The History of Curtis Park

by Bill West

Part 1: The Early Years

According to the official figures for 1870, Denver was then a town of only 4,759 people. It served as a jumping-off place and depot for the hundreds of fortune seekers who flooded the state after the Gold Rush of 1859. In that same year of 1870, however, the first railroad reached Denver and there began an unprecedented population explosion for the city. In 1880, Denver’s population had soared to 35,629, and by 1890 to 106,713. It had become the fastest growing city in the country.

Needless to say, a population explosion of that magnitude created a building boom to meet the housing needs of the new residents. The path of Denver’s first streetcar line, put down in 1871, indicates the direction in which the rapid growth of the city was to occur. Beginning in the old center of town, the tracks for the horse-drawn cars eventually turned onto Champa, still unpaved, at 16th and proceeded along it until they reached 27th Street.

When a reporter from the Rocky Mountain News rode the line to its end soon after its completion, there was little to see along the way but empty land. But when another reporter made the same trip eight years later, in 1879, he noted that “substantial brick residences” were being built all along Champa. They were also being erected along the other streets of what we now think of as Curtis Park. In fact, by 1887, when Denver’s first real estate atlas was published, which outlines the footprints of the buildings then standing in the city, it shows that almost all of the houses of Curtis Park had been built by that time.

 Photo: joel Noble
Photo: joel Noble

Most of those who came to the new city arrived from the East. J. Jay Joslin (2915 Champa), whose department store is still in business, was originally from Vermont; and Judge Vincent Markham (2611 Stout) came West from Virginia. Others were of European birth, like Patrick Ford (2627 Champa), born in Ireland, and Isaac Gotthelf (2601 Champa) who arrived in New Orleans from Germany with only $5 in his pockets.

 Photo: Joel Noble
Photo: Joel Noble

Those four are examples of men who so prospered in the new land that they became prominent citizens of Denver and left behind records of their achievements. Many others, however, led modest lives about whom we know little or nothing. But what we do know is that the Curtis Park section of the city was economically mixed, that a family of means might well have been living next door to a blacksmith or a grocer. The West was clearly, at least initially, socially more relaxed than the established East, more tolerant, more easy-going.

The record of those early days is still to be read in the houses of our neighborhood. Wherever you look in Curtis Park, you will see large houses for those who could afford them, and much smaller ones for those of more modest means. The mixture of houses constitutes a record of a unique period in Denver’s history when persons of widely different incomes lived easily and comfortably together, providing us with a heritage of tolerance which we continue to enjoy.

Part 2: The Houses Go Up

As Denver grew into the largest city of the Rocky Mountain West, the housing boom that accompanied that growth attracted the interest of those in the building trades. Several architects, trained in the East, moved here to practice their trade. Some of the houses they designed for Curtis Park are among the neighborhood’s finest.

Most of the houses that went up in the 1870s and 80s, however, were built without the benefit of Denver’s early architects. They were built, instead, by carpenters and masons under the supervision of local builders who may have taken their inspiration from the pattern books and magazines that were readily available. Such publications contained the floor plans and elevations of the popular late 19th century styles. The favorite in early Denver was the so-called Italianate style.

There is more than one kind of Italianate, but the classic Italianate house, of which there are several fine examples in Curtis Park, is a fairly straight forward two-story brick structure in which the evenly spaced windows and doors are perfectly aligned with each other, those on the second floor directly over those on the first. The windows and doors are characteristically surmounted by heavy stone caps, usually incised or carved with ornamental motifs. At the top of the building’s facade, an overhanging eave comes forward, supported by decorative brackets between which run bands of additional ornamentation. The effect is that of an impressive crown. Above it, a low pyramidal roof rises to a flat top, originally most likely outlined with iron cresting, much of which has unfortunately been lost over the years.

Often, the chief glory of an Italianate house is its front porch. Though it is attached to the house which it serves, a porch is its own structure, with a foundation, a floor and a roof. Porches in the Victorian period were built of wood, a material easily shaped for decorative purposes. Lath-turned columns that support the porch roof are frequently surmounted by elaborately cut brackets and other wooden decorations. The effect is sometimes quite lavish and makes of the front porch a beautiful entryway, coming forward from the house like a welcoming hand.

