With Developers Jazzed About Five Points, the Rossonian Hotel Could Soon Be Hopping Again
Eight-year-old Darrell Anderson should be asleep in his bed, but instead he's sneaked a block north in his jammies to the corner of 27th and Welton streets, where he's now hiding out behind liquor boxes, waiting patiently for the wooden door to swing open, waiting for a glimpse into the place to be in Denver: the jazz club at the Rossonian Hotel, a tiny, triangular first-floor ballroom filled with good sounds, good company and more than a little magic.
The Rossonian in 1941.
Inside, the women are beautiful. They wear their hair short and curly, their lips are candy red, and they're dressed to the nines in polka-dot dresses with big dotted bows, red ruffled suits and sultry strapless numbers for the servicemen based at Fitzsimons, who came down to party in their telltale uniforms and are now slinking into corner booths, careful not to slip on the rust-red-and-teal-tiled floor. The civilian men are equally cool in their plaid ties, sunglasses -- at 2 a.m.! -- and suspenders, drinking whiskey from lowballs and ordering the best shrimp Creole in town.
Everybody dances, everybody smokes, everybody stinks of alcohol when they leave. The beer's just fifteen cents a pour, and by the 1950s, far more white faces than black ones crowd around bassist Charlie Burrell, whose forehead is beaded with sweat, his lips puckered like a trumpeter's around a half-smoked cigar. If Burrell's tired after wrapping up a set with the Denver Symphony Orchestra earlier in the evening, you wouldn't know it by the way he plays at the Rossonian, where he supplements his income as house bassist and jams with all the big names in jazz: Louis, Duke, Ella, Billie (his favorite gal) and Nat King Cole. Two bucks gets you in no matter who's on stage.
The wooden door swings open again, and big clouds of cigarette smoke rush toward Anderson, who spies San Francisco's Gladys Palmer in the lounge. Years later, the singer will recognize Anderson in an equally foggy bar in Thailand, where he's stationed during the Vietnam War. "Hey," she'll say to the grown-up Anderson. "Hey, you're that snotty-nosed kid who used to peek in at the Rossonian, aren't you?"
If Gladys Palmer isn't singing, maybe local pianist Charlotte Cowans, with her perfectly arched brows and teardrop diamond earrings, is performing, seated at a piano in the center of the room, taking tips from Art Tatum about the difference between playing and playing well. Future mayor Wellington Webb might be here, too, underage and snuck in by the owners, who know his family and often let young Wellington inside for the music -- but never the real drinks. "I wasn't served anything other than a 7-Up with a lime or Coke with a stirrer instead of a straw, to make it look like I was drinking," Webb says before listing off the names of the musicians he saw here: Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Leroy Smith and James Brown, for starters.
Jack Kerouac, who walked past the Rossonian when he first visited Denver in the 1940s, immortalized the area and the era in On the Road: "At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night."
Five Points in the late 1800s.
William Henry Jackson - Denver Public Library
Denver was just six years old when the Civil War ended and newly freed slaves started heading west. In 1879 a group of African-Americans called the Exodusters fled the Deep South, landing first in Nicodemus, Kansas, and then moving on, eventually settling in a dusty neighborhood just northeast of downtown Denver, near the intersection of East 26th Avenue and Welton Street and 27th and Washington streets. By 1881, this spot was known as Five Points: The Denver City Railway Co. created the nickname because its streetcar signs weren't big enough to list all of the street names at its end-of-the-line stop.
Commercial buildings cropped up along Welton Street in the following decade, along what was billed as the world's longest cable-car line. More affluent white residents soon used the line to move into prominent Denver neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, while restrictive covenants and Jim Crow laws confined the majority of African-Americans to Five Points.
