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The discovery of golden specks in the South Platte River near its junction with Cherry Creek led to the creation of Denver City on November 22, 1858. Founder William Larimer, Jr., named the town for Kansas territorial governor James Denver to help ensure its selection as the seat of what was then Arapahoe County, Kansas Territory. Larimer platted Denver City with streets parallel to Cherry Creek. Only after Denver began to blossom in the 1870s were outlying areas platted to conform to standard compass-point township lines.

Aggressive town promoters, led by Rocky Mountain Newseditor William N. Byers and territorial governor John Evans, enticed railroads to the isolated town 700 miles from the Missouri River frontier communities. After railroads steamed into Denver in 1870, this crossroads in the middle of nowhere grew into the third largest city in the trans-Missouri West. By 1890 Denver had a population of 106,713, behind San Francisco and Omaha but larger than Los Angeles, Seattle, Phoenix, or any town in Texas.

As in other inland cities without navigable rivers, the railroad station became the nucleus. Railroads hauled gold and silver ores from mountain mining towns into Denver's smelters, producing fortunes that built a grand opera house, elegant churches, majestic hotels, and imposing office blocks. Mining millionaires built brick and stone mansions in the Capitol Hill neighborhood east of Broadway.

Flush times ended with the silver crash of 1893. After federal repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act that year, the price of silver dropped from over a dollar to less than 60 cents an ounce, devastating Colorado's most lucrative industry. Responding to the economic slump and population loss in the mid-1890s, Denver's power elite set about diversifying the city's economy. While still serving a vast, if faltering, mountain mining hinterland, the city also focused on becoming the supply and food processing center for farmers and ranchers on the high plains.

Not content to be the regional metropolis just for Colorado, Denverites used railroads to extend their economic orbit to New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana, as well as to western Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Agriculture and food processing, stockyards and meat packing, brewing and banking, manufacturing and service industries became mainstays of Denver's economic base. Federal jobs—civilian and military—have stabilized the boom-and-bust city, especially since the New Deal and World War II. Tourism also emerged as one of the city's most profitable and reliable industries. Tourism and steady, more orderly growth were encouraged by Denver's City Beautiful movement. Robert W. Speer introduced this urban vision of the Progressive Era to Denver after he was elected mayor in 1904. Speer had toured the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and, along with 30 million others, had marveled at the transformation of a swamp on Lake Michigan into an urbane, Neoclassical paradise. He brought the dream home and, as Denver's mayor, set out to turn a dusty, drab, unplanned city into “Paris on the Platte.”

Speer served three terms as mayor and died in office in 1918. He first engaged Charles Mulford Robinson, the New York City planner and author of Modern Civic Art, or the City Made Beautiful (1903), to prepare a master plan. The 1906 Robinson Plan and George Kessler's 1907 Park and Parkway Plan as later revised and extended by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Frederick MacMonnies, Edward H. Bennett, Saco R. DeBoer, and others, were implemented by “Boss” Speer, who operated both over and under the table. Denver became one of the better examples of City Beautiful planning. These schemes were later expanded with the help of New Deal programs and revived by Denver's first Hispanic mayor, Federico Peña (1983–1991), and first African American mayor, Wellington Webb (1991–present).

Denver's City Beautiful landscape comprises Civic Center Park, surrounded by city, state, and federal office buildings; a network of parkways stretching out from Civic Center via Speer Boulevard to the neighborhoods; neighborhood parks which serve as mini–civic centers surrounded by schools, libraries, churches, and other public buildings; and the Denver Mountain Parks network. Among the last are Winter Park Ski Area, Red Rocks Outdoor Amphitheater, Mt. Evans, and forty-five other parks covering about 13,500 acres in Arapahoe, Clear Creek, Douglas, Grand, and Jefferson counties.

George Kessler, who created the park and parkway plan, was America's foremost parkway planner. Kessler had worked with Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., on New York's Central Park, laid out the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition grounds in St. Louis, and given Kansas City, Missouri, a notable park and parkway system. In Denver Kessler abandoned the spoke-and-wheel model of diagonal avenues and connecting outer rings of boulevards. Too many buildings already obstructed that ideal scheme, so Kessler superimposed parkways upon the existing street grid. He placed parks at the highest points for mountain views, as exemplified by Cheesman, Cranmer, and Inspiration Point parks. These spacious parks set high architectural and landscape standards for adjacent private homes and public buildings.

Denver buildings differ from those of many other cities in several ways. Their settings, in this wide-open metropolis unconstrained by any large body of water, are often spacious. Denver has been free to grow outward in every direction, and a western emphasis on elbow room has produced single-family, detached homes, which predominate even in poor, inner-city districts. On the outskirts, residential subdivisions, shopping malls, and office parks sprawl into surrounding counties.

Denver is also distinctively a brick city. Since the nearest forests lie 50 miles away, and clay beds underlie many areas of the city, clay for bricks was often easier to find and use than pine, which in any case was inferior to eastern hardwood. Brick, augmented with reddish local sandstone and, in recent years, tinted concrete, gives Denver a ruddy complexion.

Urban renewal projects, speculation, and rapid and reckless growth spurts have eliminated many notable structures, especially in the central business district and Capitol Hill. Since 1976, however, many nineteenth-century residential areas have been designated for preservation by the City Council on the recommendation of concerned citizens and the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission. The commission reviews alterations requiring a building permit and has ordinance authority to deny demolition in historic districts and to delay for one year destruction of individual landmarks. The commission has overseen designation of more than 260 individual landmarks and some 29 historic districts containing more than 5,000 buildings. Landmark districts include neighborhoods reflecting Italianate and Queen Anne styles, with some Romanesque Revival specimens. Nineteenth-century commercial buildings are represented in the Larimer Square and Lower Downtown historic districts. The central business district is dominated by a generic collection of contemporary concrete and glass high rises.

After 1900 Beaux-Arts, Italian, Spanish, Georgian, Tudor, and other revival styles became popular for residences. The most common type of housing is the one-story classical cottage, followed by four-squares, bungalows, and post–World War II ranch houses. Denverites were slow to experiment with Art Deco and Streamline Moderne styles.

The grid pattern is standard throughout the city, with the exception of some curvilinear post–World War II subdivisions. The pattern of development was determined after 1871 by streetcar lines, which enabled Denver early on to sprawl horizontally into neighborhoods of single-family, detached housing. The pattern of streetcar suburbanization continued with automobile suburbanization. Denver has one of the world's highest per capita car ownership rates—even higher than Los Angeles.

As the most isolated major city in the forty-eight contiguous states, Denver has long aspired to the most advanced transportation systems. In 1994 the city opened the first segment of a light rail system. A year later Denver International Airport opened as the nation's state-of-the-art airport. The early 1900s parkway network is well maintained and remains the best way to tour the city, either on wheels or on foot.

Writing Credits

Thomas J. Noel

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