Park Place

An ambitious plan to expand Denver's parks may take root if the political climate is fertile.

Still, the parks system's lofty heritage remains. Denver's forefathers found the courage to create one of the best urban systems in the West, as well as a novel network of city-owned mountain parks. Whether present-day Denverites can muster the same idealism -- and open up their wallets to pay for it-- is still unclear.

"We can look back at previous plans and assume they just happen, but they don't," says Baird. "The will has to come through a mandate from the people of Denver."

Josh Brodbeck wants better park maintenance.
Anthony Camera
Josh Brodbeck wants better park maintenance.
Residents strolling through City Park in 1909.
Residents strolling through City Park in 1909.

In 1889, a young German immigrant stepped off a train at Union Station, and Denver would never be the same.

The city wasn't much to look at: a dusty hodgepodge of buildings hastily erected following the gold rush of 1859, more substantial commercial buildings near the train station, and residential neighborhoods ringing downtown that ranged from the Capitol Hill mansions of mining moguls to the sorry shacks along the Platte built by impoverished Italian immigrants. Just over 100,000 people lived in a city that hadn't existed thirty years before, and Denverites were struggling to understand a climate and topography that were radically different from what they had known back East. With few parks or trees, Denver was an isolated, high-plains upstart trying to establish an identity.

No one could have predicted that Denver's cityscape would spring from the traditions of the Prussian royal court. Certainly not the 28-year-old German, Reinhard Schuetze, who was beginning a new life in a place with weather that was far drier and more unpredictable than anything he had ever known. But Schuetze was bringing a gift to Denver that wouldn't be fully appreciated until years after his death: a formal training in European landscape design.

Schuetze had been born in northern Germany, where his father worked as estate manager for an aristocratic family. The elder Schuetze had studied forestry, and his son followed in his father's path, working as an apprentice for the court gardener at an estate owned by the Grand Duke of Oldenburg. The Duke had commissioned an elaborate renovation of the estate's grounds, and Schuetze learned how to design formal gardens and monuments and to construct irrigation systems. He also studied landscape architecture at the royal horticultural school, before working on gardens in Berlin and other cities.

In 1887, he had to quit working because of an illness that may have been tuberculosis. At the time, it was believed that dry, high-altitude climates like Denver's were the best treatment for the disease, and thousands of people came to Colorado for the "climate cure."

"I wouldn't be at all surprised if that was a factor" in Schuetze's moving to Denver, says Don Etter, who with his wife, Carolyn, wrote Forgotten Dreamer: Reinhard Schuetze, Denver's Landscape Architect. (The couple also served as co-managers of parks under Mayor Federico Peña.)

"He had probably heard about the opportunities in Denver from (developer) Baron Walter von Richthofen," says Etter. "At that point in Denver history we were in the middle of an extraordinary real-estate boom. One might expect that would be a place where a young landscape architect would find his way. I can't imagine he just coughed twice and then threw a dart at the board, but a lot of German tuberculars did come to Denver."

After arriving here, Schuetze undertook a dizzying number of projects that would ultimately reshape the face of his adopted hometown. Because of Schuetze, the raw frontier village at the foot of the Rocky Mountains developed a European-style network of parks and parkways that distinguished it from other cities in the American West.

According to Etter, it was fortunate for Denver that a man educated in Europe wound up here just as the city started assembling its public grounds. "There's no question the Europeans were way ahead of us in terms of education and practice in landscape architecture," he says. "When Schuetze was done with his education, he was an engineer, a horticulturist, an architect and a forester. The formal training was the strongest anywhere in Germany."

His first project was one that would change his life and keep him busy for twenty years: Schuetze was hired to create a home for Denver's deceased on a piece of barren prairie at the eastern edge of town. His design for Fairmount Cemetery won rave reviews from the public and established him as the preeminent landscape architect in Denver.

The layout of Fairmount presaged Schuetze's design of Denver's parks. A looping series of "carriageways" and paths flow through a landscape that shifts from open meadows to forested stands and lakes. Each turn of the road or path opens up a new vista, and it's this sensual unfolding of landscapes that Schuetze tried to create in all of his designs. Well aware of the arid environment he lived in, Schuetze designed the cemetery grounds to retain water, and his knowledge of irrigation was invaluable in creating a lush sanctuary for the bereaved.

Schuetze won a competition to design the State Capitol grounds in 1890. His plan called for wide sandstone walkways with views of the mountains, all framed by formal rows of trees and terraced gardens. The strength of the design was enforced years after his death, when Denver brought in celebrated landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. to help design Civic Center Park and he chose to continue Schuetze's landscaped axis across Broadway to the foot of the planned City and County Building.

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