By the 1920s, 90 percent of Denver's African-American population was concentrated in 2.3 square miles of the eastern Five Points and western Whittier neighborhoods; the area was reported to have more black-owned businesses than any other American neighborhood outside of Harlem. Between 22nd and 29th streets, Welton housed doctor's offices, loan and real-estate services, restaurants and clubs, two grocery stores, three drug stores, five liquor stores, three movie theaters, a clothing store, a shoe store, two shoe-repair shops and a funeral home. The close-knit community was a vibrant one, where "a regular-income worker could live next door to a doctor," says Charleszine Terry Nelson, historian and archivist at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library on Welton. With a population that was "all mixed up," she adds, the place "truly was a village."
Some residents considered Five Points its own city; mail addressed to residents of "Five Points, Colorado" usually made it to the right recipients.
The landmark structure in Five Points -- the one anchoring two triangular corners at 27th and Welton streets -- was designed in Beaux Arts style by George Louis Bettcher in 1912 for Robert Y. Baxter, owner of Baxter Cigar Company. The 13,500-square-foot building originally opened as the Baxter Hotel; the moniker "Rossonian" -- a tribute to manager A.W.L. Ross, an attorney and newspaper publisher -- wouldn't be adopted until 1929. By then, the building was already legendary.
The Rossonian was "a place that brought the black community together," remembers Webb. "Because of de facto discrimination, you'd find elected officials, businesspeople, plumbers and firefighters all inside the hotel."
"The story that was told to me was that black musicians couldn't stay in places downtown, and the one place they could stay was along the Welton Street Corridor," says Ryan Cobbins, a Five Points resident and owner of the four-year-old Coffee at the Point, which sits kitty-corner to the Rossonian.
After gigs for white audiences at venues like the Rainbow Ballroom at Fifth Avenue and Speer Boulevard, the jazz giants would retreat to Welton Street. "You know musicians," Nelson says. "Once they get wound up, they want to keep it going, so they came back to Five Points to jam."
Ninety-five-year-old Norman Harris Sr., who still owns a liquor store and apartment complex in the neighborhood, remembers Billie Holiday and Joe Louis staying at the Rossonian, and Sonny Liston hanging out at the adjacent barber shop. Duke Ellington once spent an entire summer at the Rossonian.
The Rossonian happily accommodated anybody with money and attitude in its first-floor lounge, where the top-notch talent performed. "It was no different than in New York," says Webb. "If people wanted to hear good jazz there, they'd go uptown to Harlem. For whites who wanted to hear good jazz in Denver, it was Five Points."
Those who couldn't squeeze their way into the Rossonian headed across the street to Benny Hooper's Ex-Servicemen's Club, for legendary basement jam sessions. All up and down the street, the neighborhood boasted gambling halls, late-night pool games and plenty of liquor.
Mary Baxter owned the Rossonian from 1932 until 1937, when it was purchased by the Metropolitan Real Estate & Investment Company, where namesake A.W.L. Ross served as attorney. During the '40s, when the neighborhood's population hit 25,000, the real-estate development team and hotel managers Quentin Harrington and John Kigh renovated the Rossonian's hotel rooms and its kitchen.
In 1945, Benny Hooper's was expanded; the construction of the Casino Cabaret (now Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom) soon followed. It was "owned first and foremost by George Morrison, whose house was once bombed by the KKK," says Nelson, who grew up in Five Points in the '50s, just up the street from where the Blair-Caldwell library now stands. She fondly recalls the neighborhood's fabulous Easter parades and summer Bible camp. Inner-city coed basketball teams played at the public schools in the evenings, and there was swimming at Curtis Park. And down the street, there were softball games almost every summer night.
After the war, Denver and the rest of the nation made strides toward reducing both legal and de facto segregation. As housing restrictions were lifted, wealthier African-Americans began moving out of the area. "Five Points lost a lot of its discretionary funds from people with higher incomes," says Nelson. And as black entertainers found open doors at other hotels, the need for alternative lodging at the Rossonian dwindled. So did the quality of the Rossonian's acts.
Elvin Caldwell, a Denver city councilman and future manager of public safety, and his wife purchased the Rossonian from Metropolitan Real Estate & Investment Company in January 1957 for about $100,000. According to newspaper reports, they intended to remake the 35-room hotel into "the most luxurious establishment catering to visiting Negroes between Chicago and Los Angeles."
