Shelby's home at 519 18th Street started life as a funeral parlor in 1906, but the building has housed a bar of some sort for close to a century. For much of that time, it was the legendary Pink Lady.
State historian Tom Noel, aka Dr. Colorado, visited the Pink Lady when he did research for his groundbreaking work The City and the Saloon: Denver, 1858-1916, and captured the bar in all its pink glory. "I also have my 3 x 5 notes from a long, long ago night at the Pink Lady when I spent a fortune buying champagne for one of the pink ladies," he reports. "Poor investment."
Forty years ago, the bar became Shelby's.
Howard and Nanette Nelson bought the business — but not the structure, which today could be the last freestanding single-story building downtown — for $125,000 in 1991. They've run it with their children ever since, watching the neighborhood change from a no-man's-land to yet another booming part of Denver.
And through it all, Shelby's served as a neighborhood bar in the very best sense: creating a neighborhood of the people who frequented the watering hole, from lawyers to bike messengers to surprised tourists.
In 2016, when the boom had already begun, Esquire included Shelby's on its list of the “18 Best Bars in America,” noting that Jameson was the thing to drink, and explaining:
Why you're here: Because you'll stand in the little smokers' corral in front of Shelby's and you'll look around — all the way around — and you'll remember that Denver used to be an ornery frontier town, full of crust and character. And then you'll step back inside and call for another round, and the bartender will tell you to shut up and wait your damn turn like a human being.Last year Antelope Real Estate, the Anschutz outfit that had owned the building and the surrounding parking lots — sold the property to Amacon Development, a Canadian real estate company, for $8.8 million.
Since the Nelsons' lease has a ninety-day demolition clause, they got ready for the new owners to lower the boom. But they managed to keep pouring through the Super Bowl, and then, after the letter informing them that the bar's days were numbered finally arrived, they kept it relatively quiet through Opening Day of the Colorado Rockies, which is always a big bash at the bar.
Now, though, the news is spilling out that June 30 is the deadline for Shelby's to be out, and the Nelsons are looking at closing the bar a week earlier, on June 23, to give them time to pack up decades of history. "The new landlords are coming over this month and doing a walk-through," says Nanette.
Still, that leaves plenty of time to stop by and salute this relic of a fast-disappearing liquid history. Drink up, Denver.