Squeezed into a narrow valley between North Table Mountain and South Table Mountain on the east and Lookout Mountain on the west, the county seat (1859, 5,675 feet) has remained a small town physically isolated from Denver's sprawl. The town, reportedly named for prospector Thomas L. Golden, began as a business venture of the Boston Company, which was one of the better-organized and better-capitalized early colony builders. Despite the hilly terrain, the company imposed the usual grid pattern on the townsite, which is bisected by Clear Creek.
Golden became an industrial center, with clay, coal, copper, and iron mines, as well as smelters, brickyards, and railyards. As Denver's early-day rival, it even reigned as the territorial capital from 1862 to 1867. After losing both that designation and railroad dominance to Denver, Golden became famous for locally made pressed fire bricks. Rich and varied local clay deposits also made it a center for the manufacture of drainpipes, pottery, and porcelain. Golden grew slowly after its initial boom, with a stable population of around 3,000 until the 1950s. Much of the main street (Washington Avenue) and the 12th Street residential district remain fairly intact. The Colorado School of Mines Campus in the center of town covers a range of building styles, from Romanesque Revival to stark solar boxes. The largest structures in town are the concrete-block buildings of the Adolph Coors Company. The Coors brewery (1873) has been the town's largest employer since the 1930s. Hospitable landmarks include the Dove Inn (1868, Ebenezer T. Osborne, builder), 711 14th Street; the Barnes Mansion (1865, George Morrison, stonemason), a bed and breakfast at 622 Water Street; and Rock Rest Tavern (c. 1907), 16005 Old Golde Road, a cobblestone restaurant and dance hall.
Golden's history and some of its demolished landmarks are colorfully portrayed in the five-panel 1993 mural by Robert Dafford on the renovated Foss Building, 1224 Washington Avenue (northwest corner of 13th Street). The Opera House, now the Ace High Tavern (1879, Milliken and Lee, builders), 1212–1216 Washington, a two-story brick building that originally had an ornate, pressed metal cornice, first-floor offices, and a second-story opera hall, awaits restoration, but the nearby Woods Mortuary (1872, Joel W. Smith and Frederick H. Taft, builders), 1100 Washington, never sacrificed its Victorian dignity.
Washington Avenue is spanned by an old-fashioned welcome arch, reading, “Howdy Folks! Welcome to Golden Where the West Lives,” erected in 1949 by the Chamber of Commerce. In 1992 the city spent $2 million on a facade restoration and streetscaping for Washington Avenue, which retains a few noteworthy residences such as the Boatright House (1901, Perre O. Unger, builder), 1518 Washington, a finely crafted four-square, and the Tudor Revival Ryland House (1939, Donald Weiss), 1701 Washington. Washington Avenue's 1990s restoration makes downtown livelier competition for a neo-Victorian shopping mall and an 800-acre theme park a mile south at Heritage Square (1957).
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