham Phipps says with a laugh. “That’s how he got her to go south.”

A lifelong player, Margaret Rogers Phipps made sure the tennis house got heavy use, not only from neighborhood kids and family members but also from friends, promising local players and future Wimbledon and U.S. champions. Players would commemorate their visits by autographing the walls of the soda fountain room off the main gallery.

“Every Sunday, we’d play a round robin,” recalls Jack Cella, now 88 and a Colorado Tennis Hall of Fame member. “When you got through, you’d get an ice cream soda. When Mrs. Phipps wasn’t present, you went to the main house and got the key and returned it when you were through.

“They were down-to-earth people, but the senator commanded respect,” Cella continues. “He was no-nonsense. Mrs. Phipps was a wonderful, unassuming lady. One year I was selling Christmas wreaths and I asked Mrs. Phipps if she needed any. She bought one for every window in the house.”

Friendly, ladylike and gracious are words that people who remember Margaret Phipps use to speak of her personality. They describe the senator as quiet, stern and regal — but with a heart of gold. Together, Lawrence and Margaret Phipps were a pioneering Colorado couple who were “one of the leading social, financial and political families in Denver,” according to the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission.

“Lawrence Phipps didn’t come here to make money. He came here to spread health and happiness and to have fun with his kids and grandkids,” says Lorin Fleisher, who managed the Phipps estate for DU prior to its sale. “You read the history of the Phipps family and it’s truly interesting. They were really wonderful people.”

Read more about the Phipps tennis house and Phipps art collection.

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