Even in the heyday of the Italianate house, a new style was making its presence felt, a style referred to as the Queen Anne. The symmetry of the Italianate gave way to a looser collection of architectural elements. Large, round-headed windows became conspicuous features on the first floor level of a house, often with stained-glass side panels, an altogether new feature. Where the Italianate house rose to a straight, horizontal overhanging eave, the Queen Annes rose to pointed gables, within which fish-scale shingles and other wooden embellishments made their first appearance. The truncated low roofs of the Italianate now gave way to roofs that rose steeply to high points or ridgelines.

There are numerous variations of both the Italianate and the Queen Anne styles, almost certainly the result of the creative instincts of imaginative builders exercising their own originality. As a result of their collective efforts, Curtis Park has over 500 houses from the late 19th Century, a collection to match that of any other city in the country.

Part 3: Winds of Change

The heyday of Curtis Park only lasted about 20 years, from 1870, when the rail line from Denver to Cheyenne was completed, giving the city access to the Union Pacific, to around 1890, when two events changed the future of the neighborhood forever.

The first event was the creation of Capitol Hill. Henry C. Brown owned a lot of empty prairie land originally known as Brown’s Bluff east of Broadway. To enhance the value of his real estate, Brown did two things: he offered to give the state of Colorado a commanding site on which to build a capitol building; and he built the hotel that still bears his name, the Brown Palace, originally known as the H. C. Brown Hotel. 

His gamble paid off, and when he had the streets of what was no longer Brown’s Bluff but Capitol Hill platted and laid out as Lincoln, Sherman, Grant, and Logan streets, those streets saw the erection of large houses built for the city’s wealthy inhabitants. There began, as a result, the out-migration of many of Curtis Park’s well-to-do residents who preferred to live in an economically homogeneous area than in such a mixed-income neighborhood as Curtis Park. 

 2915 Champa Street. Photo: Joel Noble
2915 Champa Street. Photo: Joel Noble

To be sure, not all the prosperous merchants left their homes here for new ones. J. Jay Joslin, founder of what became a local department store chain and known as “the grand old man of Denver business,” remained in his house at 2915 Champa until his death in 1927.

Just across the street from Joslin, Louis Anfenger also remained in his fine house at 2900 Champa until his early death in 1900. Anfenger is now best known for his instrumental role in founding both the Temple Emmanuel Synagogue and the National Jewish Hospital. His family remained in their Champa house for another five years after his death. 

Ironically, some of the houses left behind in Curtis Park have outlasted their rivals. A case in point: Mr. and Mrs. Charles Ballin, who owned a fashionable ladies’ dress shop called the Paris Bazar, moved from their house at 2461 Champa after a residence there of only ten years for a new home on Capitol Hill. That building is now long gone, while their home on Champa still stands. 

 2461 Champa. Photo: Joel Noble
2461 Champa. Photo: Joel Noble

Henry Brown’s impact on Curtis Park is more significant than the creation of Capitol Hill. As a result of his real estate endeavors, the axis of Denver shifted away from the named streets of the original townsite to the numbered streets connecting them. Had that shift not occurred, what we now know as Curtis Park would almost surely have become downtown Denver. 

The second major event that had a dramatic effect on the future of Curtis Park was the Silver Crash of 1893, an economic disaster for Colorado that also had a dire impact on the rest of the country. The period of growth, optimism, and exuberance that is reflected in the houses of Curtis Park came crashing down. Banks failed, many of the city’s wealthy men were ruined, thousands left the city and returned east. When new buildings began to appear again in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they tended to be brick boxes with hardly any of the ornamentation that characterized the houses of the earlier period. The day of the Denver Square had arrived. 

The combined effects of the development of Capitol Hill and the resulting departure of many of the neighborhood’s most affluent members combined with the Silver Crash of 1893 was the beginning of the decline of Curtis Park. Its lower income residents, many hit by hard economic times, will have had other priorities than property maintenance and improvement. The loss of the neighborhood’s prestige was inevitably underway.

Part 4: The First Half of the 20th Century

As many of the affluent residents of Curtis Park took their departures for new homes in prestigious Capitol Hill, they left behind them the neighborhood’s largest houses. Those less well-to-do who took possession of them frequently turned them into sources of income by converting what had been single family residences into rooming houses or boarding houses. Tenants in a rooming house would have rented a single room, mostly likely what had been originally a bedroom on the second floor. If indoor plumbing had been installed by that time, all the tenants in the house would have shared the bathroom. Those taking up residence in a boarding house would have paid not only for a room but meals served family style in what was still the dining room. The meals would have been provided either by the landlady herself or by a cook who had been hired for the purpose. As a result of the departure of people of means, the population of Curtis Park went up as the economic level of the neighborhood went down. 