But three years later, the Caldwells were forced to sell the Rossonian for delinquent taxes totaling $1,606.77. They later regained title to the building, then put it up for sale in 1965, asking $47,000 for the lounge and restaurant and $85,000 for the hotel, because, as Elvin Caldwell told a Denver Post reporter, "It attracts little else but trouble." The trouble involved several arrests inside the Rossonian for solicitation and prostitution, as well as cabaret-license violations and a ten-day-long liquor-license suspension in 1964 for selling alcohol to minors.
In 1967, Caldwell told reporters that he'd leased the Rossonian, still operating as a hotel, to Jerry Roseman, with a three-year option to buy. But he washed his hands of the building a year later, when the deed passed from the councilman to Vera and Joseph Hamilton. The Hamiltons entertained the idea of selling the historic hotel to the City of Denver so that it could be converted to a Denver County Jail work-release extension facility for men convicted of robbery, rape, burglary and assault. But renovating the Rossonian into a halfway home proved too costly, and it wasn't selected for the prison program.
The Rossonian was still doing sporadic business as a hotel when, in 1973, the Hamiltons sold the building, now appraised at $70,000, to Harry Goens Jr. By then, the music had died.
The Rossonian in the heart of Five Points today.
"When the economy goes, everything goes," says Nelson, who remembers the neighborhood's downfall starting in the '80s, when all of Denver went bust.
"Ask five people why Five Points declined, and you'll get five different answers," says Norman Harris, grandson of Norman Harris Sr. Denver's black community was "hit hard by gangs," he continues. "There's no point in crying over it. This is just a part of our story."
By 1990, the neighborhood's population had shrunk to 8,065 residents. But the city wasn't willing to give up on the iconic, now-empty hotel. In 1986, the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, under the auspices of Mayor Federico Peña, loaned $378,000 to PSTAR ONE Properties, which had bought the Rossonian from David T. Goens and Leroy Smith that year, after they'd purchased it from Harry Goens Jr. PSTAR used the money to buy a nearby lot for off-street parking, and for architectural drawings and other so-called soft costs. A year later the group defaulted on the loan, however, and the city wound up owning the property until real-estate developer and former insurance executive Tom Yates, who had opened Five Points Plaza in 1988 with the help of government funds, purchased it in 1990 with a $350,000 MOED loan.
"We're getting the boards off the windows," then-mayor Webb told the Rocky Mountain News in 1992. The plan was to refashion the hotel as a jazz supper club, though many people told Yates he'd be better off bulldozing the vacant structure, since by then the interior had long been home to pigeons and vagrants.
Instead, Yates hired politically connected Denver contractor King Harris to rehab the place, and over the next several years, the city loaned Yates-controlled companies more than $1.8 million to do the work ("Hotel Reservations," July 6, 1994). Workers gutted the interior, installing new plumbing, electrical systems, walls and carpeting, and added an elevator and two stairwells. When the space proved too small for Yates's plans, he used city loan money to buy the one-story liquor store next door, added two stories on top of it and incorporated the whole thing into the Rossonian project, which included extensive rehabilitation of exterior masonry, windows and the roof.
When the first round of construction was concluded, the top two stories -- now carpeted offices -- were leased to the publicly funded Denver Housing Authority under a five-year agreement that brought in nearly $12,000 a month in rent -- enough to service the building's MOED loans. "We still haven't found a tenant for the first floor, but we're not too worried," John Huggins, then-director of MOED, said in November 1993. "Once light rail is completed next year, it will be easier for us to find a tenant."
Huggins served as the city's economic director twice -- once under Mayor Webb, and later during Mayor John Hickenlooper's first term -- and worked on the Rossonian during both stints. "The project was never quite completed," Huggins says today. Plans were afoot to install an upscale nightclub on the ground floor of the hotel when Yates's company, American Woodmen Life Insurance, went bankrupt in 1993. The developer also had some trouble paying federal income taxes and was investigated by state officials for using a company bank account to pay off a personal debt.
