Sunday, September 27, 2009

Historic Denver

The top photograph shows the faded sign of the Studebaker Carriage and Wagon Company. The sign was painted in 1883 and is said to be the oldest surviving wall painting in Denver. The lower photograph shows the former John Deere Plow building, built in 1871.

And now the historical context:

In 1869 the completion of Transcontinental Railroad was celebrated with the driving of a golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah. The railroad started at Omaha, stretched through Wyoming and Utah and Nevada, and ended at Alameda, California. This route promised to make Omaha and Cheyenne the predominant rail centers west of the Mississippi River. Now all that was lacking to connect the East Coast with the West Coast was the construction of a railway bridge over the Missouri River between Omaha and Council Bluffs, Iowa.

The Denver city fathers, fearful that Denver's growth would be stunted without rail access, aggressively lobbied Congress to extend the Kansas Pacific, a southern branch of the Transcontinental Railroad, all the way to Denver from Kansas City, Missouri. During this same period the Denver city fathers hastily "railroaded" the approval of a bond issue to construct a connecting line from Denver to Cheyenne. Titanic amounts of money, steel, and labor were applied to the task and by August 1870 the complete Kansas City-Denver-Cheyenne circuit was linked to the main line of the Transcontinental Railway and open for business. By the time that Omaha completed its railway bridge to Council Bluffs in 1872, the southern bypass through Kansas City and Denver had already stolen the future from Omaha and Cheyenne.

As Denver's Union Station became the great rail hub of the Rocky Mountains, a host of distribution warehouses and factories appeared in Denver's lower downtown area around Wynkoop Street. As stated on the bronze Lower Downtown Walking Tour plaque on the Barteldes & Hartig Building:

"For more than a century, Denver's warehouse district has centered on Wynkoop. Stimulated by the arrival of the railroads in 1870 and the subsequent need for distribution services, an impressive array of three- to five-story warehouses, flat-roofed and faced in brick, often with stone trim, popped up from Cherry Creek to 19th Street. Unlike industrial plants built by engineers, most warehouses were the work of architects, and reflected the desire by warehousers for elegant and prestigious buildings in which to house both their storage facilities and their corporate offices. At one time, almost all warehouses along Wynkoop had covered loading docks and rail spurs. Sections of track are still visible as it is in the alley behind 1600 Wynkoop Street. This edifice housed Barteldes, Hartig & Co, a wholesale purveyor of fruits, produce and seeds, as well as feed, grain, and hay."

I spent Sunday afternoon walking the streets around Union Station looking for traces of historic Denver. The imposing brick buildings of the late 1800s have now been converted into upscale lofts, restaurants, and boutiques. The John Deere Plow building and the grand Neoclassical Revival brick warehouse of Spratlen and Anderson Wholesale Groceries are lofts. The gorgeous 1889 Denver Cable Railway Building with its intricate Romanesque Revival brickwork and graceful semicircular arches now houses the Old Spaghetti Warehouse restaurant. While I am happy that these fine old buildings have been preserved, I can't help thinking that they deserved a nobler end than to be the playground for young urbanites -- trendy Visigoths sipping their lattes as they sit upon the fallen columns of Rome.

On a more cheerful note, I had the pleasure of seeing a tour guide dressed as a 1880s dandy -- outfitted with derby, waistcoat, vest, cravat, britches, and ankle boots -- leading a gaggle of tourists through the Wynkoop area and expounding on Victorian architecture. Given my love of history and my love of expressing my random opinions to anyone within earshot, I should consider becoming a tour guide when I retire.