Colfax is moving quickly -- and we're going along for the ride
Over the past decade, Westword has profiled some of the major streets and arteries that give Denver life. For this year's project, we return to Colfax Avenue, the subject of our first profile, to examine the many changes that have taken place along Denver's main street over the past ten years.
Colorado State Capitol
200 East Colfax Avenue
All that glitters: Colfax Avenue, at 26-plus miles, is touted as the longest main street in America, and was also once dubbed the "wickedest street" in America by Playboy — which is a lot more interesting than its actual name, inspired by Schuyler (aka "Smiler") Colfax, a native of New York who founded the Republican Party in Indiana, became Speaker of the House and was elected Ulysses S. Grant's vice president in 1868. That was the year that Henry Brown donated land bounded by Lincoln and Grant, 14th and 15th (soon to be renamed Colfax), for a future state capitol building. At the time, Colorado was still eight years away from becoming a state — and Denver would not be chosen as the capital of that new state until 1881.
Construction on the State Capitol Building finally started in 1886; the cornerstone was laid in 1890. Governor Davis Waite moved into his office in 1894 and told the Tenth General Assembly that "the building is a marvel of good, honest work, and will be a lasting tribute to its builder and managers." But the work — sometimes good, sometimes honest, but also criticized by headline-writers for its "rottenness" — continued. In 1901, new advisory architect F. E. Edbrooke, who'd designed the Brown Palace, finally came up with the Capitol's crowning glory: He suggested that the cast-iron dome be gilded with Colorado gold — which was done in 1908.
And undone a century later, after damage to the exterior observation deck discovered in 2006 inspired a $17 million renovation project partly covered by the State Historical Fund, partly by donations through Share in the Care Colorado. Today, the Capitol looks like a giant stack of marshmallows towering over Colfax, with scaffolding and scrim hiding the restoration work.
But the end is in sight. On June 18, Governor John Hickenlooper will accept boxes of gold leaf to regild the dome — refined in Italy from $120,000 worth of 24-karat gold mined in Cripple Creek and donated to the state by AngloGold Ashanti and the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Company. And then, at a rate of fifty to a hundred square feet a day, the dome will be recovered.
The entire restoration process should be completed by the summer of 2014, when the observation deck and dome will reopen to the public. And no matter what shenanigans are going on under the dome, from there visitors will again enjoy almost unimpeded views of miles of Colfax stretching to the west and east, that wicked, wonderful street that beats as the true heart of this city, this state.
— Patricia Calhoun
Westside Branch Library
West Colfax Avenue and Irving Street
Aside from Peyton Manning, who plays at the nearby Sports Authority Field, there hasn't been much to cheer about in the vicinity of Colfax and Irving. Motorists streaming off the viaduct are greeted by a WEST COLFAX WELCOME sign, stark towers of low-income housing and a grim commercial zone that's struggled economically for decades.
But the construction of a new branch library now underway on the southeast corner of the intersection — catty-corner from Cheltenham Elementary, directly across from a weed-choked former church and next door to a half-vacant strip mall anchored by a Latino grocery store — is a sign that things are changing.
Scheduled to open next year, the library will offer a computer lab, adult-education materials and possibly a music studio. The site was chosen over two alternatives further west because of its access to transit, including the newly opened West Line light-rail station on Federal Boulevard, and because the Avondale and Sunnyside areas — teeming with seniors, immigrants and children — have been historically underserved.
And history has a way of sticking around in this neighborhood — something that the Denver Public Library has discovered as it asked for suggestions on what to call the new library. People have suggested naming it after Golda Meir (a nod to the historic Jewish community on Denver's west side), education activist Lena Archuleta, and even the imposingly bearded Schuyler Colfax.
Yet the most popular and controversial candidate has been Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales — boxer, poet, and leader of the Crusade for Justice, the increasingly militant Chicano-rights organization that clashed repeatedly with Denver police in the 1960s and 1970s.