Regulators ordered that the Rossonian be taken from American Woodmen and placed under the control of the Rossonian Limited Partnership, a nonprofit corporation formed by the regulators. But Yates wasn't totally out of the picture: He served on the board of the organization that acted as the general partner for the Rossonian Limited Partnership. While the building was in the hands of that partnership, Bank One Community Development invested another $280,000 in the project in return for more than $300,000 in tax credits.
In 1994, the D line, the city's first light-rail line, came through the area -- but the results were disappointing. "The light-rail line in itself did not spur a lot of redevelopment," Huggins admits. Part of the problem was that there wasn't much connectivity when it was constructed: "All you could do was ride it downtown or to Littleton." But there were also problems with how it was constructed. The train runs along Welton Street, which "made the area more attractive for redevelopers, but harder to redevelop," Huggins explains. "It took out a lot of parking, and a lot of mom-and-pop African-American-owned businesses actually struggled right after the light rail came in because they lost street parking. It certainly wasn't the panacea people had hoped it would be."
And four years later, in 1998, the city was out about $1.5 million when it foreclosed on the Rossonian property ("Brick by Brick," March 1, 2001). "The foreclosure on the property was pretty contentious," remembers Huggins. The DHA relocated to its current headquarters in Capitol Hill after finishing out its lease at the Rossonian.
And that's when Darrell Anderson came back onto the scene. After serving with the Army and doing a stint with an airline, Anderson returned to Denver to pursue art full-time. For the better part of the next decade, he rented the first floor of the Rossonian as his studio for less than $500 a month on a month-to-month basis. The style was "bohemian," Anderson says, and it suited him well, inspiring him to create mosaic pieces now on display at RTD stops, at Denver International Airport and in the Peterson Air & Space Museum. Anderson did live paintings in the building, held art classes there and gave on-site tours to area schoolchildren. He also proposed to his wife inside the empty ballroom he'd idolized as a kid.
In 1995, the Rossonian was made a designated landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to an application prepared by Nancy Lyons on behalf of the Preservation Partnership in 1995. In 2002, a few years before Anderson checked out of the hotel, Five Points itself was designated as a Colorado historic cultural district, in recognition of a heritage as complex and lively as Dizzy Gillespie's trumpeting. So far, it's the only such district in the state.
Inside the old Rossonian jazz lounge today.
Fve Points was getting much-deserved recognition, but the Rossonian was still empty.
Carl Bourgeois set out to change that. A Colorado Springs expatriate who's lived in Five Points for nearly forty years, Bourgeois had left the banking industry in 1983 and purchased the then-vacant Triangle Building at 2413 Washington Street with two friends. That renovation was completed in 1985. In 1986, the partners acquired a second property at 2444 Washington Street, previously the after-hours Climax Club, and remodeled it into the Commonwealth Building, for use as office space. After that, Bourgeois bought out his partners and founded Civil Technology, a Five Points-based construction management and real-estate development company now housed in the Triangle Building.
In 1993, Bourgeois sold Civil Technology to Sheila King, its current president and CEO, after she moved to Denver from New York. Together they have redeveloped properties along the Welton Street Corridor, including the apartment house in the 2400 block of Washington Street where Anderson lived as a kid -- the one he snuck out of to head to the Rossonian. And in 2005, Bourgeois bought the Rossonian itself for $800,000. "Carl invests in the neighborhood he lives in," says Wil Alston, a former city spokesman who's now director of marketing for Civil Technology. "That's what we all seek to do. Carl does it by buying buildings."
Two years after acquiring the Rossonian, Bourgeois engaged Civil Technology to assist in redeveloping the building's interior; the goal was to open a jazz venue and an upscale restaurant by the summer of 2008. But development stalled in 2007, never advancing past the design phase because of "significant obstacles including infrastructure problems, neighborhood blight and financial feasibility," says Alston, who concedes that, yes, there have been "a lot of false starts" at the Rossonian.
"Everybody gets started, then they run like a scared goose," notes Nelson.
