This article first appeared in the Broomfield Enterprise.
If you’ve ever found yourself in the area around 83rd Avenue between Federal and Lowell in Westminster, you may have noticed a big red castle. As a matter of fact, “Big Red Castle” is the nickname for what is more commonly known as Westminster Castle or the “Pillar of Fire.” This giant beauty was built in the 1890s. Its designers were architects E.B. Gregory and Stanford White, who later became the murder victim of Harry Thaw in the infamous “Girl in the Red Velvet Swing” case. White, who came onto the project after Gregory left, had the idea to build the castle using the rough and rich-looking red stone from the Manitou Springs area.
The driving force behind the castle was a New Yorker named Henry T. Mayham, who owned the land. At that time, the property was just an empty, beautiful hilltop overlooking Denver, which Mayham called Crown Point. His intention was to create a grand Presbyterian university, the “Princeton of the West.” Unfortunately, the crash of 1893 interrupted his plans and Westminster University didn’t open until 1908.
At the time, the settlement where the castle was located was called Harris, after C.J. Harris, an early real estate developer. A few years after Westminster University opened, Harris was renamed Westminster in honor of its most prominent feature. The area was still a tiny and remote village; only 36 people voted on the issue.
The university thrived in its early years and even expanded to open a respected law school. However, in 1915, an ill-advised decision resulted in the university’s downfall: the Board of Trustees voted to exclude women. Two years later, most college-aged men went off to fight World War I in Europe, and the university’s classrooms became virtual ghost towns. The university closed.
The Big Red Castle then entered a three-year period of great humility, during which time it housed a chicken farm. In 1920, it was purchased by Bishop Alma White of the Pillar of Fire Church. Alma White was a fiery Methodist Pentecostal preacher, reportedly the first female bishop in the United States. An ardent feminist, she was also, unfortunately, a racist and anti-Semite with deep ties to Colorado’s Ku Klux Klan. Thus, in the 1920s, the lovely grounds of the Big Red Castle became the scene of Klan meetings and nighttime cross-burning ceremonies.
Today the castle is home to Belleview Christian College and Bible Seminary, still owned by the Pillar of Fire organization, which has since repudiated its association with the KKK.