Colorado History

Smiley's Laundromat Building Is Finally Washed Up and Hung Out to Dry

Smiley's Laundromat Building Is Finally Washed Up and Hung Out to Dry
For almost four decades, Smiley's Laundromat helped clean up Capitol Hill, but the Colfax Avenue landmark — billed as the "World's Largest Discount Laundromat" — is finally washed up.

Art Cormier opened Smiley's in 1979 on a stretch of Colfax that was then on a downhill slide. The art-deco building at 1080 East Colfax had been a neighborhood shopping area when it opened in 1932, right on the streetcar line, but in the intervening years, the street had gotten a lot grittier — just the right location for a 24-hour laundromat.

Smiley's gained national notoriety when the Today Show came to town in the mid-’80s to do a spot on Denver, which had just made a list of the country's most livable cities. When I was interviewed by the Today crew, I included Smiley's — already considered an institution by the young, unwashed masses who lived in Capitol Hill, which included most Westword readers — as a must-stop on a tour of the Mile High City's amenities. I'm not sure city boosters have forgiven me yet.

The convention bureau thought the segment could be a big break for the city, then deep in the economic doldrums. And the first shot? Someone stumbling out of Smiley's, "which I had not even known existed until that moment," said Rich Grant, then the communications director for Visit Denver.  "I don't even remember the rest of your tour. I went into such a catatonic state that the rest was just a bad dream."

But size wasn't the only thing that mattered about Smiley's. "The Smiley’s Building is among the ranks of quiet, simple, and important 'background buildings' that we so often take for granted, but which offer a sense of identity, quality, and continuity on our local main streets," according to Historic Denver.

Smiley's had already had one reprieve. In 2006, longtime developer Bill Mosher and Capitol Hill specialists Triton Properties bought the property at 1080 East Colfax, with plans to spend up to $20 million to redevelop the building into a retail and housing complex. But the recession put an end to that.

In 2011, Triton sold Smiley's to Richard Son, the washer and dryer repairman at Smiley's for two decades, who was responsible for keeping all 340 machines running, according to his daughter, Synia Son. Over the years, he'd apparently saved a lot of quarters, as Bree Davies reported that December. The Sons made some quick changes, including cutting back on hours. "We wanted to reel in some more customers and keep the old ones," said Synia, who ran the dry-cleaning portion of the business. "A lot of customers have told us it has transformed in the last couple of months. It is neater and cleaner, and there aren't as many bums."
But that era didn't last long. Smiley's has been closed since 2013, and now the building will be wiped off the map. The current owner, Consolidated Investment Group, plans to demolish the building and replace it with a seven-story apartment complex with retail on the first floor, according to a Channel 7 report.

Historic Denver tried to save the Smiley's building but was unable to come up with a solution. "Unfortunately, after several months of brainstorming and dialogue, the owner’s concerns about the demands of their preferred program and parking needs outweighed the preservation concerns, and they have decided to move forward with plans for demolition," the organization reported earlier this month. "We very much appreciate CIG’s willingness to engage with Historic Denver, but are disappointed the effort has not resulted in a positive outcome for the building. We still believe a project that involves the old and the new would not only honor the diverse and eclectic Colfax story, but be more authentically Capitol Hill and more vibrant."

So long, Smiley's.

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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