Dear Colorado Boulevard: Beyond the Traffic, You're Not So Bad After All
A once iconic structure on Colorado Boulevard, the Richard Crowther-designed Cooper Theater was demolished in 1994.
My mother calls it "The Boulevard." That's one of many small-town terms she uses to describe the city in which she grew up and raised me. My mom also often says she's going "up the hill," which can mean any direction and any destination. (I detailed her numerous local yokel sayings in this very outdated column I wrote only three years ago. For the record, I've since changed my tune: Welcome, transplants!) She doesn't like to take main roads anywhere, instead weaving an intricate pattern of back roads and neighborhood streets to get whereever she wants to go, while avoiding Colorado State Highway 2's city path. I have picked up this annoying habit, too, sneaking down roads like Buchtel (that's pronounced "Buck-tell," if you just moved here) to get to and from family member's houses. And though it is probably considered a main thoroughfare these days, I often use Speer Boulevard to get across town instead of making the tenuous loop around the city via the hellscape of I-25.
For my mom, Colorado Boulevard is a line of demarcation that runs through it all; she refuses to actually take The Boulevard anywhere because — as I'm sure anyone who has to drive it, ride it, walk it or take a bus on it can agree — Colorado Boulevard sucks. Unless it's 3 a.m. on a Tuesday, the six lanes running north from where the Denver portion begins, at least commercially speaking, at Hampden Avenue until it disappears into Commerce City are a mess. Rush hour — which over the last half-decade has become the solid block of 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday — turns Colorado Boulevard into a series of pop-up parking lots centered around its major intersections.
If you're unlucky enough to walk anywhere on this miles-long artery, then you know about its sorry excuse for sidewalks. In some spots along Colorado Boulevard, you must be an able-bodied acrobat to get to the bus stops, because the thin strips of cement masquerading as pedestrian connections would never fit a wheelchair. Not to mention the lack of a barrier between car-less humans and the roadway, making Colorado Boulevard that much more terrifying to traverse without the protection of a steel automobile. These are the perils of any modern American city that boomed when car was king, I suppose. I give so much love to Colfax for being a vibrant parade of Denver's weirdness and I see Federal Boulevard as a representation of the cultural diversity that makes the Mile High City truly unique. So why can't Colorado Boulevard catch a break?
This past weekend my car was crawling down the Boulevard when something hit me: as much as this is a terrible excuse for a street, it's also a wonderfully preserved look at Denver's many past lives. While Colorado is by no means untouched by the current development boom that threatens to turn every block of this city into a harsh, overpriced, bland blob of cheap construction materials and thoughtless design, it does leave a certain impression that reminds me of old Denver in good ways. From its mid-century modern commercial structures to turn-of-the-last-century stone buildings, Colorado Boulevard deserves a little more respect for keeping Denver feeling like Denver.
As I stated in my "Letter to Denver, the City I Used to Know," I was born in Colorado in 1980. This means my memories are only from the last three and a half decades, so please forgive me for not having the ability to reminisce about the many globally Americanized flavors of The Yum Yum Tree or the magic railroad motif of the Denver Drumstick. I am also shamefully forgetful of what the Cooper Theater (which was imagined by one of my favorite iconic Colorado structure designers, Richard Crowther) was like, though I went there many times. (My editor, Jonathan Shikes, wrote a great mental stroll down Colorado Boulevard a few years ago, if you're looking for some more veteran flashbacks.) But I can say that I miss one-of-a-kind frozen yogurt from The Harvest, a restaurant that is now a parking lot and soon to be the Shotgun Willie's weed palace or something. There's no talk of Colorado Boulevard without mentioning Celebrity Sports Center, a place I visit in my mind, riding its slides down into the indoor pool of my dreams.
But looking at Colorado Boulevard now, I can still see its many charms. University Hills Plaza's businesses may change, but the shopping locale continues to be marked by a glorious piece of neon signage, though it is forever referred to as "U-Hills" by longtime Denver folks like me. (I also miss the one-story simplicity of the University Hills Mall once across the way, where I would stock up on gear at Dave Cook Sporting Goods for my seasons as a fourth-string Catholic school softball player.)
Moving down the road, there are office towers, apartment complexes and strip malls from multiple eras, like the shrimpy '50s block of shops that today houses my family's favorites of Kokoro, the Book Rack and Poppies — and if you're pining for an '80s steakhouse and cocktail and piano bar, look no further. Continuing north, there's an even more modest coupling of shops — a gold mine of Middle Eastern fare and hookah hideaways like Damascus Restaurant and Kasbah Cafe. There are some remnants of the Dolly Madison that used to be here and oh, how I wish I had taken a picture of the sign for Curl Up and Dye before it disappeared (by the way, Denver, don't give up on kooky salon names — Best Little Hair House [RIP] in Denver and the Hair-Porte were/are gems!).
Colorado Boulevard gets really ugly along the stretch where Evans, Buchtel, I-25 and the small but abused intersection at East Mexico come into play. There's a parking lot of big-box stores situated where Writer's Manor once stood (my editor Susan Froyd does the "tony motor hotel" and its companion darling coffee shop, The Tiffin Inn, justice with her sublime description of these Denver icons of yore).
