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Denver 1961

Today I’d like to share with you the first of several of my favorite photos that show the changes in Downtown Denver over the past fifty years. The photos generally focus on the western (Auraria and Central Platte Valley) side of Downtown.

This first image (used with permission from the personal collection of my friend, Rob Winzurk) is an amazing photo taken by his father in 1961. It is remarkable in that it shows several significant buildings that are no longer with us, all in one view, and in color.

2010-03-27_auraria1961

In the center foreground is the University Building, which still stands at the corner of 16th and Champa, along with the Gas & Electric Building at 15th and Champa off to the left. Across Champa from the University Building, the bright red sign of the Downtown Woolworth’s store is clearly visible. Also in this view are four prominent buildings that are gone.

One block to the right of the University Building, at 16th and Curtis, is the Tabor Grand Opera House (linked photos courtesy Denver Public Library Western History Collection). Built in 1881, it was one of the finest and most elaborate opera houses in the country. It featured a 1,500 seat auditorium and a grand atrium lobby capped by a stained-glass rotunda. Next to the Tabor Grand at 16th and Arapahoe is the Post Office and Customs House Building, built in 1885.  Both buildings were demolished in 1964, three years after this photo was taken, to make way for the Federal Reserve Bank, completed in 1968, which now occupies the entire block. Here’s a zoom-in of those two buildings:

2010-03-27_tabordetail

Directly above and behind the University Building are two buildings at the corner of 15th and Arapahoe: the Mining and Exchange Building on the left, and the Central Bank Building on the right. The handsome Mining and Exchange Building was built in 1891 and featured a statue “The Old Prospector” at the top of its spire. The building was demolished in 1963, two years after this photo was taken. Brooks Tower took its place, and The Old Prospector now rests in the plaza at the entrance to the tower. The Central Bank Building opened in 1911 and featured a beautiful curved brick facade and two-story columns at the corner entrance.  The building was a victim of the late-1980s real estate bust. The pathetic story went something like this: The Central Bank Building went into foreclosure and was sold as part of a portfolio of real estate assets to some British firm, which was in financial trouble itself and was involved in a complex lawsuit with a bunch of banks and insurance companies. The British firm eventually decided that one way to help improve its financial position was to “eliminate” some of their troubled assets. Despite valiant efforts by Denver’s historic preservation community to save the Central Bank Building (it was declared a Denver Landmark in 1988), the overseas firm apparently didn’t give a crap about the historic importance of some building in Denver, Colorado, and, in 1989, submitted a demolition permit to the city. At that time, the city could legally delay a demolition permit for only ninety days, during which Mayor Peña pleaded with the firm to spare the building. Ninety days later, in front of a crowd of protesters, a demolition crew smashed the building to bits. Today, the site is a parking lot. Had the Central Bank Building survived however, it would now share its southwest common wall with the parking garage of the new Four Seasons. Here’s a detailed view of those two buildings:

2010-03-27_miningdetail

Of course, there are other buildings in this 1961 photo that are no longer around, such as the department store once attached to the D&F Tower, and other nearby buildings that were replaced in the 1970s and 1980s by the Tabor Center, Writer Square, various shiny office towers, and surface parking lots. Behind the D&F Tower, the old Speer Viaduct (also known then as the 13th and 14th Street Viaducts) heads west to interchange with the “new” Valley Highway. Farther in the background, rail yards and industrial buildings cover the Central Platte Valley where the Pepsi Center and Elitch’s now stand and, to the left, the white painted Tivoli Brewery is surrounded by its pre-campus Auraria neighborhood. Finally, Sloans Lake shimmers in the distance, with the silhouette of Lake Middle School clearly visible in front of it and, in between the school and the white boxy industrial building below, is the profile of the one-deck-high Bears Stadium.

In the next photo: Denver 1973.

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10 Comments

  1. Julio says:

    It’s amazing how much we lost downtown in the last forty years. Not to mention quality infrastructure like the streetcars. My grandmother remembers riding the streetcars to her job at the Downtown Woolsworth. And now of course we are in the process of building a Light Rail system not unlike the streetcar system we once tore from city streets.

    But that’s why we need to make sure we keep every last historic building still remaining downtown and do whatever we can to encourage those former building sites to be redeveloped into a glimmer of what once was.

  2. Ralph says:

    Sad, that is all that comes to mind. Thanks for sharing this Ken.

  3. Derek says:

    Uhhhg. Ken, I hate stuff like this! Every time I see blogs or pictures of some of the wonderfull, architecturally significant buildings Denver has lost it’s like a punch in the gut. I would much rather have them back than to have what replaced them. Shame on Denver’s then shortsited, nonchalant approach to historic buildings to allow them to be lost in the first place. Imagine how much better Downtown would look if they were still there…
    Also, how ironic is it that very often, Europeans look down their noses at America for the percieved propensity to just demolish any old buildings we have, historic or not, no matter their age or value, to make way for new crap, and a friggen European firm causes the loss of one of Denver’s historic buildings, the Central Bank Building? All hail preservation commitees, even if a tad late for some of these gems. I mourn their loss.

