A New Dress for the Old Gal
A couple of years ago, Art Greer developed an interest in local history and began working to revive the decrepit neighborhood just northeast of LoDo. The area is one of the few that hasn't been goosed by the proximity of Coors Field, but convincing the government bureaucrats to sign on to his pet project--the renovation of a historical building--has been time-consuming and arduous.
"Look at this," Art says, dragging a thick booklet across the table toward him. "We had to get this whole environmental statement done." Behind him, as he talks in his cramped second-story headquarters near the intersection of 20th and Larimer streets, a woman on a video screen performs oral sex on a huge penis. The action is in fast-forward, so she looks like a bobbing chicken.
"Now here, as you can see," he continues, pointing to an impressive-looking historical chart, "in 1890 this building used to be a brewery."
The video screen flickers. A man masturbates furiously onto a woman's behind.
Art grabs another official-looking publication lying on the cluttered table in front of him. "And this is our application to become a national landmark on the historic register," he says, adding, "We've already got preliminary approval from the National Parks Service."
In back of him the action has advanced again. Behind the fast-forward fuzz, a woman wearing a latex glove is hydraulically pumping away at a penis.
The tape machine is being manned by Art's business partner, Ron Knill. "These tapes come with a lot of empty space," Knill explains. "We've got to cut out the dead tape before we put them in the arcade."
He pauses. "We're like a Wal-Mart," he says. "We just have a different variety of stuff. You know--there's a demand for everything." He stuffs Glamour Asians back into a box and reaches for Pussy Pounders 4.
Art waits for his partner to finish. He slides a copy of Architectural Bird Control Systems closer for a look. The building has a pigeon problem that needs to be taken care of.
At first glance the building looks slim, but that is because it stands separate from lower structures nearby and because its numerous windows are tall and slender. At three stories high, it's as elegant as a stack of dirty bricks in a lousy neighborhood can be.
Its bones are cast-iron columns that support the first story; at the top is a peaked pediment, scrolled and ornate. Puffed out in front, like giant glass-and-wood pectorals, is a pair of square Queen Anne bay windows that span two entire floors. They are decorated with flowing, busy flourishes and guarded by heavy red curtains.
A long, narrow, brown metal sign running the width of the building identifies its current use: "Diamond Lil's Adult Emporium." A picture, presumably of Lil, is on the left. She wears a high Victorian collar and a black choker and has delicate, not-at-all lascivious features. The other side of the sign advertises the feature that sets the business apart from others of its kind in Denver: "Live Women Behind Glass!"
Inside, in the back of the store, past the neatly displayed rubber goods, skin magazines and triple-X videos, the women lounge languidly in lingerie, as advertised, behind big plate-glass windows. They wait until a customer arrives and then, unseen by one another, compete to attract him to their own booths. It costs a dollar a minute to watch them. They will follow directions from patrons seated in the private booths. They accept tips.
Each woman is a separate tenant of the space, like a hairdresser in a chain salon, so after she pays rent to Diamond Lil's, she can set her own rates. A price cut by one woman can breed resentment from the others because it means they might have to lower their fares, too. If they stay long enough, the women can develop a stable of loyal clients. One of the rooms is handicapped-accessible, to cater to the many disabled people who live in the neighborhood and patronize Diamond Lil's regularly.
Tom Noel, a Denver historian and college history professor, has been leading tours around the old Larimer Street neighborhood for years. He says he tries to hit Diamond Lil's like an insurgent guerrilla, having learned that a lightning retreat is the most sensible strategy when a tourist lulled by the historic exterior is jolted by the modern sensibility of the building's inside.
"It's always a real eye-opener when we go in," he says. "I try to leave quickly, before anyone begins asking me any questions about what those devices are."
Noel also sits on the governor-appointed state board that reviews owners' requests to have their properties designated as historic buildings. Many Denver buildings are old, he explains, but not all qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The building, or its previous inhabitants or owners, must be judged "significant" or "distinctive" or "important" to an area's past in order to gain the recognition.
Once accepted onto the register, however, the current owners become eligible for generous government tax breaks, loans and possibly even grants to renovate the property. When Art Greer completes his renovation of the adult store, his tax break will amount to a few hundred thousand dollars. In addition, he has already won a $220,000 low-interest loan from the Mayor's Office of Economic Development to renovate the facade.
