This area was the western frontier of the Kansas Territory in 1858 when William Larimer staked a claim to a square mile of hillside overlooking the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry creek. Larimer had big plans for his unformed town and to help persuade the powers that be back in Eastern Kansas to pick his camp as the seat of Arapahoe County over the other existing mining camps he named it “Denver City” after Kansas Territorial Governor James W. Denver. Word had not filtered west from the capital of Lecompten, however, that Denver had already resigned his post and he would be dispensing no such favors.

Denver City got underway nonetheless as a mining settlement, where prospectors could find supplies while they sifted the sands of Cherry Creek. There wasn’t much gold but word of new strikes came along just often enough to keep the town viable while the United States Congress was hammering out the free Territory of Colorado in Washington. Denver City indeed became the Territorial Capital in 1865 but its future was far from assured. Fires and spring flooding plagued the settlement and then the Transcontinental Railroad not only passed the town by, it was routed 100 miles to the north through Cheyenne.

Worried town leaders realized there was no time to waste if there was going to continue to be a Denver. A railroad to that main line was what was needed and the Denver Pacific was formed after a fund-raising campaign by the Board of Trade netted $300,000 in three days. it would not be enough but Denver businessmen kept the enterprise afloat until the first trains rolled down the tracks on June 24, 1870.

The population of Denver at that time was 4,759. When the next census was taken in 1880 it was over 35,000. A silver strike in the Rocky Mountains in the 1870s brought more people and by the time the silver boom went bust in 1890 there were more than 100,000 people living in Denver. For most Americans there were two cities in the West - San Francisco and Denver, The Queen City of the Plains.  

Lower Downtown is where the original town of Denver City was platted with a cluster of about two dozen cabins. It was where the railroads congregated after 1880 and industry hummed. It is where Denver deteriorated first and fastest during the mid-20th century. It is where re-birth poked its head out in the 1980s after some 20% of the area’s buildings had been demolished. Today it is where America looks for an example of a revitalized historic urban streetscape and our walking tour of Denver’s Lower Downtown will begin at the symbol of the town’s signature 19th century industry...   

Union Station
1701 Wynkoop Street

By the 1870s the Union Pacific Railroad, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad and the Colorado Central Railroad were all servicing Denver and running their trains into stations in different parts of the town. In 1880 the lines agreed to create one central “Union Station” where passengers could come and board any train. The new depot, sporting a tall central clock tower, opened in May of 1881. A fire gutted the original Union Station in 1894 and it was replaced with a larger version worthy of Denver’s emerging status as the Queen City of the Plains. The wings of the station were expanded to be over 1/3-mile long and its 128-foot tower was the largest structure in Colorado. In 1912, the original Union Depot partnership was dissolved and the six railroads then running into Union Station decided to raze the central portion of the station to handle ever-more increasing passenger traffic. The current grand Beaux Arts appearance dates to the 1914 re-construction. In the glory days of train travel Union Station handled upwards of 80 trains a day; today Amtrak’s California Zephyr runs through once a day.


Denver City Railway Company Building
1734 Wykoop Street at northeast corner of 17th Street

This building began life in 1883 as stables for the trolley-pulling horses of the Denver Horse Railroad Company. The horses would soon be replaced by one of the country’s most far-reaching cable car systems, extending into the town’s newly emerging residential neighborhoods. In 1892 the Denver City Railway Company sold the property and Baerreson Bros. Architects got a hold of the building and gave it a commercial make-over. A bidding war for the property in 1902 was won by Hendrie & Bolthoff Manufacturing & Supply Company for $100,000 and they would stay until 1971. Charles Hendrie came out from Burlington, Iowa in 1861 and started the Eureka Foundry and Machine Shop in Central City to supply miners. The second generation of Hendries brought the firm here where the business was promoted as the world’s largest manufacturer of heavy mining equipment.  


Oxford Hotel Annex
1612 17th Street

Often when a successful business makes a physical expansion the directors instruct the architect to make a sympathetic addition stylistically. Not so the Oxford Hotel in 1912. Designer Montana Fallis, in tandem with former City Building Inspector Robert Willison, created an exuberant mid-block Beaux Arts hotel annex dressed in white terra-cotta that stands in sparkling contrast to its brick neighbors. After training in Illinois, Fallis moved to Denver to work with the town’s most celebrated early architect Frank Edbrooke in 1886. He started out working on Victorian style buildings and won his greatest fame for his Art Deco work more than 40 years later. The Oxford Hotel was owned by the Hamilton Brooks Company and you can look up and see “HB” monograms sculpted into the facade.  

Oxford Hotel
1600 17th Street at southwest corner of Wazee Street

This is Denver’s oldest hotel, opened in 1891 as the first guest house passengers encountered after de-boarding from Union Station. A buck would buy a room; two dollars would get you a bath with it. The money men behind the Oxford Hotel were led by Adolph Zang, the only son of Philip Zang, a Bavarian brewer who fought in the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War before moving to Denver in 1871 and purchasing the Rocky Mountain Brewing Company. Frank E. Edbrooke, “the Dean of Denver Architecture,” provided the Romanesque design executed in red brick. The fortunes of the Oxford mirrored that of the railroads and as the trains ceased to arrive in the decades after World War II the hotel shuttered. A restoration in 1983 returned the historic hostelry to its turn-of-the-20th century elegance.


Peters Paper Company Warehouse
1625 Wazee Street

This four-story beige brick structure from 1899 is typical of early Denver warehouses that featured storefronts on the ground floor and storage space on the upper floors. Aron Morrill Gove and Thomas F. Walsh, who designed some of the town’s most stylish warehouses, gave this facility for the Peters Paper Company a Romanesque flavor. It did duty as a paper warehouse until 1942.

Sugar Building
1530 16th Street at southeast corner of Wazee Street

Here is another Gove & Walsh warehouse from 1906 whose terra-cotta ornament survives a century later. You can look up and see where two stories were tacked on to the original four in 1912. The client was the Great Western Sugar Company that was founded in 1901 when Charles Boettcher opened sugar beet processing plants in Loveland and Greeley. Additional facilities in Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana made Great Western the largest supplier of beet sugar in America; its descendants are still producing sugar today.  

Henry Lee Building
1545 Wazee Street at southwest corner of 16th Street

William Lee arrived in the Denver area to farm in 1845 and in 1864 his brother Henry came out from Iowa to join him. Henry started by peddling vegetables in the mining camps. Back on the farm he experimented with new crops, introducing the eastern onion to Colorado and scouring the ground with the first cold-steel plow seen in the high plains. This evolved into Lee’s Farm Implement Business and in the 1870s he constructed a large wooden storehouse here for his inventory. In his spare time Lee took an active interest in state politics where he forged Denver’s Park System, even helping out with the landscaping while serving as Park Commissioner. The building was purchased in 1907 by Chester Stephen Morey and spruced up by Gove & Walsh to roast and grind his Solitaire brand coffee. By 1956 when the company was sold to Consolidated Foods Corporation the operation sprawled across six buildings.


Morey Mercantile Building
southeast corner of Wynkoop and 16th streets 

Chester Stephen Morey enlisted in the Union Army at the age of 17 in 1864 and was in Appomattox to witness the surrender of the Lee’s Army of Virginia. After the war he became a traveling grocery salesman and landed in Colorado to battle a bout of consumption. Fully recovered in 1875, he came to Denver and helmed a branch of Sprague, Warner & Company, a wholesale Chicago grocery firm. By 1884 Morey was in business for himself, on the way to becoming a far-ranging mercantile operation with interests in food, tobacco and household goods. In 1896 Morey poured $75,000 into this building with the intention of creating “the most elegantly appointed business house” in the West with showrooms, processing facilities and office space. In 1907 Morey added the Lee Building to the complex and constructed the walkway across the double-wide alley that was busy with loading docks. Since 1990 one of America’s leading independent bookstores, The Tattered Cover, has been headquartered here. 


Colorado Saddlery
northeast corner of Wynkoop and 15th Street

Hermann Hugo Heiser was trained in the book bindery trade in his native Germany but after arriving in Wisconsin at the age of 19 in 1855 he found there was more of a future stitching leather on the American frontier than books. He came to Colorado in the winter of 1863 and began turning out saddles and harnesses in Black Hawk and Central City. In 1874 he purchased the saddlery of William Merchant on Blake Street and the Hermann H. Heiser Saddlery Company was born. The “Triple H” trademark became widespread across the West along with the motto “No Man Ever Lived Long Enough to Wear Out a Heiser Holster.” Hermann himself lived until 1904, three years after this building was raised. His three sons diversified the business and even began manufacturing automobiles while the H. H. Heiser Company became the “largest wholesale supplier of Leather Hunting Sporting Goods in the US West.” The Heiser family operated the saddle business until 1945, when the name and trademark were sold to the Denver Dry Goods Company. At that time four former Heiser saddlemakers founded the Colorado Saddlery and continued the tradition of handcrafting the highest quality saddles at affordable prices for the working cowboy.

