Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Denver's Boom Is Giving This City an Edifice Complex

Now that development of the historic Stapleton Airport control tower is about to take off — come spring 2016, it will hold the city’s second Punch Bowl Social — only a few iconic buildings in this city still sit empty. In RiNo, once-decrepit warehouses are being turned around daily. An old Googie — classic California coffee-shop-style architecture — on West 38th Avenue is now a Snarf’s. The Moffat Station in the Platte Valley has been transformed into a reception area for Balfour, a posh senior living project. The buildings on the former Gates property are almost gone; demolition started Monday on the onetime University of Colorado campus at Ninth Avenue off Colorado Boulevard. But there are still a few spots in town with a definite edifice complex, places that are ready for their close-up.

Webber Theatre
119 South Broadway

The Webber was once a great movie palace. In 1996, the late Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole remembered going there to see Wings, the 1927 silent film that won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. Some film fans even preferred the Webber over the Mayan, the art-deco classic just up the street at 110 Broadway, because it was one of the first theaters in the city with an effective air-conditioning system. But business cooled considerably in the ensuing decades, and in the ’70s, the building turned into Kitty’s South. You could find very different films at this theater: On a visit (on assignment!) a decade ago, Westword’s Michael Roberts came across copies of Handjobs Across America and Grand Theft Anal, as well as the classic Deep Throat, starring onetime Denverite Linda Lovelace.

But Kitty’s South itself went south in 2007, its civic duty taken over by a Pleasures next door. Although rumors periodically surface about a renovation of the space being imminent — most recently, there’s been talk of a major downtown club group taking on the building — so far, there’s been no action.

Unlike in the days when this building held Kitty’s South.

Rossonian Hotel
27th and Welton streets
Over the years, many developers have been jazzed about the Rossonian Hotel, the triangular structure that got its start in 1912 as the Baxter Hotel, then turned into the Rossonian, a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places that hosted some of the country’s hottest jazz acts. But the music ended long ago, and over the past three decades, the city has poured more than $3 million in loans and grants into the building. The result? The Rossonian is still empty.

But today it’s part of the Welton Street Commercial Corridor Cultural District (soon to be renamed — wisely — the Five Points Historic Cultural District), and the focus of a major redevelopment plan, one that calls for the entire block to be transformed into retail and residential spaces, with a boutique hotel as its centerpiece. Last fall, Sage Hospitality was outed as part of the development team — but the announcement of a deal promised for early January has yet to come. In the meantime, the Rossonian stands as a reminder of a time when Five Points was jumping, when Jack Kerouac wandered along Welton and wrote that there could never be “enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.”

Livestock Exchange Building
4701 Marion Street
When the master plan for the new National Western Center was presented to Denver City Council Monday night, there was the Livestock Exchange Building on the edge of the proposed “campus” — right where it’s been since 1916, when the Stock Show was just a decade old. That’s when the state Brand Board moved into the easternmost portion of the building, which boasted a stunning marble lobby, a snack bar and a chalkboard where prices were posted for cattle fattening outside in the pens. Today the lobby is just as stunning and the chalkboard is still there, but the board moved out a year ago and the cattle are long gone — except during the National Western Stock Show every year.
Fred Orr’s family history with the show stretches back more than a century. His family homesteaded in Granby in 1883, and in 1980 showed the Reserve Champion steer. “We’ve come here forever, and ended up with this project,” he says. He’s with the Livestock Joint Venture, which took over the Livestock Exchange Building a dozen years ago, after it went into receivership, and took on at least twenty years of deferred maintenance in the bargain. The group also shouldered an uncertain future. “We have a neighbor that’s just here sixteen days a year,” says Orr. “The Stock Show was going to move, then not move.”

But the grand vision behind the master plan calls for a neighbor that’s year-round, a major amenity for the city. And Orr’s interested in being part of it. Unlike most of the other 35 property owners whose buildings must be acquired — and subsequently destroyed — to bring this plan to fruition, Orr would be a development partner.

He envisions sprucing up the 1916 building, which is 80 percent leased (the major tenant is the FBI, which has the top floor). It adjoins an even older building, victim of an arson fire more than a decade ago. Orr estimates it will require $1.2 million just to make it structurally sound — but if the plan goes through, it could be economically sound to put that money into a residential or office complex. And then there’s a third building to the west, constructed in 1919, which houses the Stockyard Saloon; that bar would be the most immediate beneficiary of the new, year-round campus.

And that alone is reason to raise a glass — to building for the future.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun