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Forgotten Denver: Arapahoe School

The ghosts of Denver’s past buildings are fading fast from our collective memories.  For every preserved Larimer Square or D&F Clocktower, there are hundreds of structures that have been demolished since Denver was founded back in 1858.   Unfortunately, detailed photographs of this built environment are limited to the most prominent structures of the time and even then, much of the early residential character of downtown has been lost, both in memory and in any photographic archive.  If we are lucky, some of this early history can be dug up at the library or even on E-Bay.  Such was the case recently when I was searching for early Denver school photographs.  Among all of the Denver Broncos paraphernalia, a photo of Public School #1 (later known as the Arapahoe School), was for sale.  While I had seen many archival photos of this school in library collections, I was anxious to own one for myself.

Public School #1 circa 1875

Denver citizens fought for over ten years to get this structure built but its planned construction for the school children of “east” Denver was tenuous at best.  Ultimately, bonds were issued for its construction but its overall cost was supported by years of collecting property taxes to pay for it.  This new concept was fought vociferously by many citizens of Denver who argued that they were not responsible for educating “someone else’s children”.  The Rocky Mountain News proclaimed it to be the finest school in the territory and it was indeed the biggest school to be found anywhere in the mountain west when it opened on April 2, 1873.  Just weeks before its opening, another fight ensued as elements of Denver society proclaimed that their children would never attend this new public school if black students were allowed to enter the door as well.  Cooler heads finally prevailed as former territorial governor John Evans implored Denverites to allow Public School #1 to be used by all children in the district.  When it opened at 17th and Arapahoe, the school was an integrated facility. It soon served all grades, housing Denver’s first high school as well.  The building itself was only used as a school however until 1890 when the area was fast becoming a commercial zone due to Denver’s explosive growth.

Soon Frank Edbrooke’s grand Club Building was constructed on the front of the site, with the Arapahoe School serving as a back annex to this office building (a sliver of the school can be seen on the right side of the photo).

Club Building circa 1890

In 1955, both buildings were summarily demolished for a big parking lot without much thought given to their histories.  So next time you’re walking through Skyline Park north of 17th Street, nod your head to this ghost of Denver’s past and listen for the screams and laughter of the school children of pioneer Denver.

For more information on this subject, consult:

Snow, Shawn M. “ ‘A Premonition of Our Future Grandeur:’  Building Denver’s First Schools.” Colorado History:  Denver Inside and Out 16 (2011): 21-30.

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12 Comments

  1. Freddie says:

    Awesome post and history lesson! I often wonder how I would regard buildings built in the late 19th century if I were living in the mid-20th century. Would they just seem like ugly old worthless buildings to me? Should many of the city’s 1960′s and ’70′s buildings, that are almost universally considered ugly today, get demolished over the next couple decades, would someone end up writing a blog in 2113 (or whatever people read in 2113) about how unfortunate it was that past generations didn’t have enough foresight to save those beautiful 1960′s and ’70′s era buildings?

    I just have a hard time understanding how this sort of “urban renewal” destruction happened on such a massive scale, in so many cities. It just seems like it should be blatantly obvious to anyone – even in 1955 – that it’s a mistake. I really can’t wrap my head around it.

    • Esauis says:

      Yes, I think that in 1955 these buildings would have been perceived as old and ugly, just like we think of many benign buildings of the post WWII era are now. One also has to consider the 50s was the “atomic age” when we were fast racing to the future to be living on talking space ships in 2001. Also, we are much more post-modern in our tastes and esthetics now than the average American was post WWII… not to mention that a big part of American capitalism is building, destroying, building, destroying, building….

    • Nathanael says:

      A lot of 60s and 70s buildings really should be preserved.

      The 50s featured a great deal of substandard construction — stuff which just falls apart on its own — and I really can’t justify preserving that. We lost a number of well-loved 50s-era (and early 60s) buildings in my locality because they were just junk, and started falling apart despite maintenance. They weren’t nice enough to be worth the reconstruction work.

      The really horrifying thing about the building bulldozing in the 1950s is that they went after really solid, really good buildings and replaced them with parking lots or cheap junk.

