By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
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By William Breathes
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The High Street Speakeasy sits on the southeast corner of 39th Avenue and High Street, wedged between Five Points and I-70. From the outside, it looks like less than nothing -- exactly as a good speakeasy should. Inside, the guzzlery recalls the days when a shrill and righteous few decried the evils of drink: Prohibition. But for John Wallace, the bottles of once-forbidden spirits that line his bar are just complements to the ghostlier ones occupying his second floor.
Wallace signed the deed to the 1889 building the day after Halloween last year, but it wasn't until February -- amid a flurry of renovations -- that he experienced his first of many unnatural encounters.
"I heard whistling, and it seemed like it was emanating from inside the building somewhere," recalls the 39-year-old entrepreneur. "And it was spooky, because I was here by myself. So I went outside and walked around the whole perimeter, and there was nobody around."
So he got back to work: Opening night was only two months away. The ghosts could whistle all they wanted, but Wallace had booths to add, brick to expose and original but drab olive-green tin ceilings to paint candy-apple red. He had a jukebox to pack with the nostalgic sounds of Cab Calloway, Louis Prima, Glenn Miller and other big-band legends. Most important, this son of Denver's bar culture (Wallace's dad owned Dirty John's, at Evans and Zuni, for years, and Wallace himself had managed William's Tavern) had to perfect his version of the Tom Collins, which he claims tastes "like the sun just came up in your mouth." And then, in early April, he opened his friendly, TV-free neighborhood joint where guys and dolls can drop by to work on their indoor tans, snub the Eighteenth Amendment and maybe even experience something supernatural.
"You know that little window above the front door?" Wallace asks. "It never happens when you're looking straight up there, but at a peripheral vision, a lot of people have thought that they've seen movement up there. But as soon as you look, it's nothing."
The building, which has been a bar by various names since 1902, boasts a blood-soaked history in addition to its many half-seen specters. A bullet hole two stools down from the end of the bar bears witness to the Speakeasy's violent forefathers. More recently, a love-related shooting -- depicted on America's Most Wanted -- left a corpse in the building's entryway. "It shouldn't be a mystery to anybody that many people have died over 115 years here," Wallace says. "My God, just think about what might have gone on here during the Depression. I know that it's been a brothel; God knows what else. And the pressure on people to make money in those days? It's not that hard for me to think that some of the deaths weren't meant to happen and that some ghosts are still angry. In a way, I'm still a little bit skeptical, because I haven't had a big apparition talk to me yet."
2 a.m.: Downstairs, the dying strains of Billie Holiday's "My Man" fade into the night. Equipped with a mini-cassette recorder, three ninety-minute tapes, a disposable flash camera, a box of candles, a lighter, flashlight and fresh batteries, I leave the bar -- where a few comrades are still downing liquid courage -- to climb the 21 narrow stairs to the second floor. I'm greeted by a dusty stretch of hallway that connects four dirty corner units, a central furnace room and two rusted-out communal bathrooms. Altogether, this floor holds sixteen rooms and three times as many doorways, but what the space lacks in feng shui it more than makes up for in creepiness. Torn-out carpet reveals scraps of yellowing '20s-era Denver Posts, when true-crime stories and "agony" columns ruled the press. Ornately patterned wallpaper and worn linoleum peel from age and water damage. Boarded windows keep the air dead and still.
Xena, the Australian shepherd that I've borrowed for the evening, seems much more at ease with the prospect of spending the night here than I am. After lighting three candles, I load the recorder and, along with my new canine acquaintance, start making the rounds.
2:06: Xena sniffs her way down the hall and hesitates before entering the Blood Room, so named because of the dark patch of brown droplets at roughly stomach-level that stain the yellow, flower-patterned wallpaper. The area right next to the spots appears to have been scrubbed with bleach. Xena spends at least five minutes absorbed in the smell of the baseboards directly below the stains.
The filthy adjoining kitchen has been stripped of stove and sink and is empty save for three long-stemmed cocktail glasses and the near-skeletal remains of a bird.
I am not the first to spend the night in these inhospitable confines. On several occasions, a former Speakeasy bartender, who goes only by Kalib, used this place as his sleeping nest. Part of last winter's renovation crew, the wiry fourth-generation Washington logger found himself too exhausted to drive home and would opt to roll out a sleeping bag in the small, carpeted room next to the stairs. My base camp.