Bourgeois and King shifted their focus, evaluating neighborhood deficiencies and helping to get the Five Points Business District off its feet, offering months of rent-free space to the grant-funded nonprofit. Tracy Winchester has served as the director of what's now known as the Five Points Business Development Office for three years; it supports neighborhood enterprises through marketing, promotion and development.
The developers were also involved in helping obtain the neighborhood's "blight" designation from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, a quasi-governmental agency whose urban-renewal plan for Five Points was approved by Denver City Council in September 2012. With this designation in place, entities and individuals revitalizing properties along the Welton Street Corridor are eligible to apply for special tax-increment financing, a public-financing tool that subsidizes redevelopment and community-improvement projects -- and could be used to revitalize the Rossonian. "We are evaluating TIF, which is one of the needed financial tools available for commercial projects along Welton Street," says Alston. "However, we're being cautious about discussing the actual financing packaging while it is still being defined."
The same year the neighborhood's blight designation went through, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs received a $1.28 million planning grant from the U.S. departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation, and handed out $287,000 to Five Points under the Colorado Sustainable Main Streets Initiative, created by then-governor Bill Ritter.
Most of the $287,000 went to six private consultants doing "a comprehensive study of what kind of development would work in Five Points and why," says Stephanie Troller, an economic-development specialist with Local Affairs. From their work, Renee Martinez-Stone, lead consultant with Perspective3, authored a thirty-page Community Vision Plan and 140-page Revitalization Strategy Report outlining the area's existing infrastructure and the community's overarching vision for Five Points. "As a state agency, we can't favor any one property or property owner," Troller explains.
The Revitalization Strategy Report, available on the Five Points Business Development Office website, contains several case studies in which the consultants took specific parcels and explored what sort of development might work there. The Rossonian appears in Zoning Site Study 6. "They were very sensitive about us articulating any of the details about the property; they wanted it downplayed," says Martinez-Stone. "You got a lot of benefit out of it: market analysis, development and feasibility plans."
In 2014, the Denver Office of Economic Development (which is how Hickenlooper rebranded MOED when he was mayor) delivered another $475,000 to Five Points through its Welton Street Challenge. That program "came out of various conversations with the property owners in and along Welton Street," says Paul Washington, OED executive director. "What we thought would be most effective would be to take away some of the development burdens from property owners so they could invest themselves in bold and initiative development plans."
Grants were awarded to five recipients to further planning for the restoration of several businesses and the creation of more than 170 residential units along the corridor, covering costs related to hiring architects, engineers and financial consultants. Three $75,000 grants went to The Arcade and Rosenberg's Bagels, nuROOT Innovative Office Space and Saint Bernard Properties. The Rossonian received $150,000 for a 192,000-square-foot project that includes renovation of the historic structure into a boutique hotel and restaurant, as well as the development of the adjacent lot, although "the city contract has yet to be fully executed," says OED spokesman Derek Woodbury. "Overall, we're seeing lots of positive momentum, and we look forward to this project coming successfully forward."
When it does, it will raise the amount of public money invested in the vacant hotel since 1986 to about $3.2 million. "It has preserved the building and created a reasonable base for some future use," John Huggins says. "The task now is figuring out what is a reasonable use. It will certainly take more public financing to make something happen."
The Rossonian development project as pictured on the Five Points Business District website.
Courtesy of Five Points Business District
Five Points, a neighborhood fat with history and hungrier than a brown bear in spring, is slowly crawling out of hibernation. Last fall, the Mile High United Way moved into a brand-new 63,000-square-foot building at 711 Park Avenue West. In the rehabbed Arcade, Rosenberg's Bagels and Delicatessen has garnered praise for its New York authenticity (and criticism for its long lines) since opening in July.
The area's demographic is changing as quickly as its aesthetic. While Five Points was "still the heart of Denver's African-American community in the '90s, it really is not an African-American community anymore," says Huggins. "There have been some pretty significant real-estate transactions in that neighborhood recently, as it has become more connected to downtown."
