Sam's Land doesn't look like a historical treasure. The building's stucco exterior is crumbling, the crinkled tin roof needs attention and the neon tubes on the sign out front hang like broken old bones. But to preservationists in Golden, the rich past of this fading relic is no secret. Built in 1873, it's considered by local historians to be the oldest bar in the Denver metro area and perhaps in all of Colorado. The exterior has gone through numerous changes, but the interior is truly ancient.
The bar was one of the first accounts of one Adolph Coors, whose sprawling legacy just across the street belches a pungent steam of malt and hops into the sky every day. What's more, the modest building is the last remaining German-built structure in what was once "Goosetown," the bygone Deutsche community now buried beneath Coors's ever-expanding parking lots. Despite these rich traditions, the Goosetown Tavern, as it's known to locals, could soon be history. It served its last beer this fall, and the purchase of it by the Coors Brewing Company is seen by many as the end of the line for the landmark.
Among pub crawlers and local chroniclers, the sense is that Coors can't wait to knock down the Goosetown Tavern to make room for another parking lot. A rumor circulating around town has it that CEO Bill Coors was recently heard discussing the Goose's demolition over lunch.
"I have no idea what Bill may have said," says Coors spokesman Jon Goldman. "I don't follow him around. But I certainly have heard no direction from him on what to do with this property."
J.W. Hunt, a Golden real estate agent who is one of the people leading a campaign to preserve the bar, says there are plans to conduct a sort of pre-demolition autopsy--photographing and documenting the building for posterity should their efforts fail. He says he's resigned to the possibility that the tavern has a date with the wrecking ball.
"There's no doubt in my mind about that," he says of the rustic watering hole he haunted for fifteen years. "I think Coors is just being cautious in what they say, but their history precludes it--everything they've bought in Goosetown has been demolished. If they were to just come out and say, 'Guess what--we've been after this building for 25 years, and now we're going to tear it down,' that would create some very bad will in the community."
Goldman maintains that the company hasn't decided the fate of the tavern."Anybody that says they know what we're going to do with it doesn't have any facts to base that on," says Goldman. "But that's the way small towns can be sometimes. What we're going to do is look at what the options are, look at what the condition of the building is and see what makes sense from a business perspective, keeping in mind what's good for the community. Hopefully we can come up with a decision that addresses all of those issues."
Goldman adds, "It's right in the middle of our property, so we felt it was appropriate for us to own so we could control what happens on the property."
The business was put up for sale in early December by Jeff Whalen, son of the tavern's latest owner and namesake, Sam Whalen, who died last spring. The elder Whalen, a well-loved Golden character, had run the establishment since taking it over in 1969. After his death, declining business and a rising debt on the property forced his son to give up the bar.
"Sam's was a great place," Goldman admits, "but unfortunately, the economics wouldn't let it survive. The folks who are now so adamant about preserving it, if they had put that much energy into supporting the business while it was operating, then it's likely that the business would still be operating. The bottom line is that the folks who are now saying we've got to save this place weren't sitting at the bar and weren't buying hamburgers to keep it a viable business. Talk is one thing, but action is another."
As for his company's opinion of the historical merits of the bar, Goldman says, "There's virtually nothing left of the original appearance. There's nothing to restore; you would have to re-create it. Since there's no neighborhood there anymore, the original setting is gone."
And so is much of the hope of Conrad Gardner, president of the Golden Landmarks Association. "Coors has indicated that they haven't made a decision about what they're going to do with it yet," he says, "but it's clear that they've been trying to buy it for years and years. And when you see that it's surrounded by Coors parking lots, well, you get a little apprehensive."
To save the venerable oasis, which hosted countless Coors workers in its lengthy run, Gardner and his associates are trying to convince the brewer to grant the building a reprieve. "There's zero question that it's important from a historic point of view," Gardner says, "and if we could get it designated as a historic building, it would qualify for free money through gaming funds to restore it to its original condition." The problem, according to Gardner's son Richard, also a member of the Landmarks Association, is that Coors won't talk about it.
"We want to negotiate a deal with them," says Richard Gardner, a graduate student of history at the University of Colorado at Denver, "but they're not returning any of our calls. And it's hard to talk anything out when no one's willing to listen to you." (Goldman insists that he's received only three calls and has responded to two of them.)
Complicating matters is the fact that Coors, as the building's owner, has to make the first move toward preservation. "There's nothing we can do to preserve the building," says Chuck Hern, planning director for the City of Golden. "For a building to receive historical status, the owner needs to apply for it, and Coors has not filed for that yet."
That worries Richard Gardner. "Coors has actually destroyed a fair bit of the community here," he says. One of the more notable losses, says Gardner, was the St. Joseph Catholic Church, a Gothic-style stone chapel built in 1899 and razed in 1973.
"It's now part of the Coors Visitors Center parking lot," says Gardner, "and claiming they 'have no plans' for the Goosetown Tavern is the same thing they said before they destroyed the church. Coors has already destroyed maybe 80 percent of the buildings in Goosetown over time, and because the neighborhood is so decimated, it's even more imperative to save the ones that are left." Goldman says Coors rented the church out to other groups for a few years before deciding it wasn't feasible to restore it.
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Gardner also cites the case of the Burgess House, a combination general store and saloon constructed in 1866. According to Gardner, Coors purchased it in 1989 and intended to demolish it until the public protested. Under pressure from the city, says Gardner, Coors agreed to let the city conduct a feasibility survey to see whether the building was repairable and to investigate raising funds for a possible purchase. But following completion of the analysis (which deemed the building sound), Coors stopped cooperating. "When we finished the study," Richard Gardner says, "Coors sold the building out from under us." Goldman paints another picture: The company cooperated with the city in an attempt to restore the building, but both decided the structure could not be saved. (The structure ultimately was sold to another developer and is still standing.)
"There are some people you can't please," says Goldman, "and there are some people that for some reason have an issue with Coors, and they're never going to let go of that."
Just as J.W. Hunt can't let go of his memories of the Goosetown Tavern.
"It was the place where all the hardcore Goldenites would go," he recalls. "It wasn't just some dive bar; it was a piece of history. If you ever wanted to know something about just about anything, it was the place to go. There was a wealth of information that you could get there, and anytime I needed a mechanic or a carpenter or plumber, there was always somebody in there that would help you out for a couple of beers. I have a fifteen-year-old daughter, and if she was out riding her bike and wanted to stop in for a pop, why, she could do that and you didn't have to worry about it."
He adds: "I think they're taking away a little of the flavor of what Golden is all about and why people like it here so much.