Steelbridge Lofts
1449 Wynkoop Street at southwest corner of 15th Street

This is another of the industrial buildings raised by the Great Western Sugar Company. The six-story brick structure was raised in 1919 as a transfer station for its railroad operations. In 2002 the interior space was re-arranged into 45 luxury lofts.

Edbrooke Lofts
1450 Wynkoop Street at southwest corner of 15th Street

This building trundles into its second century of use as residential space not carrying a former owner of the building but its architect, Denver’s go-to builder of its boom days, Frank E. Edbrooke. The Edbrookes were an architectural family - brother Willoughby was one of America’s most prominent Victorian designers who did a stint as Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department and nephew Harry would later create some of downtown Denver’s most important buildings. Here Frank contributed a five-story Neoclassical building of pressed brick in 1905 for Spratien & Anderson, pioneer grocers in town. After the company broke up in 1923 the space was occupied by the Davis Brothers Drug Company for the next 34 years. It was one of the first industrial hulks to be refitted as lofts in 1990. 


Wazee Supper Club
1600 15th Street at southwest corner of Wazee Street

In the middle of the 20th century American cities began to be looked at as places to come to work from the suburbs and get out of as quickly as possible. To facilitate that exercise elevated roadways called viaducts were constructed on many downtown Denver streets, including 15th Street. The darkened streets below were not consumer-friendly magnets for potential businesses. Brothers Angelo and Jim Karagas from Detroit were two entrepreneurs who took the plunge and opened the Wazee Lounge and Supper Club in a 64-year old plumbing supply house in 1974. The viaducts came down in the 1980s and 1990s, the sunlight returned to the streets and Wazee is still serving up cold beer and hot pizza. 


Barney L. Ford Building
1514 Blake Street

This unassuming three-story commercial building was constructed in the 1850s by Barney L. Ford. Then in his late 20s, Ford was an escaped slave from Virginia who made his way to Chicago where he became an active abolitionist. Ford traveled to Denver where he purchased this land and from this building launched a business empire that included property and hotels from Denver to Cheyenne. Reports from the time indicate that Barney Ford was making the 14th highest income in the Territory. Ford joined the party of Abraham Lincoln and as a Republican became the first African American nominated to the Territorial Legislature. He was providently situated for a role in Colorado politics - across the street delegates met in the winter of 1875-1876 to hammer out a state constitution to present to the voters of Colorado for ratification. Constitution Hall stood until 1977 when it was torched by an arsonist.  

Carter-Rice Building
1623-1631 Blake Street

This building was constructed as a branch house for the paper manufacturer Carter, Rice and Company of Boston, Massachusetts. Their man in Denver, Frank S. Thayer, with fifteen years of success on his record, was given a free hand to construct the building in 1903. Thayer spent $60,000 for the four-story warehouse of Golden pressed brick with Beaux Arts flourishes. Due to the great weight of the paper inventory the beams used in the construction here were particularly massive. 

Union Warehouse/Hotel Barth
1514 southwest corner of 17th Street 

This building was erected in 1882 as a warehouse for the Union Liquor Wholesale Company but by the end of the decade it was operating as a hotel. The conversion moved Illustrated Denver to rave that the Romanesque-styled structure designed by R.C. Eberly was “an elegant brick affair...with 100 rooms, all well lighted, perfectly ventilated, and furnished in the most elegant and most attractive manner.” It was renamed the Elk Hotel in 1905 and was purchased by M. Allen Barth in 1930. Since the 1980s the Victorian showplace has served as an assisted-living facility.

St. Elmo Building
1433 17th Street at northeast corner of Blake Street

The St. Elmo Hotel was constructed in 1896 that appealed to cost-conscious travelers and railroad workers. Once a visitor to Denver got off the train and walked past closer, finer guest houses a number of mid-priced beds like those at the St. Elmo became available. The hotel was originally a wood-frame structure; the decorative brickwork came along later. In 2012 Justin Timberlake was set to invest in a Southern BBQ here.

Denver Rock Drill and Machinery Company/General Electric Building
1441 18th Street at southeast corner of Blake Street

The Denver Rock Drill and Machinery Company set up shop in this brick building in 1906. The facade is completely dressed in light-colored brick; look up to see the interesting decorative elements created in the Romanesque-styled windows with dark-colored brick. General Electric distributed fixtures and supplies from this location for many years.  