Noel says there is no question of the building's historical value. The architecture is unusual--particularly its big bay windows, a design feature common in San Francisco though rare here. But, Noel adds, Diamond Lil's Adult Emporium is absolutely peerless in another regard.
"We tend to nominate more respectable buildings--churches, banks, things like that," he says of the historical board's work. "We don't have many porno palaces on the national register. In fact, I don't think we have any."
Art Greer is a saver, and the upper floors of the Diamond Lil's building at 1215 20th Street are stuffed full of assorted junk. "Art would save his own turds if he could find a way to do it," says Ron Knill, who is not altogether happy about it.
Many of the old rooms are still numbered from when the building was used as a hotel. One room is stocked with tottering shelves of old VCRs four or five models behind the latest technology. Room 5 holds carton upon carton of X-rated videos. Room 7 is packed with cardboard boxes still full of product. "Old inventory we should've gotten rid of years ago," Art says dismissively of the dozens and dozens of pink personal vibrators still sealed in plastic.
Upstairs, the third-floor rooms surround a large, airy atrium. Most of them have small sinks leaning in various tilts against the crumbling horsehair-plaster walls; many of the sinks are still splattered with pigeon guano, as are the majority of walls and floors. But a closer look reveals that the building holds great promise.
That look is best taken through the floor-to-ceiling window of Room 19, which reveals a splendid, clear picture of Coors Field and a bustling cluster of bars and restaurants. With the exception of the new baseball stadium, it is a view that more closely resembles the lively character of the neighborhood 100 years ago than the decaying one that was to settle in generations later.
Albert Kopper was an early believer in the Larimer Street area. In 1882 the German-born businessman moved to Denver from Oregon to try to make life easier for his ill daughter. Within two years he had opened a saloon, a common choice of livelihood for Germans at the time. In 1885 he moved the business from its Lawrence Street location to a small building at 1215 20th Street. Four years later, with business booming, he demolished that building, hired one of Denver's most noted architects, Frederick Eberley (designer of the Tivoli Brewery and the Barth Hotel) and built a brand-new three-story brick edifice on the site. He called it Kopper's Hotel and Saloon.
The business thrived for a while, riding Denver's prosperity at the end of the century. But by 1916 early Prohibition stirrings had put a deep dent into the liquor trade. The country's entrance into World War I also sparked a strong anti-German sentiment, and the two circumstances eventually squeezed Kopper out of business. In 1919 he sold the building to Elmer Sommers, who renamed it the Airedale Hotel, reportedly after his favorite breed of dog.
The building traded hands several times over the next fifty years, although its uses remained essentially the same as Kopper had envisioned when he commissioned its construction. The upper floors were rented out as hotel or boarding rooms, and the ground floor generally served as a bar or nightclub. Although the neighborhood surrounding the hotel was to fall on hard times in the 1960s, it still pulsed with life and energy as late as the 1940s and '50s.
"Larimer used to be a hell of a street," recalls Jerry Krantz, who grew up in the neighborhood nearly seventy years ago. His grandfather started the El Chapultepec bar, on the corner of 20th and Market streets, in 1933. Krantz began working there in 1958. Most afternoons he can still be found sitting at the tidy, quilted red-leather bar.
He remembers: "There were all the fruit markets, and Russell Stover Candy Company had a factory here. You could smell the sugar. Then, at about three or four in the afternoon, the coffee shop on Market and 21st would release the steam from its roasters. You could smell it up and down the street. It was beautiful, just beautiful. It made you want to drink coffee."
The neighborhood always seemed busy, especially on the weekends, when Krantz and dozens of other young people bar-hopped along Larimer Street, which, he recalls, in a four-block span housed the New Mexico Inn, the Las Vegas, the Continental, the Blue Paradise, Johnny's, and Hunchie's Inn. "Saturday nights it was wonderful to watch 'em all," he says. "You'd start at one bar and hit all of 'em. Beers were a dime, and you'd begin at one end and go until the cops picked you up."
The old Airedale Hotel building attracted patrons with a busy downstairs nightclub called the 20th Street Corral, which featured live music and Western dancing. Later it was changed to the Oasis. Above it, for a time, was the Russell Hotel, which let rooms for many purposes.
"It was a whorehouse, a rooming house, a gambling shack--everything," says Krantz. "There was always a card or dice game going on upstairs. And there were lots of whores--hanging out in the street, sitting on cars. Five dollars for the room, ten for the girl. What other business can you sell the merchandise and still take it home with you at the end of the day?"