A woman in head-to-toe Lululemon jogs by Cousins Plaza with her leashed goldendoodle. This spot just south of the Blair-Caldwell library was named for Charles Cousins, an ambitious pioneer in the neighborhood who worked on the Union Pacific railroad and once owned nearly half of the real estate in the Welton Street Corridor. Renee Cousins-King inherited ten of her father's parcels, including the Arcade. King also renovated the fully occupied Alta Cousins Terrace, an eight-unit residential complex that her father built and named after his wife.
"Being a property owner and developer was never my calling," Cousins-King, a physician, admits. "When my parents got sick, especially my dad, it was clear I needed to do renovations and repairs and try to attract tenants who would be good for the area." Those tenants range from Wells Fargo Bank to a small community church to an acupuncturist to the owner of Rosenberg's, who talked with Cousins-King for six months before she agreed to rent him the space.
The Rossonian is one of the few properties that Cousins never owned. But new plans for that building are in the works, too. Last fall, word leaked that Sage Hospitality -- which runs the Oxford Hotel, as well as hotels around the country, and was a partner in the Union Station redevelopment -- would partner with Civil Technology to put a luxury hotel in the Rossonian. "We are still not far enough for me to confirm anything yet, but I can tell you we're looking at it," Sage spokeswoman Kate Davis said at the time; today she says Sage has no updates.
Alston acknowledges that Civil Technology is negotiating with an operator, but says there's nothing in writing yet. "During early stages of development," he adds, "it is really difficult to talk about the project. We have people driving by, thinking it'll be open by Easter, and we're a ways away." Alston says a timeline for the development will be released early this year.
"It is a very small property for a hotel, and I'm sure plans for the rehab involve adding more space," Huggins says. "It's a really hard building to make economic, and I think that's a lot of why it has been through this twenty-plus-year saga of redevelopment."
Civil Technology is working with multi-family developer Palisade Partners and Confluence Companies to form the Rossonian Partners. According to the Five Points Business District website, "the historic Rossonian Hotel and the remainder of the block will be redeveloped into a 128-room hotel, 40 condo units and 2 restaurants."
Some of that description is not accurate, Alston says: "We are still going back and forth as to whether there will be condos or apartments, but one way or another, some element of jazz will definitely be part of what happens with this project."
The current proposal calls for a jazz club above the hotel. "On a personal level, I think it would be unbelievable. As far as the economics of it, that's a tough business," says Chuck Morris, president of AEG Live Rocky Mountains. "The club business in general, that's tough, but the jazz biz is even harder because the community is smaller. If somebody had the will and wherewithal to do it, that would be phenomenal for our community."
Like Morris, Huggins appreciates the nostalgia but says you can't create an economically viable redevelopment around what was. "Time moves on," he explains. "You don't have to go to a club to listen to music the way you did in the '40s."
If development ever does take off at the Rossonian, it could literally raise the roof of the building. Zoning code permits eight stories along Welton, and even though the Rossonian is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, that doesn't preclude making changes to the structure unless the development team plans on using federal money for the project, according to Huggins. But as part of the state-designated Welton Street Commercial Corridor Cultural District, the Rossonian building enjoys the same protections that a locally landmarked structure would, and that means height alterations must be reviewed and approved by the city's Landmark Preservation planners and the Landmark Preservation Commission.
"The commission believes that our landmarks can and should be altered and modernized in ways that keep them useful and relevant and that respect their character and integrity," says Andrea Burns, communications director for Denver's Community Planning and Development department.
"It would be nice and nostalgic to keep the current building size, but in today's financial environment, you have to build to accommodate density," says King, Civil Technology's president. And that's what all the digging's about in the Rossonian's basement. Beneath the ballroom, by the century-old coal chute and relatively modern ductwork installed by Yates, is a shovel beside mounds of freshly turned dirt: evidence of soil and foundation testing to discern what sort of growth the Rossonian might one day accommodate.
Exactly one floor up, on the building's western-facing exterior wall, is a small patch of brick branded with the familiar face of writer Kerouac. "Jack was here" is etched below the visage, hinting at a return to a time when this part of Five Points was jumping, when there could never be "not enough ecstasy...not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night."
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