How you feel about a Corky Gonzales Library may depend on whether you believe that the racism and brutality of Denver cops in the civil-rights era justified the more extreme actions tied to the Crusade, including a bloody shootout in an apartment building in 1973 and an alleged bomb plot against a police substation in 1975. Supporters of Gonzales, who died in 2005, point to his much-anthologized poem, "I Am Joaquin," and his undeniable influence on the succeeding generation of Hispanic leaders. His critics — like Juan Haro, who went to prison over the '75 bomb investigation and later wrote a book accusing Gonzales of deceiving his followers and betraying the cause — insist that he was more deeply involved in the violent side of the Crusade than his boosters will admit.
It's a tricky bit of local mythology that the Denver Library Commission will have to negotiate when it meets next month to discuss (and perhaps settle on) a name for the branch. Whatever is decided, it's a safe bet that future generations of schoolkids will care a lot more about what's inside their neighborhood palace of wisdom than whose name is on the marquee. — Alan Prendergast
Sprouts Farmers Market
East Colfax Avenue and Monroe Street
When Sprouts Farmers Market announced in late 2011 that it would build a $3 million store on Colfax between Monroe and Garfield streets, on the site of a former car dealership, most of the people who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods were ecstatic. There isn't another grocery store for at least two miles in any direction, and Sprouts (then called Sunflower Farmers Market) wasn't an average grocery store: The chain specializes in healthier produce and meats along with organic foods and specialty items.
Rosen Properties, which owns the property, is a family-run firm with the majority of its business focused nearby, in Park Hill, South City Park and Congress Park, and it seemed like the company was doing what was best for its neighbors — at least until those neighbors found out about a part of the plan that doesn't appear on Rosen's online depictions of the project: a Chick-fil-A restaurant with a drive-thru.
Rosen Properties and its president, Sean Mandel, didn't publicize the news, and now some neighbors feel they've been tricked — that there isn't enough parking for a fast-food joint, that a drive-thru will tie up traffic. "Of course, it has been a bit of a sordid plan on their end, from my perspective," says Alex Wiley, who lives across the street from the site. "Sean had early on sent out a letter saying he didn't mean to deceive the neighborhood during zoning, where a drive-thru was not part of the original plans shown.
"He then said that grocery stores don't pay very much rent, so the development was not economically viable without it," Wiley continues. "He asked for a meeting, to which I said, as long as Chick-fil-A was on the table there was nothing to talk about."
But for anyone who follows the news, there is plenty to talk about when it comes to Chick-fil-A.
The Georgia-based chain has a cult following across the country and typically draws big crowds whenever it opens a new store — but Chick-fil-A's culture is also strongly aligned with conservative Christian principles. Company stores are closed on Sundays and the corporation frequently donates to Christian organizations, including some that actively oppose same-sex marriage. Those policies became dinner-table conversation last summer when a top Chick-fil-A executive publicly bashed gay-rights groups.
"Personally, and I'm sure others in the neighborhood feel similarly, it goes beyond a simple political issue of gay marriage," says Wiley.
Indeed, the Sprouts (opening in July) and the Chick-fil-A (opening in October) make for an odd couple in one of the most urban parts of a left-leaning city, but Mandel insists that he's only received two complaints about Chick-fil-A — one of them from Wiley — and denies that he said that the project wouldn't be financially viable without the fast-food restaurant. "Chick-fil-A is one of five tenants so far, and they don't represent the entire project," he adds. "People have the right to patronize businesses at their own discretion, and there will be people who won't go there."
Count Wiley as part of that group.
— Jenn Wohletz
9898 East Colfax Avenue
As one of the founders of the River North Arts District and one of the industrial neighborhood's first new residents in many years, artist Tracy Weil has often been called an urban pioneer. But he's recently taken on a new challenge that is both similar and very different — that of a suburban pioneer. In April, Weil was hired as managing director of the Aurora Cultural Arts District, which is split by the once-cute shopping district between Clinton and Fulton streets and has been struggling with growing pains.
Weil has also lent his expertise in what works and what doesn't to Lakewood's newish 40 West Arts District, which is miles from Aurora when it comes to geography, but very similar in other ways. Unlike RiNo and the Art District on Santa Fe, which are both strong destinations, the arts districts in Aurora and Lakewood are for the people who live nearby, and therefore need to reflect that constituency.
40 West started off by choosing a snappy name with historic underpinnings to Colfax's designation as a highway. Anchored by the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design and the district's own 40 West Gallery, the district is hosting street parties and fairs and people-friendly exhibitions like the recent Traveling Route 40 paean to Colfax, which spread streetwise goodwill to many locations up and down the 26-mile artery's strip.
This June, 40 West is hosting a series based on the green tenets of recycling and repurposing that will include a recycled-art exhibition, a recycled-art market and a trash fashion show. 40 West is also banking on the new Lamar Street Light Rail Station to bring new visitors to the area; to that end, Lakewood-based artist Lonnie Hanzon is in the midst of creating a welcoming public-art piece for the whistle-stop.
In Aurora, meanwhile, Weil's job will be to encourage arts outposts that have hung on and thrived, like Downtown Aurora Visual Arts and the Aurora Fox, and to keep others from shutting down, like The Other Side Arts did.
Aurora's already done a bang-up job encouraging public art along the corridor, such as Susan Cooper's recent lighting installation, which switched on last fall in the district's Fletcher Plaza. And the success of Vintage Theatre's move to Aurora is catching, as other performance groups begin to look to the area for affordable rents and community camaraderie, raising the possibility of an Aurora-centric theater district that might draw audiences from Denver's Lowry and Stapleton neighborhoods.
Fletcher Plaza will also host the Aurora Arts Festival on June 29 to showcase what's working in the Colfax arts enclave.
— Susan Froyd
Lowenstein Theater Complex
East Colfax Avenue and Elizabeth Street
Early on the morning of February 27, sixteen-year-old Deyondrah Bridgeman waited with her black-and-neon Hello Kitty backpack to cross East Colfax at Elizabeth Street on her way to class at East High School. Bridgeman was about halfway across the street when a gray sedan blew through a red light and struck her so hard that a witness said she flew through the air. The driver didn't slow down. Instead, a video captured by a nearby HALO camera shows the sedan driving away as Bridgeman lay bleeding in the street with a severe head injury. Three months later, the now-seventeen-year-old is still in the hospital, struggling to recover and unable to walk.
At 4:30 a.m. the next morning, a thirty-year-old teacher at a charter school in Aurora walked into a police station and told the police she had been behind the wheel.
The intersection where Bridgeman was hit is a busy one. Several times a day, a massive migration occurs as long-haired girls and shaggy-banged boys stream across Colfax in herds. The high-school students spend their lunch money at Chipotle and post up inside the Tattered Cover's cafe, both located inside the Lowenstein Theater Complex, which was rehabbed in 2006 as a retail and cultural center after years of being a nearly vacant eyesore. On one recent afternoon, two freshman girls hurried across the street after school, bound for the Twist & Shout record store, where they spent $18.28 each on a just-released, limited-edition Vampire Weekend LP.
"They are our one true love," the girls explained. "The best band in the world."
And despite the accident, students say they don't hesitate to criss-cross Colfax — sometimes even darting through traffic when they don't have the right-of-way.
Adults have taken things more seriously. In the wake of the hit-and-run and another, less-serious accident involving a student on Colfax that same day, East High's school resource officers met with students "about traffic safety and taking care of each other," says Denver police spokesman Sonny Jackson. Those officers have since done at least six so-called speed-enforcement operations around the school, he adds, and increased patrols in the mornings and afternoons, circling the campus in the hopes of slowing traffic.
The city's Department of Public Works hung neon-yellow "School Zone" signs around East, while the intersection at Elizabeth is slated for a new traffic signal this summer that includes two red-yellow-and-green stoplights hanging over the street instead of just one, as well as a new countdown pedestrian walk signal.
The signal changes are a joint venture of the city and the Colorado Department of Transportation, which is footing the bill since Colfax is also a state highway. They were planned before the accident, and Public Works spokeswoman Emily Williams says the new signal will be in place before school starts.
The city has also launched a new campaign called "Heads Up" that encourages drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians to pay more attention and take responsibility for their actions. Spurred by an increase in auto-pedestrian accidents — six pedestrians, including two young refugee boys, died in the first three months of this year — the campaign will include billboards, increased warnings and enforcement and radio ads, including one that reportedly features Mayor Michael Hancock singing with the Flobots.
