Friday night, and the Wazee Supper Club is packed--as it has been for Friday night after Friday night since long before LoDo was the center of Denver's universe, since before LoDo was even called LoDo.
But although the Wazee is packed, as always, the space seems oddly empty. Something is missing.
The exposed-brick walls are bare. The art is gone.
Back in the days when Denver's old warehouse district was still known as lower downtown, back in the days when cars rumbled overhead on the 15th Street Viaduct, the Wazee was an outpost of civilization on the urban frontier. You could tell, because jazz wafted overhead, and art--not necessarily good art--hung on the walls.
Now the art is gone, because the artists have left LoDo.
Russell Barrett, who's been the manager of the Wazee for seventeen years, remembers when the restaurant had a several-month-long waiting list of artists who wanted to exhibit there. Artists who lived in the neighborhood would line up for the privilege of hanging their work on the back wall. But these days the people lining up in LoDo are not artists, and the restaurant hasn't had a show for months.
The artists have fled the area for less expensive quarters. The cheap, rough loft spaces where they lived and worked ten, fifteen, twenty years ago have been refurbished into sleek urban retreats with million-dollar price tags. And while a few artists remain as LoDo landmarks, they are not the starving artists who'd angle for a show at the Wazee and maybe some extra pieces of pizza. They are the artists who can afford to live here and have no problem getting their work shown in more upscale settings. Or the artists who, like Peter Schmitz, can afford to live here and don't need to show their work.
Still, most of the artists have left LoDo, and so now many art galleries are leaving LoDo. "The artists are what attracted the art galleries," explains Bill Havu, who runs the 1/1 Gallery at 1715 Wazee. But not for long. When his lease runs out on February 28, Havu is following the artists' lead and abandoning LoDo and the storefront his gallery has occupied for almost eight years. This summer he'll open the Wm Havu gallery in a building now under construction in the Golden Triangle, the area just south of the Denver Art Museum where some artists have already relocated--although, since there were few old buildings left standing in the area, they are living in lofts of recent manufacture. This urban frontier comes with all the creature comforts.
Until he shuts 1/1's doors at the end of next month, Havu is hosting a farewell show, "Greatest Hits! 1991-1997." The exhibit includes works by ten of the gallery's regulars, including Patti Cramer, one of those artists who actually lived and worked in LoDo, in a loft at 18th and Wazee. That building is owned by Arnold Schwarzenegger and is slated to become part of his long-postponed Planet Hollywood project, which will have more people who are not artists lining up in LoDo. And there are works by Bruce Cody, who now lives in Santa Fe but used to paint the pre-LoDo lower downtown. Havu points to a shadowy corner in one painting, where "all the winos used to hang out"; the piece depicts the old grain elevator that stood by 20th Street for decades, then was imploded one summer day to make way for Coors Field. When the explosion failed to level the structure, a wrecking crew cleared a path to the future.
LoDo's boom also blew up rents. That helped propel Havu's decision: His monthly payments were projected to triple what he pays today. But one of the primary reasons landlords can demand such high rents, he points out, is because "the galleries made it gentrified." It was the galleries that convinced people to abandon the staid suburbs, move downtown and enjoy the city--not the sports bars that are now the subject of complaints from those urban dwellers.
Havu may be moving to the Golden Triangle, but he knows LoDo is still a gold mine. "I hate to leave here," he says. "Business has been good." Good not because of baseball, but because he's been around eight years, and his artists have developed a following more faithful than the most ardent Rockies fans.
Across the street at 1736 Wazee, business has not been good. In fact, the Art of Craft has had such a bad year that when Lisa Weiler's lease is up, she's giving up the store. Close out--and clear out--by the end of February. With the exception of Dede LaRue's infamous dog sculptures (remember the Wendy Bergen pit bull?), everything is on sale. "This year was particularly bad," Weiler says. "The problem is that there's just not enough retail downtown to convince people to come down and shop. I needed more shopping traffic. There's plenty of traffic, but it's not shopping traffic. It's young traffic, it's ballpark traffic."
When Weiler looked at the storefront five years ago, she knew it was a risk. But like so many others, she'd fallen in love with this corner of downtown, where the city's history is apparent in every brick and cranny. "I loved being there," she says. "It just didn't turn out to be profitable enough."
In fact, it wasn't profitable at all. Weiler says she's broke, so broke that even though she thought about opening a small jewelry store, perhaps in the Pavilions project that pushed Planet Hollywood out of orbit, she's going to regroup instead. And she predicts she won't be the only one making that move. "I wasn't alone in thinking LoDo would be a really good retail location," she says. "Everyone's leases are coming up in the next year or two. There will be lots of changes in LoDo."
But they won't be next door at the Robischon Gallery, which almost a decade ago moved from 17th Avenue to 1740 Wazee--and plans to stay there. "We've been looking for a place to be permanent for years," says Jim Robischon. "We've looked at every single part of the city." And they decided to remain here, in its historic heart.
It helps, Robischon says, that the gallery is close to downtown hotels, so that travelers interested in his high-end, high-quality art can walk over and visit. It helps that, unlike Weiler's place, the gallery doesn't rely on lots of small sales. And it really helps, of course, that Robischon has a landlord supportive of the arts, who charges only $2 more a square foot than he did eight years ago. If the building's owner had wanted to, he could have leased the space to a restaurant for twice, three times the price.
Robischon looks at the old furniture warehouse across the street, destined to one day house a steak place and more high-priced lofts. He glances down the street toward Il Fornaio. And he talks of the day when these restaurants will send customers over to the galleries rather than the other way around.
"People think LoDo's already happened," he says, "but it's just started in a lot of ways."
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The most unusual of those ways is just a few doors away. Oilman Fred Mayer and his wife, longtime patrons of the arts, are building a multi-million-dollar residence in the parking lot that once rubbed up against the old Terminal Bar. And although Weiler suggests that construction obstacles over the past year helped keep business down, Robischon is looking ahead. Perhaps the people invited over to the Mayers' private museum will wander around the neighborhood a bit, look into the nearby galleries.
Or whatever's left of them.
In the meantime, the Mayers' project has already added to the artistic legacy of the neighborhood. The plywood walkways and walls around the construction site are covered with murals. One, a more painterly creation titled "Denver's Past, Denver's Future," was created by students at the Denver School of the Arts; the other, an energetic, graffiti-inspired piece, comes courtesy The Spot, a teen hangout a few blocks away.
This is art that could hang on the Wazee's walls.
It's art that captures a city. And it's still on display in LoDo.