Back to the Future

Denver painter and newspaper illustrator Herndon Davis is best remembered in these parts for his "Face on the Barroom Floor," a dreamy portrait based on a poem by Hugh Antoine D'Arcy that still graces the floorboards at the Teller House in Central City. Davis is said to have painted the image -- purportedly inspired by the lovely visage of his own wife, although she vehemently denied the connection -- on a drunken dare. In truth, however, the renowned "Face" is actually a mere bit of fluff decorating the top of a solid mountain of work.

Now Davis, whose illustrations were once featured in earlier eras in both Denver dailies, is the subject of the Herndon Davis Watercolor Exhibit, a small display in the Denver Central Library's fifth-floor gallery that pays tribute to his artistic bread and butter: renderings of time and place that are nostalgic, evocative, and as powerful as any photograph. Featuring 25 watercolor images originally published in the Rocky Mountain News in the early '40s as part of a "Survivors of Yesteryear" series accompanied by articles written by one Joseph Emerson Smith, the exhibit is a sweet tribute to old Denver-area landmarks, some -- such as the Navarre and the Richthofen Castle -- that are still standing, and others -- the old City Hall and the Windsor Hotel -- that are gone forever.

Curator Kay Wisnia, who oversees the library's Western art collection, chose the Davis watercolors because of their appealing feel for a different Denver era, heightened by the presence of colorful awnings and signs, period cars and the open sense of a city caught between its gold-rush roots and the shiny metropolis of the future. It's a fascinating look backward to the days when such forgotten figures as Judge Ernest Colburn trotted his thoroughbreds from a stable on Broadway across the prairie to the Overland Park racetrack and Dr. John Elsner, an early medical mover and shaker in Denver, held salons in his living room with Lillian Russell and Oscar Wilde.

For the few minutes it takes to walk the gallery, you'll swear the sky gets bluer, the autos bulkier and the wheeler-dealers of Denver a little more old-fashioned. Don't blame us if you never want to come back.

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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd