Good-by to the dowager downtown. This is the new Denver
“Denver’s downtown was once like plain yogurt–bland.
Now we’re building an image as an exciting city, and the 16th
Street Mall is a big step,’ says city planning director William
Denver grew apace in the 1970s (population rose 29 percent) and
glassy high-rises sprouted on the skyline–including three 50-plus-story
skyscrapers. In the process, some historic buildings were razed–but
preservationists rose to spare sections of old lower downtown.
The skyscraping architecture is by no means universally loved, and
big-city nightlife is relatively scarce; still, the queen city of the
Rocky Mountain West is discarding the image of a faded dowager. Downtown
is alive with shops, cafes, and small hotels; nearby, a needed
$41-million performing arts center has seen constant use since its
opening in 1978.
The most startling change: the new 13-block transit mall that ties
the old and new areas together and gives downtown back to the
Fall is an inviting time to visit this bustling, changing downtown,
and mall shuttle buses make it easy. A new symphony and repertory play
season has begun, and a huge new complex of shops and a hotel opens on
Using our map and listings as a guide, you can sample the best of
old and new in an afternoon or all-day tour. Fall weather can vary from
glorious Indian summer to wet and cold–so come prepared.
How does the new mall work?
Let’s backtrack. It began with study, arguments, more study.
Planners for the city and Regional Transportation District (RTD) looked
at other transit malls. They checked out Portland, which routes its
city buses onto its mall, creating a fumy din during commute hours.
Planners looked at successful malls–Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street
mall, which links major activity hubs like shopping, office, and
historic centers–and malls still having problems–such as Granville
Mall in Vancouver, B.C., aimed to improve traffic flow but meeting
In the end the planners, working with architect I.M. Pei, decided
to close 16th Street to all traffic except the RTD’s 19 shuttle
buses–and to make these as quiet and nonpolluting as feasible.
Apart from the shuttles and crossover auto traffic, the mall is for
pedstrians only. Sidewalks are 19 feet wide, and a 22-foot aisle
separates the two bus lanes.
The mall is paved with granite, lined with 200 honey locust and red
oak trees, dotted with fountains, benches, and–a surprise –movable
chairs. Detractors have called the design cold, but at noon it’s
lively with brown-bag lunchers and impromptu entertainment.
You can hop on the free shuttle at any corner. The 40-foot buses
are easy to board, with double doors that open wide at street level.
They move off slowly and stop at every block; each is announced.
Like horizontal elevators, they take people from one end of this
major thoroughfare to the other, giving easy access to all downtown
attractions. Hours are long: 6 A.M. to 1 A.M. weekdays, from 7 A.M.
weekends and holidays. And service is frequent: during the day, buses
run every 10 minutes (every 3 minutes in commute hours); between 11 P.M.
and 1 A.M., they run every half-hour.
Sampling the sights on the mall: the capitol, a firehouse,
A logical place to start your tour is at the Civic Center, where
there’s metered as well as lot parking.
The State Capitol (1), open 9 to 4 daily, offers free tours every
The nearby Denver Art Museum (2) has an impressive array of Asian,
pre-Columbian, and Native American arts. Admission is $2.50; open 9 to
5 Tuesdays through Saturdays (till 8 Wednesdays), noon to 5 Sundays.
Want to shop for Southwest arts? Try the Native American Trading
Company, a tiny gallery in an old house at 1301 Bannock Street across
from the museum; we found rare saltillo sarapes, Bodmer watercolors,
photographer E.S. Curtis folios. It’s open 10 to 6 daily except
The U.S. Mint (3) has free 20-minute tours, weekdays 8:30 to 3.
Across the street at the recently opened Denver Firefighters Museum
(4), guided tours show off venerable fire trucks and memorabilia in an
1898 sandstone station house. The real fun is upstairs: the bunk room
is a cafe with inexpensive, tasty fare (try the hook-and-ladder
sandwiches). Both museum and cafe are open weekdays 11 to 2; museum
admission is $1 for adults, 50 cents for children.
Walk three blocks down Tremont Place to the 16th Street Mall; look
up for a view of sky-reflecting office towers. That notch-topped
building is Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s award-winning bank
tower, dubbed “the mailbox’ by locals. If you have time,
cross Broadway and view the atrium lobby from 17th and Lincoln streets.
Architecture buffs will also want to check out the great lobby of
the Colorado National Bank at 17th and Champa, with its marble columns
and colorful murals.
One block north of the mall, the new Museum of Western Art (5)
houses 125 impressive works, from the early landscapes of Bierstadt and
Moran to action paintings and bronzes by Remington and Russell. A
section on New Mexico artists includes works by Berninghaus,
Blumenschein, and O’Keeffe. See them all in the stately 1880 brick
Navarre Building; admission is $3, $1.50 for students and seniors; hours
are 10 to 6 Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 to 5 Saturdays, 1 to 5 Sundays
Nearby, the 1888 Trinity Church (6) is a Victorian Gothic surprise,
with a graceful lava stone spire; go inside to view the exquisite
Tiffany stained-glass window.
Sunday and Monday nights from October 14 to April 20, you can
attend Denver Chamber Orchestra concerts here ($13).
The landmark Daniels and Fisher Tower (7) at Arapahoe Street was
built in 1909, inspired by the campanile of St. Mark’s Cathedral in
Venice. It has been renovated to private offices, not razed–a key
success for preservationists.
