A New Dress for the Old Gal

If Art Greer has his way, Diamond Lil's will be a porno palace Denver can be proud of.

Noel says there is no question of the building's historical value. The architecture is unusual--particularly its big bay windows, a design feature common in San Francisco though rare here. But, Noel adds, Diamond Lil's Adult Emporium is absolutely peerless in another regard.

"We tend to nominate more respectable buildings--churches, banks, things like that," he says of the historical board's work. "We don't have many porno palaces on the national register. In fact, I don't think we have any."

Art Greer is a saver, and the upper floors of the Diamond Lil's building at 1215 20th Street are stuffed full of assorted junk. "Art would save his own turds if he could find a way to do it," says Ron Knill, who is not altogether happy about it.

Many of the old rooms are still numbered from when the building was used as a hotel. One room is stocked with tottering shelves of old VCRs four or five models behind the latest technology. Room 5 holds carton upon carton of X-rated videos. Room 7 is packed with cardboard boxes still full of product. "Old inventory we should've gotten rid of years ago," Art says dismissively of the dozens and dozens of pink personal vibrators still sealed in plastic.

Upstairs, the third-floor rooms surround a large, airy atrium. Most of them have small sinks leaning in various tilts against the crumbling horsehair-plaster walls; many of the sinks are still splattered with pigeon guano, as are the majority of walls and floors. But a closer look reveals that the building holds great promise.

That look is best taken through the floor-to-ceiling window of Room 19, which reveals a splendid, clear picture of Coors Field and a bustling cluster of bars and restaurants. With the exception of the new baseball stadium, it is a view that more closely resembles the lively character of the neighborhood 100 years ago than the decaying one that was to settle in generations later.

Albert Kopper was an early believer in the Larimer Street area. In 1882 the German-born businessman moved to Denver from Oregon to try to make life easier for his ill daughter. Within two years he had opened a saloon, a common choice of livelihood for Germans at the time. In 1885 he moved the business from its Lawrence Street location to a small building at 1215 20th Street. Four years later, with business booming, he demolished that building, hired one of Denver's most noted architects, Frederick Eberley (designer of the Tivoli Brewery and the Barth Hotel) and built a brand-new three-story brick edifice on the site. He called it Kopper's Hotel and Saloon.

The business thrived for a while, riding Denver's prosperity at the end of the century. But by 1916 early Prohibition stirrings had put a deep dent into the liquor trade. The country's entrance into World War I also sparked a strong anti-German sentiment, and the two circumstances eventually squeezed Kopper out of business. In 1919 he sold the building to Elmer Sommers, who renamed it the Airedale Hotel, reportedly after his favorite breed of dog.

The building traded hands several times over the next fifty years, although its uses remained essentially the same as Kopper had envisioned when he commissioned its construction. The upper floors were rented out as hotel or boarding rooms, and the ground floor generally served as a bar or nightclub. Although the neighborhood surrounding the hotel was to fall on hard times in the 1960s, it still pulsed with life and energy as late as the 1940s and '50s.

"Larimer used to be a hell of a street," recalls Jerry Krantz, who grew up in the neighborhood nearly seventy years ago. His grandfather started the El Chapultepec bar, on the corner of 20th and Market streets, in 1933. Krantz began working there in 1958. Most afternoons he can still be found sitting at the tidy, quilted red-leather bar.

He remembers: "There were all the fruit markets, and Russell Stover Candy Company had a factory here. You could smell the sugar. Then, at about three or four in the afternoon, the coffee shop on Market and 21st would release the steam from its roasters. You could smell it up and down the street. It was beautiful, just beautiful. It made you want to drink coffee."

The neighborhood always seemed busy, especially on the weekends, when Krantz and dozens of other young people bar-hopped along Larimer Street, which, he recalls, in a four-block span housed the New Mexico Inn, the Las Vegas, the Continental, the Blue Paradise, Johnny's, and Hunchie's Inn. "Saturday nights it was wonderful to watch 'em all," he says. "You'd start at one bar and hit all of 'em. Beers were a dime, and you'd begin at one end and go until the cops picked you up."

The old Airedale Hotel building attracted patrons with a busy downstairs nightclub called the 20th Street Corral, which featured live music and Western dancing. Later it was changed to the Oasis. Above it, for a time, was the Russell Hotel, which let rooms for many purposes.

"It was a whorehouse, a rooming house, a gambling shack--everything," says Krantz. "There was always a card or dice game going on upstairs. And there were lots of whores--hanging out in the street, sitting on cars. Five dollars for the room, ten for the girl. What other business can you sell the merchandise and still take it home with you at the end of the day?"

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