These efforts are exactly the kind that the Capitol Hill United Neighbors group has been suggesting for years. Ever since the old Lowenstein Theater was rehabbed to house the Tattered Cover and other businesses, the stretch of Colfax across from East High has become a hot spot. The complex recently welcomed the new Udi's Pizza Cafe & Bar in the space vacated by Encore restaurant and is now the permanent home of the renamed Sie FilmCenter.
After Bridgeman's accident, the film center hosted a meeting to discuss safety improvements, a conversation that CHUN executive director Roger Armstrong says is continuing. "It's a matter of getting drivers to slow down and...understand that the whole area should be treated as a school zone," he says. — Melanie Asmar
The Zephyr Lounge
11940 East Colfax Avenue
Myron Melnick is a working artist. Though he hasn't been able to devote as much time to his craft as he used to since taking over the Zephyr Lounge from his father nearly a decade ago, he still has a studio, and he's still creating pieces and selling them.
And Melnick's artistic imprint runs through the Zephyr, the iconic bar that's been in his family for nearly seven decades. While many might consider the bar to be a classic dive simply because of its vintage, it's actually warm and welcoming on the inside rather than dank and dark. Aesthetically, it reflects the charming, eclectic personality of its owner, who holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Minnesota yet has a professed penchant for collecting thrift-store artwork.
"When my dad was finishing up his career here after 57 years — he was 87 years old — the bar was kind of sleepy, so I woke it up," says Melnick, seated in a corner booth, his soft-spoken voice nearly drowned out by the peripheral conversations of the regulars streaming in during the second of three happy hours.
In addition to the hand-curated, secondhand-store art adorning the walls, as well as the updated carpeting, Melnick has customized the nightly programming, implementing everything from rock-and-roll bingo and karaoke to poker and live music. He picked all the songs on the jukebox himself and even hired a chef.
"I like to look at the bar as a historic business, and I want people to think of it that way. It's not a sports bar. It's not a yuppie bar. It's a traditional bar that's been here in the neighborhood, but then it has overtones of being a club on the weekends," he says.
It's definitely not the kind of bar that belongs in the media spotlight.
But while the personality of the Zephyr has changed, so has the Aurora neighborhood around it. "There was a motel next door here; it was a prostitution, crack city over there," he says. "It just really caused everybody in the neighborhood problems, major problems. So finally the city closed it down. That's been a good thing."
The Zephyr opened in 1947, which makes it one of the longest-running businesses in Aurora. Melnick's dad, Barry, moved to Denver in his early twenties and launched the Zephyr here because of its proximity to the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center. A former soldier himself, Barry felt a connection to the military men and women he served.
Fitzsimons closed in 1999, and these days, the bar's customers are made up of the construction workers charged with helping to redevelop the area, along with students from the University of Colorado's Anschutz Medical Campus, which sits just down the road on the land where Fitzsimons used to be. There are also plenty of regulars who live nearby, one of whom was most assuredly not a certain accused mass murderer, Melnick insists, in spite of news reports from last July to the contrary.
"I'm still getting repercussions from it," says Melnick, who admits to playfully baiting the relentless reporters who kept hounding him, refusing to believe that James Holmes had not been in the bar, by suggesting that he might have surveillance video of the alleged perpetrator singing Batman songs at karaoke. He didn't, of course.
"When this originally broke, these people didn't realize that he had the Bozo haircut," Melnick notes. "So they're telling me he was here. If Bozo walked in the door in a place like this, everybody would turn around." — Dave Herrera
MSUD Athletic Fields
West Colfax Avenue and Shoshone Street
For the past quarter-century, Colfax has been an impenetrable barrier between the Auraria campus and the neighborhood south of it, more unyielding than the Maginot Line or the space-time continuum. Cars roar down the viaduct at lightning speed, and a steady procession of light-rail trains gliding along the southern edge of the campus seems designed to pick off any pedestrians the cars miss. Daunting as the situation is, planners at Metropolitan State University of Denver, as eager to extend the school's turf as they are to add syllables to its name, have come up with a bold plan.
If you can't get across Colfax, go under it.