The neighborhood continued to be home primarily to persons of European descent at first, as it had been in its early days; but by the 1920s, both African Americans and Latinos began to arrive. By the first decades of the 20th century, Welton Street had become the economic and social hub for Denver’s black community, members of which had taken up residence in the area as well. The largest concentration of African Americans was on the other side of Welton, in the area now called San Rafael, but many also lived in Curtis Park, primarily on California Street one block over from Welton but elsewhere in the neighborhood as well.

By the 1920s, people of Mexican descent also began to move into Curtis Park. Though restrictive covenants were aimed primarily at Black Denverites, there was also prejudice against Latinos. Gradually, nonetheless, persons with Spanish surnames began to appear as residents in the neighborhood. Only a handful are listed in the 1926 edition of the Denver Householder’s Directory, many more in the 1936 directory, and by 1942, the directory shows that Curtis Park was home to a fairly large number of Chicanos.

Originally, it was economic diversity that characterized the neighborhood as one can see from the great variety in the sizes of the houses of Curtis Park. As Black Americans and Hispanic Americans moved into what had been, and continued to be in part, a blue-collar Anglo part of the city, Curtis Park’s diversity became more ethnic than economic.

The population of Curtis Park continued to grow as more and more people, unwanted elsewhere, crowded into the neighborhood. As a result, even modest, relatively small houses were divided up into two or three units, providing needed housing for some, and income for others. The population of Curtis Park probably spiked in the 1940s and 50s. It must have been a very crowded, busy place in those years.

A final layer of ethnicity was added when Japanese Americans arrived at the outset of World War II. Like those who came before them, they were not welcome to live where they wanted, so many of them came to Curtis Park, which had long since become home to others who were not wanted elsewhere. The greater Five Points area, which included Curtis Park, was considered undesirable. As a result, housing costs were low and there were no restrictive covenants to keep you out; so those of modest means, or with no place else to go, could put a roof over their heads and settle down in this historically diverse, accepting place.

Part 5: Doomsdays

By the 1950s, by which time the population of the neighborhood was primarily Hispanic, the old houses of Curtis Park were showing their age. Though banks denied that “red lining” existed, in fact it was difficult, if not impossible, to get a home-improvement loan from them. If your house needed repairs, you had to raise the money needed by yourself. 

A good number of the houses of Curtis Park were owner-occupied, and many of their owners did what they could to maintain their houses well. But there were also many absentee owners whose income properties often suffered a good bit of wear and tear, particularly those that had been divided into multiple units.

The fate of America’s old, inner-city neighborhoods was in part determined by an act passed by Congress in 1933, as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, that called for a program to construct federally funded low-cost housing and to proceed with slum clearance. The first such program in Curtis Park, authorized on the eve of WWII in 1941, led to the creation of the Platte Valley Homes on one block facing Curtis Park, between Champa and Stout, 30th and 31st. Where once only seven houses had stood, now there were 77 units contained in 10 buildings.

The head of the Denver Housing Authority was quoted in the Rocky Mountain News in 1945 as saying that Denver’s slums were a “creeping blight … spreading in the central part of the city,” and elsewhere. Though he didn’t specify the slum parts of the city, the greater Five Points area must certainly have been on his list.

Seven years later, the federal government, through the agency of the Denver Housing Authority, once again looked to the Curtis Park area for its next low-income housing development and significant slum clearance. Much larger than Platte Valley Homes, the new Curtis Park Homes took out all or most of eight blocks between Arapahoe and Lawrence, from 25th to 34th. (The 3000 block was left out.) Those blocks had once contained slightly more than 200 units, most of them built as single family houses. Once cleared of what DHA termed “substandard family units,” 450 new units were built.

When the demolition of the old houses had begun in 1952, The Denver Post published a picture of a building being demolished, a two-story, brick house in the Italianate style. Its history would have been fairly typical. Built in 1885 as a single family residence, it had eventually become home to three or four families. Now it was being razed.