  4. Nick says:

    What a fantastic post and what wonderful pictures. Such a shame to see what we’ve lost, but as Julio said above, so important to be reminded of what we still have…and that we need to preserve this wonderful history for future generations.

  5. Ken says:

    Thank you all for your comments. My goal isn’t to bum everybody out but to illuminate the process of change (good and bad) that makes cities what they are. It is very helpful to be mindful of our history so we can put our present and our future in some perspective. The change in Denver over time has been remarkable, which is one of the reasons why I love this city so much.

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  7. BruceQ says:

    Wow, that’s fantastic, Ken! Thanks for sharing that with us! And thanks also to Mr. Winzurk and his father.

    Also interesting: Almost dead center of the image, the Denver Dry Goods Co. wharehouse and the Colorado Casket Co. on then Wazee, now Auraria Pkwy, that Shawn Snow wrote about recently. (http://www.denverhistorytours.blogspot.com/)

  8. Scott says:

    To me the loss of the Tabor is the biggest disappointment in that photo. That would be one of the finest theaters in the country today if they had left it. Instead we have a non-public, over-secured, pseudo-government building (the Federal Reserve branch bank) plopped down for no good reason in the middle of a pedestrian friendly retail district. They even stuck little spikes on the wall to stop people sitting there. It’s the rudest building in Denver. Oh, and don’t forget the fenced off parking lot in back that will probably forever leave a hole on 15th right in the middle of what should otherwise be a vibrant entertainment district. Thanks Fed.

    Great photo, thanks for posting.

  9. MarkB says:

    This is brilliant. I have pored over so many b&w photos, and to see this view in color is fantastic. I’m guessing it was taken from the old observation deck at the First National Bank at 17th & Welton.

    Some other tidbits: the big, blank, white block in the middle of the photo, at the corner of 16th & Champa, is the old May Company building, built originally in 1906. In the early 1950s the May Company decided it wanted a more modern looking building, so they covered over the beaux arts turn of the century design with that white aggregate that you see here. However, within a few short years the May Company bought Daniels & Fisher and moved to uptown to Court Place, where D&F had already signed a lease in William Zeckendorf’s Courthouse Square development (today the shorter half of the Sheraton). The old May building changed ownership several times–from Zeckendorf back to May, and finally to Colorado National Bank, which tore it down in 1965 for a parking lot that lasted until 1999. For a short time in the early 1960s it was leased as office space by the Martin Company, a predecessor to Lockheed Martin, fighting the Cold War.

    Another point I’d like to make: Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. In that incredibly influential work, she called for any redevelopment of cities to take place NOT in a wholesale way, with entire blocks leveled for full-block (or even multi-block) projects. New buildings, she believed, should be inserted carefully into the urban fabric, so that the whole would be strengthened rather than weakened or thrown out entirely.

    That approach seems like second nature today (see, for example, the new buildings in LoDo next door to historic ones–Sugar Cube, etc.), but in 1967–a full six years after Jacobs’ book was published–Denver voters by a substantial (if not exactly “landslide”) majority approved the Denver Urban Renewal Authority’s “Skyline” scheme to demolish 27 contiguous blocks of downtown, creating a sea of parking that wasn’t completely replaced by new buildings until Tabor Center opened in 1984. I would hope that something similar would not happen again, but the 1967 vote was carefully promoted by DURA, and strongly endorsed by Mayor Thomas Currigan (running for re-election), most of the City Council, and especially The Denver Post. In other words, the city’s movers and shakers were desperate for it, and they got what they wanted. Hindsight is 20-20, and all that….I have long thought that the urban renewal movement of the 1950s through the 1970s was part of America’s insanity during those years.

    One of my favorite gems lost to the Skyline project was the Interstate Trust Building at 16th & Lawrence, visible just to the left of the D&F Tower. This nine-story “skyscraper” from the early 1890s was one of Frank E. Edbrooke’s finest designs, and the men who owned it in the 1960s very much wanted to renovate it and restore it to its Victorian glory. But despite a heated court fight, they lost, and it was imploded for the all-black Park Central Building.

  10. Chris says:

    It is a real shame to realize what has been lost over the years. Its important to remember that it was due to the mindset of the times, not just in Denver but everywhere. The thought at the time was old was outdated and cities needed to be ‘refreshed,’ thus all of the urban renewal through the 1950s to 1970s. Planners were often at the forefront of the urban ‘renewal’ movement. In the mid-late 1970s in San Francisco there was demolition of block upon block of Victorian housing in the Fillmore district, all in the name of ‘renewal.’ In the process, the Fillmore neighborhood was pretty much destroyed and replaced with modern apartments. The professionals thought they were doing the right thing. People like Jane Jacobs understood intuitively what made up a real neighborhood, while many in our profession did not. Planners and sociologists thought modern surroundings would eliminate blight, poverty, and so crime.