From inside the Terminal Bar--a classic dive immortalized on Tom Waits's Nighthawks in the Diner--you cannot see the garish peanut-butter-and-electric-blue paint job that has earned the place such enmity. You cannot see the bricked-over windows along the Wazee Street side of the building, so very non-1888, the year the structure was built, or that the new windows along 17th Street contain historically inaccurate tinted glass.
What you can see is that this is one of the last bars left in LoDo where you are certain to find a table any night of the week, certain to get change back from the six bucks you shell out for a pitcher of beer, certain to be greeted by the bartenders just as affably as they hail their blue-collar regulars (and those blue collars are something you're not going to see in most LoDo bars, either).
On this Friday night, the Terminal has just ended the first of two happy hours (originally there were three, with the earliest linked to a 7 a.m. shift change at the post office). Unlike many nearby bars, where the lines of people waiting to get in move slower than the gridlocked traffic on LoDo streets, there's space to spare at the Terminal. There's also outrage to share, spilling from loyal employees still boiling mad about a letter sent to the Terminal's owner, Nancy Archer, just a few days before:
"On behalf of the Board of Directors of the Lower Downtown District, Inc. (LDDI), I am writing to inform you that the Terminal Bar will be recognized during the awards presentation at the LDDI Annual Meeting Dinner on Thursday, February 29.
"LDDI will announce that the Terminal Bar is receiving the Flying Brick Award for 1995. This award is given periodically by LDDI to an individual or organization which has engaged in outrageous behavior not consistent with the standards and guidelines of the Historic District. In this instance, the Flying Brick is being given to the Terminal Bar because of your company's steadfast refusal to honor either the letter or spirit of guidelines applied to all businesses in the District by the Design Consultation Board."
The letter, signed by LDDI's new executive director, Richard Holcomb, concludes with information on how to buy tickets for the annual dinner.
Nancy Archer didn't show. But then, where was LDDI when she bought the Terminal 33 years ago?
"These newcomers forget that, had it not been for these old owners, it would all be parking lots down here," says another longtime business owner. As for the admittedly "ugly" Terminal paint job, which he sees each time he enters his own shop, "it's part of the colorful fabric of lower downtown--instead of a phony environment that's somewhat contrived."
This isn't the first Flying Brick that LDDI has lobbed. The original took aim at the Taubman Company two years ago in honor of its ludicrous notion to mall over much of LoDo with a 300,000-square-foot shopping center. The second went to RTD, for its lamentable failure to extend mall shuttle service to Wynkoop Street. But those bricks were thrown at the big boys, who barely felt the impact (and, in Taubman's case, even appeared to accept the award with remarkable good humor).
But this brick made a direct hit on Nancy Archer's heart.
After working as a bartender for ten years to support her three sons, the now 75-year-old Archer poured her life savings into buying the Terminal in 1963. The place had been a bar since at least 1946, she remembers, and catered to the workingmen who were just about the only people wandering through the area at the time. Archer's first attempt at attracting a different clientele came in the mid-Eighties, when she decided to capitalize on the brief Crocodile Dundee craze--and her own Australian roots--by renaming the place the Billabong in hopes that the young, arty crowd moving into lower downtown would drop in.
The Aussie incarnation was never much of a hit, although souvenirs remain: the Waltzing Matilda mural inside and the Billabong name that shares space on the outside of the building. After that, Archer contented herself with occasional updates--painting the ceiling white, for example--until she, like the rest of the city, caught baseball fever.
With Coors Field coming to the area, Archer committed to a major renovation job--much of it long overdue, especially after a truck driving down the alley ran into the back of the building and knocked out some of the second floor. Archer took her plans to LDDI's Design Review Committee, which checks to see if they fall within the landmark guidelines adopted when lower downtown was designated an Historic District nine years ago. And at some point, they did. Archer remembers that slides of the plans were shown at an LDDI meeting and "they all cheered."
They stopped cheering last spring, about the time the first coat of paint covered the old, exposed brick, and were stunned into silence by the end result--finished far behind schedule, when the baseball season was two months old and so were many of LoDo's new, glitzy bars. Archer realizes that her windows are wrong and that many of the changes are not what she'd planned--or promised. She blames a contractor, who left the job incomplete and subcontractors unpaid, she says. "I'm broke," she adds. "I can't even afford to get a lawyer to go sue." And so she cannot afford to correct the historical inaccuracies, either--not that anyone had complained about them to her, she says.
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And then she received Holcomb's letter, which arrived on a day that, like so many others recently, was not very good. Archer read the first paragraph about the award, and remembers thinking, "Oh, good, something's going right." Then she read the second paragraph, and thought again. "I think it's vicious," she says. "And it's unnecessary."
Bricks aren't the only things flying through LoDo these days. Bar owners accuse one another of overserving customers, and those customers leave litter and urine and vomit on the sidewalks in front of the pricey lofts. (When LDDI's Good Neighbor Policy Committee meets this week, those are bound to be some of the hotter topics.)
But there are still some neighborly feelings in this, Denver's hottest--and arguably hottest tempered--neighborhood. "She's a valued member of the community," LDDI's incoming president, Carrie Kramlich, insists of Archer. "She can remedy the problem." And if she does, LDDI's willing to exchange that Flying Brick with the organization's top honor: an Ancient Brick.
The rest is history.