"Look at this," Art says, dragging a thick booklet across the table toward him. "We had to get this whole environmental statement done." Behind him, as he talks in his cramped second-story headquarters near the intersection of 20th and Larimer streets, a woman on a video screen performs oral sex on a huge penis. The action is in fast-forward, so she looks like a bobbing chicken.
"Now here, as you can see," he continues, pointing to an impressive-looking historical chart, "in 1890 this building used to be a brewery."
The video screen flickers. A man masturbates furiously onto a woman's behind.
Art grabs another official-looking publication lying on the cluttered table in front of him. "And this is our application to become a national landmark on the historic register," he says, adding, "We've already got preliminary approval from the National Parks Service."
In back of him the action has advanced again. Behind the fast-forward fuzz, a woman wearing a latex glove is hydraulically pumping away at a penis.
The tape machine is being manned by Art's business partner, Ron Knill. "These tapes come with a lot of empty space," Knill explains. "We've got to cut out the dead tape before we put them in the arcade."
He pauses. "We're like a Wal-Mart," he says. "We just have a different variety of stuff. You know--there's a demand for everything." He stuffs Glamour Asians back into a box and reaches for Pussy Pounders 4.
Art waits for his partner to finish. He slides a copy of Architectural Bird Control Systems closer for a look. The building has a pigeon problem that needs to be taken care of.
At first glance the building looks slim, but that is because it stands separate from lower structures nearby and because its numerous windows are tall and slender. At three stories high, it's as elegant as a stack of dirty bricks in a lousy neighborhood can be.
Its bones are cast-iron columns that support the first story; at the top is a peaked pediment, scrolled and ornate. Puffed out in front, like giant glass-and-wood pectorals, is a pair of square Queen Anne bay windows that span two entire floors. They are decorated with flowing, busy flourishes and guarded by heavy red curtains.
A long, narrow, brown metal sign running the width of the building identifies its current use: "Diamond Lil's Adult Emporium." A picture, presumably of Lil, is on the left. She wears a high Victorian collar and a black choker and has delicate, not-at-all lascivious features. The other side of the sign advertises the feature that sets the business apart from others of its kind in Denver: "Live Women Behind Glass!"
Inside, in the back of the store, past the neatly displayed rubber goods, skin magazines and triple-X videos, the women lounge languidly in lingerie, as advertised, behind big plate-glass windows. They wait until a customer arrives and then, unseen by one another, compete to attract him to their own booths. It costs a dollar a minute to watch them. They will follow directions from patrons seated in the private booths. They accept tips.
Each woman is a separate tenant of the space, like a hairdresser in a chain salon, so after she pays rent to Diamond Lil's, she can set her own rates. A price cut by one woman can breed resentment from the others because it means they might have to lower their fares, too. If they stay long enough, the women can develop a stable of loyal clients. One of the rooms is handicapped-accessible, to cater to the many disabled people who live in the neighborhood and patronize Diamond Lil's regularly.
Tom Noel, a Denver historian and college history professor, has been leading tours around the old Larimer Street neighborhood for years. He says he tries to hit Diamond Lil's like an insurgent guerrilla, having learned that a lightning retreat is the most sensible strategy when a tourist lulled by the historic exterior is jolted by the modern sensibility of the building's inside.
"It's always a real eye-opener when we go in," he says. "I try to leave quickly, before anyone begins asking me any questions about what those devices are."
Noel also sits on the governor-appointed state board that reviews owners' requests to have their properties designated as historic buildings. Many Denver buildings are old, he explains, but not all qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The building, or its previous inhabitants or owners, must be judged "significant" or "distinctive" or "important" to an area's past in order to gain the recognition.