"Unlike many historic buildings, we don't know who slept here," says Karle Seydel, who for the past fifteen years has worked to revitalize the Larimer Street neighborhood. "But we know plenty did and had some fun doing it."
About five years ago, it finally occurred to Art Greer that he was very well off, if not precisely filthy rich. He was sitting upstairs from Diamond Lil's Adult Emporium, in the cluttered second-floor offices of Bison Enterprises, his porn business's corporate name. The room was dark and cramped. He was fixing VCRs. The machines were always breaking down, a mechanical fact of life when you're running several 62-channel XXX video arcades continuously all day and most of the night.
Art is an engineer by training--he spent six years at the University of Colorado studying the subject--and for a while, he'd gotten a kick out of working on the machines. He liked fiddling with their parts, saving a few bucks here and there. "But then one day," he recalls, "I said to myself, 'Why do you want to sit here hour after hour fixing VCRs?' I mean, I'm a goddamn millionaire." He was right, and so he stopped.
Looking back, it hadn't taken long for him to make his fortune. By the time Art arrived in Denver from Nevada in the early 1960s, his parents had already been here for several years. Both worked as cashiers at Jerry's Newsstand, a newspaper and book store. One day soon after Art had moved to Colorado, Jerry's landlord stopped by and invited Jerry out for a bite to eat. Over lunch, the landlord said he was doubling the rent.
Furious, Jerry stormed back from the meal. Art's father was working the cash register. "Do you want to buy this business?" Jerry shouted. Art's father talked it over with Art's mother and cashed in his life insurance policy.
Art was 25 years old. He wore his hair slicked into a complex pompadour and had a mustache that twirled like pinwheels at the ends. He had gotten married when he was eighteen (he still has a blurry, self-applied tattoo of that wife's name, Marie, on his forearm) and had recently dropped out of college. The angle from which he would approach life was still unclear.
"One night my dad took me to dinner at Pagliacci's, and he said he wanted to know what I was going to do," Art recalls. "He's trying to pick my brain: Am I going to go back to college, am I going to work--what? I didn't know.
"After dinner we drove to Colfax and Broadway, to the store next to Jerry's Newsstand. He had a key, and we went in and walked around with a match--there were no lights, it was empty. Finally he said, 'If you want to stay in Denver, we can open another bookstore here.' I opened that store on my daughter's birthday. My father died eleven months later."
People meeting Art Greer for the first time can be forgiven for thinking that he is unsophisticated. He speaks and dresses casually to the point of seeming provincial. He has shoulder-length gray hair and a pencil mustache. He walks slowly and loosely, like he is perpetually tired, and sometimes he struggles to come up with the right word. But over the past 25 years he has demonstrated a business sense that would seem lucky if it hadn't happened so regularly.
After taking over Jerry's, he became one of the first retailers in Denver to capitalize on the new frenzy for paperback books. They flew out of his stores faster than he could stock them, and it wasn't long before he opened more Jerry's. Later he was able to discover niches that others didn't see or that seemed too small to bother with.
A few years after taking over Jerry's, for example, he opened a comic-book store at 1518 Broadway. He used to let friends bring in boxes of old records they didn't want anymore and leave them for customers to go through. But Art noticed that customers were fascinated by the old collections; they usually picked the boxes clean in a matter of hours. He opened Jerry's Records and began charging $2 for the old records he got for nothing, or next to nothing. A few years later he sold the business for $50,000. The comic-book store eventually sold for $100,000.
The real payday, however, came in the late 1970s. By then Art had built his Jerry's businesses to three stores on the Colfax Avenue block adjacent to the State Capitol, between Lincoln and Broadway--the site that RTD decided it needed to build a new bus station. Art was informed that he would have to leave.
He vowed to himself that he would never again be forced into a position where he couldn't control his own destiny. After looking around downtown, he fixed his eye on a low-slung building on 15th and Tremont streets. He tracked down the owners, agreed to their asking price of $440,000 and stepped into the real estate game.
But Art barely had time to move into his new digs before a large Canadian developer announced it was building a skyscraper next door that, naturally, would require parking. Nearby Duffy's wouldn't sell out; neither would next-door Meininger's.
"One day this guy comes to me and asks if I would sell," Art remembers. "I didn't plan on it. But finally I says, 'Sure, I'll sell it--for $2 million.' He came back a few weeks later with an offer of $1.8 million. I said, 'Sold.'"
Art had spent the previous ten years working eighteen-hour days in the book business, so suddenly being a millionaire felt a bit like being a runner finishing a marathon. But he soon got bored with early retirement and hooked up with Knill, a connection that launched him on his way to a new career as a porn baron.
At the time, Knill worked as a distributor for adult bookstores across the Midwest. He and Art soon went into business together, servicing stores across the region with arcade machines and triple-X publications. In 1981 they decided to give the retail side a shot because, as Art had quickly figured out, "the profit margin's better, and the competition is less than straight bookstores."
Their first store was 24 Road Video Exchange in Grand Junction. Seventeen years later, it remains their most profitable outlet. "It's because of the Mormons," says Knill. "They come across the border and buy $500 or $600 worth of stuff at a time. It's our best store by far."
Their business grew quickly. In 1983 they started Emporium Video in Casper, Wyoming. And in 1989 they bought an old 20th Street adult business called Sun Books and its building for $180,000 and changed its name to Diamond Lil's.
"I didn't like this building at first," admits Knill.
"Ron's not the kind of guy who's willing to put his foot out the door," Art says. "But we bought it. And then the ballpark came."
"It was a blessing," says Knill.
At sixty, Art Greer is leading a good life by any measure. When driving between town and his adobe house in the foothills, he can choose between his red Porsche (license plate: XXXX) or his 1967 Rolls-Royce (XOXO). He owns a hunting lodge on the Western Slope. (His Denver-area home looks like a taxidermy museum.) Twice divorced, he has a new live-in girlfriend, a redheaded model named Kandice, who is exactly half his age and seven years younger than his oldest daughter. For their first date, Art took Kandice to a ZZ Top concert, where they sat in the front row.
Art says he was first attracted to her hair. "This," he says on a recent day, nodding generally to the stock of porn surrounding him in Diamond Lil's, "is not my obsession. My obsession is long red hair. Like that woman over there on that video box."
Kandice says she liked Art right off because he was sweet. "People are a little weird with the age difference," she says. "When they see me and Art out to dinner, they just assume he's my father. Then when they see us kiss, they can get kind of freaked out."
Before she moved in with Art, Kandice had to negotiate her way through a difficult divorce and custody battle. Though she worried a little that her new boyfriend's line of work might be of concern to the judge, today she and her son share Art's home.
"Earlier in my life, I thought it would be awful and sleazy and yuck," she says of Art's occupation. "But now...how to say this?"
"She likes the money situation," offers Art. "It's a great way to make a living."
"I've come to appreciate it," agrees Kandice. "But I've also learned a lot from Art about the business. It helps people."
These days, though, Art doesn't spend much time running his string of stores. One day at Diamond Lil's, he wonders why the Playboy magazines aren't in their old location on a thigh-high rack just inside the store. "They haven't been out on the floor for weeks," his cashier informs him. Art shakes his head and sighs as if he has lost touch with a profession he once understood.
Recently, after embracing a homeopathic diet, Art became interested in apiary. As always when something catches Art's interest, it wasn't long before he became obsessed. First he signed up for a beekeeping course. Then he began acquiring hives from keepers eager to bail out of the business. Earlier this year he built a white, two-story, steel-framed barn on his three-acre foothills property; when it was finished, he bought all of the latest stainless-steel equipment required to extract honey from the hives.
Knill used to help out occasionally but soon stopped. "I got tired of getting stung all the time," he explains. "Let him take care of his own damn bees. He can get stung." This year, working by himself in the new barn, Art extracted 2,400 pounds of honey from his fifty hives, as well as a good-sized chunk of beeswax.
Art's other new preoccupation has been the Larimer Street neighborhood, although it has turned into more of an obsession than he'd ever planned or, at times, wanted. In 1994 some property owners in the area asked him to participate in Fiesta! Fiesta!, the neighborhood's now-defunct annual block party. Art agreed, and during the celebration he operated a stand selling his Bullnuts, a snack item that is exactly what its name implies.
He enjoyed himself so much that he joined the neighborhood association. Eventually he was voted vice president, where he would have been happy to stay. But this past February, the president of the Ballpark Neighborhood Association, Eddie Maestas, died, and Art inherited the job.
And the headaches. The Ballpark Neighborhood Association has become one of the city's more contentious groups, with officers and members couping and purging each other on a regular basis. Personal animosities have developed, factions have formed. Nothing is simple. Most recently, Karle Seydel, the staffer who has worked for the association on revitalizing the neighborhood since the 1980s, was let go. A few weeks ago he sued for back pay and satisfaction.
