Looking Up, Downtown

Historic Denver puts together an unlikely alliance to save some of the city's coolest buildings.

It's impossible to overstate the political importance of the partnership's endorsement. Quite simply, the district could not have gone forward without that group being on board. (It should be noted that Anne Warhover, who now runs the partnership, is a lot more enlightened on the value of historic preservation than was her predecessor, Bill Mosher, but then again, who isn't?)

However, there is one canker that gnaws. Notable buildings in what is called a "development corridor" around the Colorado Convention Center have been categorically left out of the new district. Although the Convention Center has already been a one-project demolition derby downtown, the powers that be want to leave open the option of taking down, say, the fabulous Denver Athletic Club, at 1325 Glenarm Place, or maybe the chaste Fire Station #1 nearby, at 1326 Tremont Place. (The newer landmark buildings associated with the oil boom of the 1970s and '80s have been skipped over, as well, and that's really too bad because some of these -- Republic Plaza, the US Bank Tower, the Norwest Tower -- are more significant than even the best of the older ones.)

Brooker had to be pragmatic, though, focusing on making the district happen, regardless of whatever compromises were necessary. And she was right to do it this way because an all-or-nothing approach would have left her with nothing.

The champs of Champa Street: Historic buildings at 16th Street and Champa.
The champs of Champa Street: Historic buildings at 16th Street and Champa.

The buildings that are included in the district provide an index to the city's architectural history:

The oldest is the famous Navarre, at 1725 Tremont Place, which was completed in 1880. The Italianate Victorian building, the finest of its date and type in the entire region, was designed by Frank Edbrooke. Built as a school, it later served as a bordello, and today it houses Philip Anschutz's art collection, but it is closed to the public.

Other Victorian examples include the dignified 1887 Trinity United Methodist church, at 1820 Broadway, by Robert Roeschlaub, and the marvelous 1889 Odd Fellows Hall, at 1545 Champa Street, by Emmett Anthony. These smallish 1880s buildings reveal that Denver was something like a big small town at that time.

By the 1890s, with Victorian architecture on the wane, Denver was the commercial and cultural center of the Rocky Mountain region. So our first generation of big-city-style buildings were done in several varieties of modern architecture that originated in Chicago. The Richardsonian-Romanesque style was one of the most popular, as seen in the 1890 Boston Building, by the Boston firm of Andrews and Jacques, at 828 17th Street. The 1892 Brown Palace Hotel, at 321 17th Street, is another fine example of this approach. Like the Navarre, it is the work of Edbrooke, Denver's foremost early architect.

Also popular in the 1890s and early 1900s was historic revivalism. One of the finest of this type is the modernized Italian Renaissance style used by Andrews, Jacques and Rantoul for their spectacular early high-rise -- the 1892 Equitable Building at 730 17th Street. Mayor Webb announced his endorsement of the district in the stunningly beautiful and richly detailed lobby of the Equitable.

In the early twentieth century, modern and historical styles were hybridized into a series of different architectural expressions. Chicago Commercial style is combined with neoclassicism in significant Denver buildings such as the 1911 Tramway Building by Fisher and Fisher, at 1100 14th Street, and the closely associated Foster Building, at 912 16th Street, done the same year by the same firm.

Also significant are the early-twentieth-century Sullivanesque buildings, such as the figuratively and literally luminescent 1910 Denver Gas and Electric Building, at 910 15th Street, and that creamy treat, the 1918 Rio Grande building, at 1531 Stout Street. Both were done by Harry Edbrooke, Frank's nephew, and both are clad in architectural tile made by the Denver Terra Cotta Company, as are a number of other buildings in the district. Examples include William Bowman's 1929 Telephone Building, a neo-gothic extravaganza at 931 14th Street that is also adorned with murals, as well as a pair of art-deco delights: the 1929 Buerger Brothers building, by Montana Fallis, at 1740 Champa Street, and the aforementioned 1930 Paramount Theatre, by Temple Buell.

Full-fledged modern buildings finish out the list. There's the streamlined moderne 1937 Railway Exchange, at 909 17th Street, by Fisher and Fisher; the 1954 Denver Club Building, a sleek international-style high-rise by Raymond Ervin, at 518 17th Street; and the newest building in the district, the sinuous, modernist 1959 Brown Palace West, at 1715 Tremont Place, by New York architect C.W. Tabler.

All of us in Denver owe a big debt of gratitude to Historic Denver, and in particular to Kathleen Brooker, for coming up with the idea for the district and bringing it to a happy and successful completion. Her ingenuity will help preserve for future generations the many fine buildings left to us by the generations of the past.

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