Look south as you're lead-footing it along the viaduct, and you'll see something startling among the rust and weeds of the battered industrial zone there: freshly leveled earth. The school recently broke ground on the construction of eight tennis courts, baseball and softball diamonds, and a soccer field, all to be carved out of 12.5 acres of land contaminated with toluene and other toxins, the site of a former Unocal chemical warehouse.
The turf on the new fields will be artificial; anything that requires irrigation, like real grass, would also help spread the plume of groundwater poison under the site. The most direct access to the area from the existing campus will probably involve some kind of route under the viaduct. But for Metro, as well as for many residents of the adjacent La Alma-Lincoln Park neighborhood, the project is a field of dreams. Not only does it represent a sensible, relatively inexpensive reclaiming of an industrial wasteland, but MSUD has committed to adding a walking trail around the perimeter and making the fields available for use by neighborhood groups. Sean Nesbitt, the school's director of facilities planning, has suggested the fields could eventually host summertime camps and clinics and be part of a larger effort to "return baseball to the inner city."
It's a significant step when an urban campus extends its boundaries so dramatically, past the psychic and physical wall that is Colfax — particularly given the history of tensions between Auraria and Lincoln Park residents, who've protested past attempted incursions of student housing. But this is one play that could turn into a grand slam.
Heritage Square Music Hall
18301 West Colfax Avenue
You're still on Colfax when you visit the Heritage Square Music Hall, but you could hardly feel further away from the city. The building seems like an authentic nineteenth-century opera house — you can imagine cowboys, miners and ladies of the night mingling in the comfortable, wood-furbished auditorium. Except it turns out the music hall is part of a development — Magic Mountain — that was originally cooked up in the 1950s by Disney-influenced businessmen and designed by Hollywood art directors, with all the buildings at two-thirds scale. Magic Mountain failed and was eventually reopened as Heritage Square, a collection of quaint shops and children's rides.
In 1972, William Oakley created the Heritage Square Players and began staging old-fashioned melodramas in the music hall. In 1988, T.J. Mullin took over, and the productions began morphing and shifting. He staged melodramas and novel adaptations (though Dickens would hardly have recognized his own Cricket on the Hearth); zany takes on Western history; olio medleys; and a series called Loud, each show comprising musical numbers from differing decades linked by the thinnest and most absurd threads of plot. In short, the fare has been as eclectic, eccentric, mishmashy yet strangely successful as the physical design of the place.
But the company never recovered from the recession, and this will be their final season.
Mullin and his cast of regulars forged a genuine bond with their audiences, and for years people came back again and again to eat at the upstairs buffet before descending the creaking stairs to the auditorium. The festivities still begin with a cheerful, uninhibited sing-along led by music director N. Randall Johnson on the piano. Then the performers take over. Playful, unpretentious, hugely talented, they give new meaning to the term "audience participation" — and audience members think nothing of calling out questions or requests or even popping up on stage themselves. The productions are a mix of original humor, corny old routines and unexpected new ones, improvisation and songs.
There are moments from these shows embedded in memory: colorful beach balls flying back and forth between the performers and the audience; Rory Pierce taking the hand of an elderly woman in the front row and singing a tender love song to her; spot-on imitations of such stars as Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger, James Brown, Mama Cass; Johnette Toye's lovely soprano; the evenings when Annie Dwyer left the stage to snatch up audience members' drinks and down them in a gulp, returning to her role afterward with complete focus and aplomb. We can't help thinking that even when the show's finally over, all that singing, laughter and camaraderie will somehow still be lingering in that strange hybrid of a building.
You can still catch the rest of the season, including the last in the Loud series, 50 Shades of Loud, and the final show, Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night.
— Juliet Wittman
1080 East Colfax Avenue
When Smiley's Laundromat said goodbye to Colfax this past April, closing its doors on more than three decades of a bizarre existence, it was more than a sign of the changing times. It was also Colorado's most famous road losing a living tribute to its weirdness.
But perhaps describing Smiley's — and its embodiment of the avenue's culture and population within its fishbowl storefront — as weird and bizarre doesn't give enough credit to the "World's Largest Discount Laundromat." Having opened in 1979, Smiley's was around long before Denver became a "most educated" or "most fit" city. Smiley's was part of this cowtown's seedier aesthetic, one that seems harder to find now.