Even without the in-fighting, the neighborhood has been much slower to share the success enjoyed by LoDo. In the past five years, that business district, also adjacent to Coors Field, has been transformed from a near-empty precinct of decrepit warehouses into a lively night stop. (So far, the only benefit Diamond Lil's has seen from the stadium is that it no longer has to charge a fifty-cent entrance fee to discourage the bums.) Of course, Larimer Street also had a longer way to climb back up. By the time anyone got around to being interested in reclaiming the area, it had already been unofficially designated the city's dumping ground, home to five homeless shelters.
A few resuscitation efforts have begun to breathe life back into the neighborhood. Last year the old Burlington Hotel, a beautiful brick railroad-hotel-turned-flophouse at 22nd and Larimer streets, reopened after a several-million-dollar facelift. The so-called Dial-a-Dinner building at 22nd and Larimer is also getting a government-subsidized tuneup. In all, the Mayor's Office of Economic Development has given out about $2.5 million worth of low-interest loans to property owners with plans to fix up their holdings.
As a newly minted neighborhood activist, Art wants to see the area prettified. And getting Diamond Lil's dressed up will be another victory for a community on the rise. But all the well-intentioned government money floating around the Larimer Street neighborhood has stimulated his business sense, too. "The mayor's out there offering this loan to fix up all these buildings historically," he says. "I'd be stupid not to take it. Stupid."
Art has a mixed view of his occupation. "I've never been ashamed of the adult business," he says. "Never." Later, however, he says, "I can't stand porn. Can't stand it. I don't use pornography the way the rest of the world does--and I don't keep any in my house."
But that doesn't mean he doesn't recognize its value--a robust income, for instance. Also, he notes that smut has its place in a healthy society. "I believe porn holds a lot of marriages together," he explains. "If you don't get along with your wife, go to a porn store. Or go there instead of bars."
So here he is, one sunny early-winter day, standing in the middle of Diamond Lil's, eyeing the inventory. The store is well-lit, the aisles are wide, the shelves are stocked. It is, in short, a very nice store. A young, exotic-looking Asian woman walks in.
"That's the best one," he says under his breath, nodding toward the Live Women Behind Glass. "She can make $500 a shift."
His cell phone rings. It's the satellite dish installer. Art mumbles into the phone for a minute before hanging up. He sighs.
"My mom moved in with me a little while ago, and all she watches all day is TNN, the country-Western cable channel," he explains. "So we gotta get a new dish for us. Of course, the kids watch cartoons all the time, so I'll still never get to watch what I want to."
"Cooking shows," he says. "I love the cooking shows. I'll watch any of them."
Upstairs, Knill and Bison Enterprise's general manager, Jerry Halamicek--who is also Art's son-in-law and drives a pick-up truck with the license plate "Poor No"--offer their opinion that the money Art is spending on Diamond Lil's historic renovation is, frankly, a colossal waste. "Art is the kind of guy who will spend a dollar to save a quarter," gripes Knill. "I think the money he's spending is way out of line. I don't think it'll ever be worth what he thinks it will."
"I'd rather spend the money someplace else," agrees Jerry.
"I'd rather open two or three more of these stores," suggests Ron.
But Art is determined. "I'm trying to protect this real estate," he explains. Someday, he adds, he'd like to leave it to his six children and five grandchildren, although not necessarily as Diamond Lil's Adult Emporium. Maybe lofts. Lofts would be nice.
In the meantime, Art and Kandice are brimming with ideas on how to make Diamond Lil's the classiest porn store in town. Admittedly, there is not much competition. But still.
"We're gonna fix it up real cute," Art says, adding with a laugh, "Something the city can be proud of." It is a joke because, even though the city has approved Art for a low-interest loan, it has also zoned adult stores out of his neighborhood. The only reason Diamond Lil's is here at all is that it was grandfathered in.
But Art gets serious again: "It's not going to be lewd. And all the taste you can muster."
"We're going to remodel the booths in the back," Kandice says. "We would like to kind of have a real Victorian feel on the inside, with wood molding and a period feel--you know, to make the girls feel more comfortable. And in the front windows, we'd like to take mannequins and dress them real tastefully, kind of like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman."
Art nods in agreement. "Old-time ladies' dresses," he says. "With high collars."
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