Crocker Cracker Factory/Blake Street Terrace
1860 Blake Street at southeast corner of 19th Street

F.W. Crocker constructed the core of this building as a cracker factory in 1881; fire consumed much of the insides in 1885 and the Italianate appearance seen today dates to that rebuild. The detailed brickwork fashioned window hoods and a decorative cornice. The National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) took over the factory and used it as a bakery and shipping headquarters for 50 years, supplying a five-state sales area. After the bakery moved to more modern facilities the building was used mostly as a warehouse until a 1983 renovation when it picked up a ten-story companion.

Windsor Dairy Farm Building
1860 Blake Blake 

Architects William Ellsworth and Arthur Addison Fisher, brothers who were credited with 67 structures around Denver, designed this low-slung brick building with terra-cotta trim in 1918; the price tag was $30,000. Milk, butter, and cheese were processed here for 55 years, first by the Windsor Farm Dairy and after 1928, Meadow Gold.

Coors Field
2001 Blake Street at northwest corner of 20th Street

After spending the first two years of their baseball life in Mile High Stadium the Colorado Rockies moved into this $300 million home in 1995. The price was a bargain as the arrival of Coors Field transformed Lower Downtown. Within a year housing units here doubled and stores and restaurants competed to fill long-abandoned spaces. City officials tagged the economic impact at $195 million a year to downtown Denver. Coors Brewing Company, founded in 1873 by German immigrants Adolph Coors and Jacob Schueler, has held naming rights to the ballpark since Opening Day 1995. If you go in and sit in the 20th row of the upper deck, the only purple seats in the park, you will be exactly one mile high.


Merchandise Mart/Rocky Mountain Warehouse Lofts
1863 Wazee Street at southwest corner of 19th Street

Montana Fallis designed this brawny building in 1930 as a multi-tenant merchandise mart. Fallis was a deft structural engineer adept at the creation of large industrial buildings that were also well suited to the stripped-down ornamental style of Art Deco. The geometrical forms that were hallmarks of commercial Deco can be seen here in the chevrons and pointed triangles and the rich variety of building materials. The Merchandise Mart, that was one of the last major buildings constructed in lower downtown before the 50-year malaise of the mid-20th century, served its original purpose until 1993 when it was transformed into residential lofts.

Hendrie and Bolthoff Warehouse Building
1743 Wazee Street at southwest corner of 18th Street

We met Hendrie and Bolthoff earlier in the tour at their former headquarters across from Union Station. This was their warehouse on the other end of the block, constructed in 1907 on plans drawn by Frank E. Edbrooke. His work here reflects the facile transition he was able to make from the showy designs of the Victorian Age to the more classical forms in vogue in the early years of the 1900s. The four-story brick building was the master architect’s only known warehouse and is relatively unaltered in its over 100 years. The ground floor worked as a store front and machinery parts were stored upstairs. Hendrie & Bolthoff abandoned downtown Denver in 1971.


Ice House Lofts
1801 Wynkoop Street at northwest corner of 18th Street

This industrial site was developed in 1903 as a cold storage warehouse for the Littleton Creamery and Beatrice Foods, a job it performed for 76 years. When it was time to be converted into lofts and offices and taverns the old icehouse did not go down without a fight - it took seven weeks for three feet of ice to be defrosted from the walls. The architectural firm of Gove & Walsh supplied the classically-themed plans that were exquisitely executed in polychromatic brickwork.   


J.S. Mercantile Building/Wynkoop Brewing Company
1792 Wynkoop Street at southeast corner of 18th Street

Edward Wanshear Wynkoop was born in Philadelphia in 1836, the great-grandson of a delegate to the Continental Congress, Henry Wynkoop. The youngest of eight children, the ambitious Wynkoop, did not see much advancement ahead of him in the family business so at the age of 20 he headed west. Wynkoop wound up in the early founding of Denver City but he was not the building type, opting instead for gold prospecting and then a military life as a calvary officer in the First Colorado Volunteer Cavalry during the American Civil War, attaining the rank of major of volunteers, and was brevetted a lieutenant colonel in May 1865. He conducted the investigation and made the report that indicted Colonel John M. Chivington for the slaughter of surrendered Cheyenne people that came to infamy as the Sand Creek Massacre. Wynkoop became a Indian agent before resigning in frustration, tried the family iron business back East, jumped into the Black Hills gold rush and finally died as warden of the federal prison in New Mexico Territory. So he had nothing to do with the street, the building or the brewery. John Sidney Brown constructed this brick warehouse for his mercantile business in 1899 that was the largest in the West at the time. Colorado’s first brewpub, Wynkoop Brewing Company, drew its first drafts here in 1988.