Smiley's had been set to close once before, in 2006, when Triton Properties bought the 24-hour laundromat and its upstairs rental properties and announced plans to redevelop them. But the recession promptly halted those plans, and Smiley's stayed open. In 2011, the business portion was sold to longtime Smiley's washer-and-dryer repairman Richard Son, who cleaned up the spot, lowered prices and removed the 24-hour aspect of the laundromat — something that had become more of an expensive nuisance than a traffic driver. Still, the place was open seventeen hours a day.
Then, earlier this year, it looked as if Smiley's was getting a remodel — the windows were papered up and the parking lot was fenced off — but it quickly became clear that it had actually closed. Nostalgia couldn't keep a place like Smiley's open indefinitely — and the building's new owners, Slipstream Properties, have a lot of work ahead of them, including fixing water leaks, removing asbestos and making other repairs.
Slipstream has no plans to drastically change the facade of the building that once housed Smiley's — but the company "took out both levels of the ceiling, and now it's an amazing, tall space — it feels huge," Slipstream's Anthony Loeffler told Westword earlier this year. "We're planning on redoing the floor, creating several spaces and moving in some retailers."
Loeffler understands, though, that Smiley's location makes it inherently Colfax — regardless of what business is occupying the spot. "The area along Colfax is an interesting place for retailers because of the fantastic demographic of the area," he says.
No matter what happens to Colfax Avenue and other Smiley's-like operations of the eminent past, one thing is for certain: The Colfax demographic will always be fantastic. — Bree Davies
East Colfax Avenue and Oneida Street
The lights still work inside the big red-and-yellow neon sign that rests on the Driftwood Motel. Most of them, anyway. And that's not bad for a piece of Colfax history that hasn't been new since 1956, a time when dozens of motor inns welcomed cross-country travelers along U.S. Route 40 — once known as the Gateway to the Rockies.
Today the motel, just a few steps south of Colfax on Oneida, still welcomes guests, but they aren't tourists — and like most of the people who check into motels on Colfax, they probably aren't headed anywhere fast.
Corky Scholl has driven by this sign, and dozens of other neon wonders, almost every day for five years on his way back and forth from his home east of Park Hill to his job downtown. "I'm pretty tuned into all the cool things going on along Colfax," he says, "even the things that most people don't appreciate or don't think [are] cool."
Last year, Scholl and fellow photographer Johne Edge decided to try to preserve some of what they think is cool by founding Save the Signs on Colfax, an organization dedicated to doing just that. Both of them have a nostalgic appreciation for the colorful, in-your-face neon signs and the Googie-style architecture that went with them.
Their first target was the Sid King's Crazy Horse Bar sign, which made a cameo in the 1978 Clint Eastwood cult classic Every Which Way but Loose. The Crazy Horse, a rollicking strip bar that came to symbolize the street, closed in 1983 (the building, at 1201 East Colfax, is now home to the Irish Snug). The sign was saved, though, winding up in a salvage yard, where it was purchased in 2005 by Mike Brown and Melissa Kostic, who hung it in their house. Scholl found it when the couple moved and put the sign up for sale; he's now working with them to have it restored and displayed.
Scholl is also working on a fundraiser to help restore the neon sign at the Oriental Theater, which, at 44th Avenue and Tennyson Street, is far from Colfax, but Scholl's eyes never wander far from the street, and he is in talks with Sean Mandel from Rosen Properties (see our Sprouts story on page 14) to restore two liquor-store signs at Colfax and Monroe Street.
"That one isn't neon, but it's made of hundreds of lightbulbs and it has a big arrow that curves around the awning, pointing to the door. It's old-school and has the same kind of attributes that make neon cool," he says.
To help raise money, Scholl is working to turn Save the Signs into a nonprofit that developers and collectors would be able to donate to and financially support. He's also raising awareness with booths like the one he sat at during the recent Colfax Marathon.
"We just love the beauty of these signs, and there are so many of them," he says. "The Riviera Motel sign still looks great. The Aurora Fox looks great. And the Driftwood. I would really love to get that one going again." — Jonathan Shikes
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.