Park Place

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

In 1893, Schuetze went to work for the parks department, and he was soon appointed Denver's first landscape architect. A soft-spoken man with the ability to charm potential critics, Scheutze now began the most productive period of his life. He worked on designs for the parks that are still regarded as the best in the city: City Park, Washington Park and Cheesman Park. Each park displays Schuetze's trademarks: curving roads and paths that guide visitors through a landscape of wide lawns, lakes and grand gardens radiating from the water's edge, all intended to create a soft-focus landscape that would change as a visitor strolled along the path. At the crest of a hill, a meadow would cascade downward, fringed by clumps of trees and ending in riotously colorful gardens. Lakes and fountains would be centerpieces, a cool underpinning to spectacular views of the mountains. Each of the parks highlights a view of the Rockies; at Cheesman, the highest spot in the park is topped by a neoclassical pavilion, while the most prominent bluff at City Park hosts what is now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

"The beauty of a park is in its simplicity, and still in its variety," wrote Schuetze. "Groups of trees and shrubs, bodies of water and stretches of green meadow give the idea of greatness, and well-developed specimen trees the idea of beauty. The groups of trees should be arranged so that you cannot see the whole park or garden at one glance. Just as you have to stroll through a wooded glade to appreciate all its beauties, so it should be with a park."

Twenty-four parks were added during Schuetze's tenure, and he designed many smaller parks in addition to the big three. Highland, Jefferson and Platte parks are all his handiwork, and he is also largely responsible for the design of Argo, Berkeley, McDonough and Observatory parks, as well as the City Park Esplanade next to East High School.

Anthony Camera
Susan Baird (left) and Tina Scardina are planning ahead for better Denver parks.
Anthony Camera
Susan Baird (left) and Tina Scardina are planning ahead for better Denver parks.

Denver's proposal for a comprehensive system of parks linked by landscaped boulevards was also influenced by Schuetze. That 1894 plan called for a series of lake-based parks at the city's edge (including parks now known as Sloan's Lake, Berkeley and Rocky Mountain Lake) and a network of parkways radiating out from central Denver (including Speer Boulevard, Seventh Avenue, Monaco Parkway and Montview Boulevard). Several other blueprints for Denver's parkway system were created over the years, but they retained many of the key elements of the 1894 plan.

After Schuetze's death, another European soon emerged to take his place as Denver's predominant landscape architect. S.R. DeBoer was a Dutchman who had also studied landscape architecture in Germany. DeBoer had fought off tuberculosis for much of his life, and in 1908 doctors told him he would soon die. Like thousands of others, DeBoer sought out the "climate cure" and headed for the American West. It must have worked, because he lived to be 91 and played a prominent role in shaping the landscape of his adopted city.

Almost immediately after moving to Denver, DeBoer took a job with the parks department, working in the city nursery. He impressed then-Mayor Speer with a plan to convert a dump along Cherry Creek into a park now known as Sunken Gardens. (At one time, that park featured an elaborate fountain, pool and gardens, all designed by DeBoer, but they were later taken out and replaced with a ballfield.) Speer appointed DeBoer to be the city's chief landscape architect in 1910, shortly after Schuetze died.

In many ways, DeBoer was a Renaissance man, with a passion for horticulture, parks and city planning. It was DeBoer who drafted the city's last comprehensive plan for parks in 1929. He experimented with dozens of varieties of trees to see which ones were best adapted to Denver's often extreme climate. (DeBoer popularized crabapple trees here.) After Speer's death, DeBoer went to England to study urban planning and became convinced that Denver was in dire need of orderly expansion that recognized the dawning automobile age. Returning to Denver, DeBoer persuaded Mayor Ben Stapleton to adopt the newfangled concept of zoning to guide development. In 1923, voters approved Denver's first zoning ordinance, and DeBoer became Denver's first city planner.

DeBoer had a remarkable ability to understand urban trends, and he had a prescient knowledge of the impact of cars and traffic on Denver. Even as he argued that the city had to prepare for the automobile by expanding roads and highways, he despaired over the impact of cars on the city he loved. DeBoer even foresaw the rise of a scourge familiar to modern-day Denverites: urban sprawl.

"To make room for the ever-growing needs of this civilization, beautiful spots of natural scenery were destroyed," wrote DeBoer in the 1920s. "Highways were cut on mountain sides, leaving scars such as those a soldier receives in battle. Along the highways, stores of the cheapest construction and ugliest design were built, as well as homes...until what was once a road of great beauty is now often a continuous row of unsightliness."

The influence of Schuetze and DeBoer extended well into the twentieth century, Etter notes: "If you start in 1893 and you go to 1974, when DeBoer died -- he continued to do work for the city right up until the end -- you're talking about 81 years with only two people at the helm. There was a consistency of people with the same roots in terms of training. You see DeBoer's patterns all over town and Schuetze's patterns all over town."

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