Denver’s landscape changes almost weekly, almost too quickly for nostalgia to congeal around lost favorites, beloved nooks and crannies as well as monumental icons that get trashed in the blink of an eye. The longer you’re been here, the more you realize that there are multiple Denvers – slices in time as well as space.
We who love this town each carry a private, virtual memory map in our heads. Here was a wedding, a breakup, a birth. Remember that great dive bar, that place that had the awesome green chile, that concert? It’s easy to slump into fruitless reminiscences, but it’s also instructive and fun to note what was where, and what happened to it. A casual list of locales already exceeds three dozen, but here’s a representative handful.
10) Mitzpah Arch
17th and Wynkoop streets
From 1906 to 1931, an immense, gaily lit steel arch guarded the entrance to Union Station. The word “WELCOME” greeted incoming visitors, while those departing saw “MIZPAH” emblazoned on the reverse. “Mizpah” is Hebrew for watchtower, referring to the parting of Jacob and his uncle Laban in Genesis: “The Lord watch between me and thee, when we absent one from another” (Gen. 31:49). Unfortunately, the arch wasn’t maintained properly. Dilapidated and deemed a traffic hazard, it was pulled down by the city and carted it away in 1931.
9) Tabor Grand Opera House
16th and Curtis streets
Denver did not have a metropolis-worthy theater until silver baron Horace W. Tabor commanded that this richly appointed, elaborate, 1,500- seat theater be built in 1881. Tabor fell on hard times and died in poverty; in Douglas Moore’s opera The Ballad of Baby Doe he's stricken on the stage of the Tabor Grand. The opera house's prestige faded as times changed and the audience fled to the suburbs; it was demolished in 1964.
8) Manhattan Beach/Luna Park
Sloan’s Lake Park
The first amusement park built west of the Mississippi River opened on June 27, 1881, and added a large seasonal theater a decade later. Competition from Elitch Gardens and White City (later Lakeside) eroded Manhattan Beach's popularity — and then there was the incident in which Roger the Elephant stepped on a six-year-old boy’s head, killing him. The park burned down in 1908, but its reincarnation shut down for good in 1914.
7) Rossonian Hotel and Lounge
2575 Welton Street
Built in 1912 as the Baxter Hotel, the building changed its name in 1929 and served as the de facto home-away-from-home for all the touring African-American jazz greats of the day – Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong. As integration and suburban expansion fragmented the cohesiveness of the Five Points neighborhood, the Rossonian fell on hard and harder times and closed to guests decades ago. It still sits there, in redevelopment limbo.
6) Buckskin Joe
County Road 3A, ten miles southwest of Canon City
This conglomeration of historic buildings (Horace Tabor’s general store) and a movie set built in 1957 for MGM art director Malcolm F. Brown, who shot parts of Saddle the Wind and The Sheepman there for MGM. A year later, the sets, restyled as an Old West theme park and railway, opened to tourists. Movies continued to be shot there, from Cat Ballou to Cannibal! The Musical. In 2010, billionaire Bill Koch bought the place lock, stock and barrel, and moved it to his ranch near Gunnison.
5) McNichols Sports Arena
1634 Bryant Street
Big Mac! It loomed like a sullen flying saucer to the immediate northwest of the old Mile High Stadium, a 19,000-seat, charmless concrete bunker, named for then-mayor Bill, who ran the city for two decades. From 1975 to 2000, it was home to the Nuggets, the Avs, the Grizzlies, the . . . Spurs? (WHA), the Flames? (CHL), and the Colorado Rockies (NHL). It was also home to some awesome concerts, including many Dead shows, Elvis, MJ, Elton John and whoever else Barry Fey could book there. ZZ Top did the first rock show there on August 7, 1975; the band did the last one, too, on September 12, 1999.
4) Denver Wax Museum
919 Bannock Street
From 1964 to 1981, this endearingly ethnocentric and inaccurate pseudohistorical parlor held one of the ugliest assemblages of mannequins on Earth. We kids clamored to go. There were the Mercury 7 astronauts, and Alferd Packer, and the Tabors before that hussy Baby Doe broke them up. Some of the dioramas had coin-operated sound. Both the Alamo and Little Big Horn were displayed, and if you dropped a dime in the box, you could hear, “C’mon, men! Keep fighting! Chaaarge!” (Same recording for both battles.) The museum was bulldozed in 1981, and some of the wax (plastic, actually) figures wound up at the Forney Transportation Museum.
3) Cinder Alley
Cinderella City Shopping Center, Englewood
For a time, Cinderella City was the biggest indoor mall west of the Mississippi (there’s that phrase again!). At 1,350,000 square feet, its staggering dimensions wowed crowds that flocked there as soon as it opened in 1968. It had four concourses at ground level – Rose, Gold, Shamrock and Blue. Cinder Alley, a glorified basement corridor, was styled as an old New York City street, with lampposts, wrought-iron fixtures, black ceilings and the like. The shops were initially crafts-oriented, with Zeezo’s Magic Castle the biggest draw for kids. (A friend who worked there said Zeezo was not so magic offstage.) As time passed, though, the place became a hangout for punks and juvies; head shops and other less savoy merchants moved in. The mall literally fell apart (it was built on unstable landfill) and was demolished in 2000.
2) Duffy’s Shamrock Restaurant and Bar
1515 Champa Street/1645 Tremont Place/1635 Court Place
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Bernard J. Duffy opened his namesake joint in 1950, and the place moved twice before it reached its final, iconic location. Duffy's Shamrock was a meeting place for local movers and shakers as well as the working class. Its seventy-foot-long bar, the big brass shamrock door handles, the bartenders in their white shirts and bow ties, the great greasy food, the waitresses who could ring up your tab in their heads, the cigarette machine that worked as intermittently as the favors of fate – aaah. Duffy’s was a dark, smoky sanctuary from the troubles of the world. The building sold for big bucks and Duffy's closed November 30, 2006 — today the space sits empty.
1) Celebrity Sports Center
888 South Colorado Boulevard
The amazing indoor fun center kept many a child occupied and many a parent thankful during the time Celebrity was a landmark on Colorado Boulevard, from 1960 to 1994. Named for its consortium of entertainer investors, including Walt Disney, Bing Crosby and Jack Benny, Celebrity held eighty bowling lanes, three arcades, a bar, a restaurant, a billiard room, bumper cars... As a kid, you could be dropped off with a relatively small amount of money, stay all day and never be bored. The uniformed attendants were uniformed, friendly and busted you for smoking cigarettes in the parking lot (it was rumored that Disney experimented on service techniques here for use at Disney World). Eventually, the company that acquired the property realized that earnings could no longer pay for the massive amount of maintenance and improvements the place required. There’s a Home Depot there now.