At Lawrence Street is the new Tabor Center (8), due to open October
25 at noon with a parade down the mall. It boasts 60 shops and
restaurants inside a soaring atrium fronting the mall; all will stay
open until 9 each evening except Sundays. Across the street is Writer
Square (9), a stylish brick village of designer shops and cafes.
A few steps away is the Larimer Square Historic District (10), the
city’s first downtown; most buildings date from 1870 to 1900. Here
you’ll find 40 shops and 11 restaurants, including some elegant
ones. A two-block walk here reveals the common commercial architecture
of the period. Three graceful standouts caught our eye. At 1421
Larimer, note the graceful archways echoed by rounded-top windows and
the bracketed eaves. Next door at 1429, the Looms Building seems almost
severe with its plain rectangular windows, relieved by dentils with
Greek scrolls. At 1439 Larimer, the Crawford Building shows a return to
delicate detailing with its scallop-topped windows, carved cornices,
For another look at early downtown, walk over to the Denver Union
Station (11) at 17th and Wynkoop streets; Historic Denver offers a free
changing show of historic photographs here, daily 7 A.M. to 9 P.M.
Dining, mall entertainment, carriage rides, and guided tours
Dining. The mall area abounds in dining spots. A few suggestions:
Broadway Grill, 16th and Broadway, is jammed at lunch but great for
people-watching through its glass walls. The Oxford Hotel, 1600 17th,
has a wonderful art deco jazz lounge (music begins at 9 nightly except
Sundays). Try China Terrace in Writer Square for good, inexpensive dim
sum. Or buy picnic supplies at The Market at 1421 Larimer and lunch in
one of the mall plazas.
Music. Noon prgrams are scheduled each Wednesday on the mall; call
(303) 534-6161 for locations. And spontaneous music can often be heard
at four lovely plazas: at Prudential Plaza and Skyline Plaza (Arapahoe
and the mall), Republic Plaza (Tremont Place), and First Interstate Bank
Plaza (17th and California).
There’s a free Oktoberfest at Larimer Square on the weekends
of September 22 and 23, 29 and 30, and October 6 and 7; listen to
oom-pah-pah bands and watch folk dancing each day from noon on.
Tours by foot, carriage. You can explore downtown by foot or van
with a guide from Historic Denver, Inc. A 2-hour walk costs about $5 a
person; for times and reservations, call (303) 534-1858.
Three companies offer horse-drawn carriage rides along the mall or
around Civic Center; prices begin at about $20 per couple for a
half-hour ride. Call Denver Carriage at 230-8562, Colorado Carriage at
987-6850, or Rocky Mountain Carriage at 431-1894. All pick up at
downtown hotels or at Larimer Square.
Concerts, plays. The fall season has begun at The Denver Center
for the Performing Arts, 14th and Curtis. The Denver Center Theatre
Company presents plays in repertory from October 29 through June 7. The
Robert Garner Center offers musicals October through April, and the
Denver Center Cinema shows classic films. For details on all these
programs, call 893-3272.
The Denver Symphony Orchestra performs September 20 through May 19,
with Friday and Saturday night pops concerts from September 14 through
June 15; call 592-7777.
Looking ahead: successes, challenges
Will the mall flouris or stagnate?
The outlook is promising. Upkeep and management are assured,
thanks to the nonprofit Denver Partnership, Inc., supported by mall area
businesses. A new ordinance backed by Historic Denver encourages facade
renovations of historic buildings and gives incentives to builders to
make new high-rises step back, preventing a concrete canyon look.
Although rush-hour traffic continues to clog downtown streets, a
new transfer station at the mall’s Civic Center end will soon ease
the problem by taking 300 bus trips per day out of the core area.
While much remains to be done, preservationists recently scored a
major success with a key zoning change. It allows owners of designated
city landmarks that are not built as large as today’s zoning allows
to sell off their unused floor area allowance to other developers–who
may then enlarge their proposed buildings. This should help spare some
fine old buildings; it’s an innovative approach that other cities
are following with interest.
Photo: Double doors on free shuttle permit quick entry or exit
Photo: Glass-walled Broadway Grill looks onto high-rises at
mall’s northwest end
Photo: Viewed from office tower, 16th Street Mall (left) looks
sleek; in map above, numbers key to sights listed in text
Photo: Graceful glass atrium covers elevated walkways of Denver
Performing Arts Center; symphony and theater seasons begin in fall
Photo: Fountains, graceful lamps, and planters soften look of
granite-paved mall; wide sidewalks and center aisle invite strolling
Photo: Elegant 1880s French-style coach of Denver Carriage Company
takes passengers on downtown tour at dusk. Daniels and Fisher Tower
rises in back
Photo: Sheets of water on 13 stainless steel tubes of fountain
create a fun-house mirror effect at First Interstate Bank Plaza
Photo: Noontime on the mall often brings out unexpected
performances, like this kilted group of dancers promoting Highland games
(they’ll take place again next August)
Photo: The first firehouse in the city is now a museum; you can try
on helmets, flameproof clothing
Photo: An impressive collection at downtown’s new Museum of
Western Art includes boisterous Remington bronze, Coming Through the Rye
Photo: A chorus of Sweet Adelines (that’s their name) sings
before Victorian Trinity Church, site of regular Sunday and Monday
concerts, starting in mid-October