If you continue on until you almost hit Cherry Creek Drive, this section of the Boulevard feels like it has been used and tossed aside by commercial development — we've gained and lost so many structures over the years that this area comes off as one giant 7-Eleven in a blocky strip mall. An unassuming brick mid-century dental office in the 900 South block where I had my wisdom teeth pulled was knocked down not too long ago to make way for a fast-casual duplex; it will only be a matter of time before that building, too, will become neglected, beloved and then torn down.
The corner of Cherry Creek Drive and Colorado Boulevard signals the beginning of the Reno to Denver's Vegas: Glendale. What used to be the Cherry Creek Inn — and, of course, home of the Red Slipper — is now the Hilton Garden Inn. Though it's no architectural marvel, the way the shops and restaurants are situated around the hotel are aesthetically pleasing. Plus, the towering inn has flashy lighting that streams rainbows up and down its vertical surface to give the block a nice and kinda trashy glow, which I personally find appealing.
Then there's the real heart of Reno/Glendale, the new and already outdated-looking Shotgun Willie's. Love it or hate it, this joint is and always will stand as a Colorado landmark. It's sort of like Casa Bonita — visitors have heard of its existence, but aren't sure it's real until they get here. Meandering along the Boulevard further north are anonymous strip malls aplenty and then boom — out of nowhere, a gorgeous yet underutilized green space appears. Burns Park and its sculptures — not to be confused with Sculpture Park downtown — are a welcome break from the continuous traffic and commercial real estate that take up the Boulevard to this point. Denver is lucky to have so many parks, invaluable assets to this city as it changes.
The next part of the strip is something I both adore and despise: the housing. Once-grand mansions along Colorado Boulevard have seen their lots pushed back and shuttered behind wood fences to keep a little bit of the pollution out. I can only imagine how big and beautiful the yards were in front of these homes once upon a time, before the city grew so much that the thoroughfare had to be widened. Still, if you stop and look, you'll see art deco masterpieces alongside southwestern Spanish-style houses and Colonials. These gems continue along Colorado Boulevard all the way to Park Hill, where some of the best ones sit in stately splendor across from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the City Park Golf Course.
Before that, though, there are the ruins of University Hospital. I enjoy the juxtaposition of this wrecked plot across Eighth Avenue from the shiny new Denver embodied in Trader Joe's; it feels like a living sign of the many times this city has been reinvented. More living spaces abound; mostly faded and repainted apartment complexes from the last few decades take up space along the street until you get to the intersection at Colfax. Two of the four corners here are home to boring-looking gas stations. (One of the greatest downfalls in commercial architecture of the last century has been the lack of love that gas stations get in the design department.) But on the southeast corner sits one of National Jewish Health's many facilities, a really gorgeous 1920s building that stands out with its brickwork, a dutiful marker at the junction of two great Denver streets.
The Royal Palace Motel rots away not far from this intersection, one of many rundown tributes to a time when Colfax was the main entrance and exit for motorists passing through the Denver metro area. Its gaudy, mirror-mosaic sign lives on behind a construction fence, and the exterior glass elevator that made me want to live in the structure as a kid has long been cement-blocked off. New builds have plopped down right next door, a sign of what I can only assume to be the fate of the land barely being held down by the abandoned motor lodge.
Beyond it sits the museum and golf course across from more tattered Grey Gardens-looking estates and freshly painted bungalows, mid-mods and Dutch Colonial Revival homes smiling from the east side of the busy street. Though he and his famous store are long gone, one-time appliance king Lefty Martin — whose nickname came from his time as a minor-league baseball player — lives on in his iconic North Colorado Boulevard sign around 28th Avenue. The hundred-plus year-old building is still there and still sells appliances. Cora Faye's is across the strip, serving up incredible soul food out of a modest but homey-feeling spot for nearly a decade, though I could swear the restaurant has been there forever.
Keep going a few blocks and at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Colorado is another wonderful piece of Denver's architectural past: the Clayton Early Learning Center. The campus is over a hundred years old, full of magnificent sandstone, brick and ceramic tile French and Italian Renaissance structures. Not far from there sits Park Hill Golf Club, where my parents made me take golf lessons as a kid from an instructor I called "Larry the Toothpick" because he had a toothpick permanently latched to his lip, which went well with his cartoonish and creepy aviators.
From that point, the Boulevard used to trail off into some housing and mostly industrial territory; I traveled this stretch hundreds of times as a child passenger in a Volkswagen bus headed to see my best friends who lived in Brighton, where I spent half of my childhood. There's been new life introduced in the form of apartment complexes and the usual chain fast-food establishments popping up in the last few years, and I can only assume in a decade or so that both sides of the strip will be much denser.
Though the drive is often uninspired, if you look a little closer, Colorado Boulevard holds down a good part of Denver's history.
This trip along the street I so often love to hate made me think: There are so many untold stories of Denver. It's not just about the structures and places that are already considered historical or noteworthy; sometimes it's just about what places mean to you. This view of the Boulevard is from my perspective — everyone is affected in different ways by the elements of our built environment. If anything, I hope my take inspires you to visit an older restaurant or shop on the Boulevard that you used to frequent but haven't been to in a while. And maybe, you can try to give the street a break: It's really trying to be something.
Colorado Boulevard, most of the time you're a grueling ordeal more than a pleasant experience — but I still love you. Now please, will someone go back in time and stop developers from knocking down Celebrity Sports Center? I'd like really to have my 36th birthday there.
(Psst... many thanks to my friend Tom Lundin from the Denver Eye, for always kindly allowing me to use images from his wondrous collection of photographs and commercial literature covering all things Denver!)
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