Curtis Park Homes was completed in 1953. Just three years later, in 1956, Denver’s City Council passed a new city-wide zoning ordinance and map. The result for Curtis Park was the division of the neighborhood into two zones. From the edge of downtown Denver to 27th Street, a B-8 zone was created. From 27th to Downing, the primary zone was R-3.

The B-8 zone had a disastrous impact on Curtis Park. Designed to encourage businesses that would service the interests of the Central Business District, it led, in the roughly 25 years after the creation of the new ordinance, to the demolition of 90 structures, most of them late 19th century houses, just in the blocks between 23rd (now Park Avenue West) and 27th.

The R-3 zone was designed to encourage high-density housing developments. The six-story California Park East, at 2770 California, made possible through federal financing, pointed the way. Luckily it was built at the edge of the neighborhood rather than in its center.

Neither the B-8 nor the R-3 zones showed any interest in the neighborhood’s past or in current land usage. The city’s disregard boded ill for Curtis Park. The future of Denver’s oldest residential neighborhood wasn’t looking good.

Part 6: Recognition and Recovery

In the late 1960s and 70s, two contradictory ideas about American cities came into conflict. The big one – big because it had the backing of federal, state, and local governments – was the concept of urban renewal, a concept that swept the country after WWII. In 1959, Denver’s own Urban Renewal Authority was created; but it wasn’t until 1967, when the Skyline Urban Renewal project was announced, that it flexed its muscle and showed what it could do: 14 city blocks, the very heart of downtown Denver, were to be torn down. When the demolition began in 1969, an article in The Denver Post made DURA’s intentions clear: “The demolition will clear away old buildings to make way for new construction.”

The same year in which the Skyline Urban Renewal project was announced also saw the creation of Denver’s Landmark ordinance, the aim of which was to offer protection to the city’s important buildings; and in 1970, Historic Denver was founded to create a new appreciation for Denver’s architectural heritage. A grass-roots effort to oppose the view that the best thing to do with old buildings was to tear them down had been born.

In 1971, Sandra Dallas’ book on Denver’s history, Cherry Creek Gothic, made a surprising reference to the area we now think of as Curtis Park: “few people are aware that within walking distance of downtown Denver lies a Victorian neighborhood almost completely intact… This neighborhood at the edge of the Skyline Urban Renewal project lies in a semi-slum trance waiting to be torn down or discovered.”

Three years later, Barbara Norgren, a life-long preservationist, and I spent the summer of 1974 doing the research necessary in order to nominate Curtis Park for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination was successful, and on April 1, 1975, Curtis Park was awarded a district designation on the Register in recognition of its “significant contribution to the heritage of the State of Colorado.”

Though being listed on the National Register acknowledged Curtis Park’s historic value, it did nothing to protect it from the threat of neglect and demolition. A few people did begin to buy old houses in the neighborhood, many of them in serious need of repair, but their individual effort would not have been enough to ensure a future for Curtis Park. For that, protection under Denver’s Landmark ordinance was needed.

The first effort to gain that protection had to wait until 1995 when it was learned that Deep Rock Water intended to tear down 716 and 718 25th Street for a parking lot. The quick response of a few neighborhood activists resulted in an application to have the single block on which the threatened houses stood declared a Landmark District, Curtis Park’s first. Vehemently opposed, the application was nonetheless eventually approved by Denver’s City Council.

Seven subsequent landmark districts were created over the next 15 years, most of them prompted by the immediate threat of demolition. The final district was recently approved by City Council on June 20, 2011. With that one in place, Curtis Park’s remarkable collection of late 19th century houses is now almost entirely protected from Park Avenue West to Downing Street.

I want to conclude this series of articles on Curtis Park’s history by remembering a small event that occurred at the very beginning of the neighborhood’s recovery. Josie Cosio, a life-long resident of Curtis Park, was standing outside her house on 29th Street one day talking to her brother, who had long since moved away. As they stood there, they looked across the street at the boarded up house at 2905 Curtis, vacant and derelict for many years, and saw a young couple arrive and enter the forlorn building. Surprised, Josie’s brother asked “What’s going on over there?” When Josie told him the couple they saw had just bought the house to live in, he responded, incredulously, by saying “This is a neighborhood you move out of, not into.”

Luckily, time has proved him wrong, and today Curtis Park survives and flourishes as a remarkable inner-city neighborhood on the edge of downtown Denver, known and appreciated throughout the city.

“The History of Curtis Park” was originally published in six editions of the Curtis Park Times in 2012.