      If you look carefully at photos from the 19th century, there were a lot of tarpaper shacks and junky tin-roofed warehouses — but those had already fallen apart and been demolished in the 1910s, 20s, or 30s. The 50s started tearing down the *good* 19th century buildings.

      • Nathanael says:

        The “urban renewal” movement in my town started by demolishing City Hall, the solid stone public library, and a couple of other really grand buildings, to build a *parking garage*.

        This kicked historic preservation into high gear where I live. However, it shifted in odd directions, as wooden houses with bad foundations and heavy rot have been preserved; while it has remained hard to preserve the high-quality masonry buildings, which are much more worthwhile to preserve.

  2. Mark Barnhouse says:

    Great post, Shawn. I was unfamiliar with that particular Edbrooke design–at first I thought it was the DAC. I’ve had similar experiences on eBay, having to weed through the Broncos and John Denver to find the images of old buildings.

    To attempt to answer Freddie’s question about urban renewal, I have often thought that it was generational. Every generation values something different, and in the 1950s, power brokers all over the country wanted to modernize, either through false modern facades on old buildings, or outright destruction and replacement. They built some fine things (like Mile Hi Center, now Wells Fargo), but all cities lost something, too. And it was obvious to some people in 1955, but it took even more destruction, particularly in the 1960s to early 1970s, to really get the idea planted that preserving history is important. Nationally, it was the destruction of the magnificent Penn Station in New York (and its replacement by the mediocre underground Penn Station and the brutal Madison Square Garden) that really opened people’s eyes, and locally it was the successful fight to save the Molly Brown House, and the unsuccessful one to save the Moffat Mansion at 8th & Grant (a grim 1970s office building is on that corner now) that did it. Cities have to evolve, but it would be nice, in a perfect world, if more people understood not only the historic value of old buildings, but the economic one as well.

    • Shawn Snow says:

      Hi Mark,

      Your analysis is spot on. I have interviewed folks who were around in the 1950s about what was going on in Denver and the response is commonly, “We just didn’t really think about it”. This came from one woman who attended the Windsor Hotel’s final New Year’s celebration party as 1959 turned into 1960. She knew the hotel was coming down and loved the building, but there was really no upswell to secure saving it. Same thing occurred with the Tabor Grand Opera House which came down in 1965. If it had just been able to hold on for five more years, we might be looking at this most magnificent of structures at 16th and Curtis instead of the Federal Reserve Branch Bank. Interestingly enough, it was the Federal Reserve Bank, at 17th and Arapahoe (its old location), that needed the parking lot that necessitated the destruction of the Club Building in 1955.

      • Mark B says:

        Thanks, Shawn.

        Having read most of the newspaper articles related to the original construction of the “new” Federal Reserve building, I can’t help but think that it has now outlived its usefulness for the bank. The bank moved from their old home on 17th to the new one because the volume of checks they were processing on a daily basis-in that tiny building-was just too much, and they needed room. In those days, most people wrote several checks every week, but who writes that many checks now? I know they have other functions housed in that building, but it would seem that at least that function that required so much room must have shriveled to the point where they don’t need that room. Move the Fed, I say!

        • Shawn Snow says:

          I have taken a tour in that building. They do a lot of money shredding for old and worn out bills, including the nearly useless dollar bill. They now have a museum inside that I haven’t yet seen. And lots of other stuff, including the now nearly defunct check processing center. The back half of the block along 15th Street is an incredible waste of space and is a prime spot for development if the Fed ever leaves. As for this ’60s monstrosity, it’s a prime candidate for….adaptive reuse. Let’s build a skyscraper on top of it….but not repeat the mistakes of the past by completely demolishing this homage to urban renewal.

          • Nathanael says:

            Check the structural integrity first.

            I have a rule of thumb about preserving buildings, which most people don’t apply. First check if the building is structurally worth preserving.

            Now, there are exceptions; Seattle decided to preserve King Street Station, which really wasn’t structurally worth preserving, and has essentially rebuilt the entire structure; it’s more of a reconstruction than a preservation. In that case, the city’s lone surviving train station, it might be worth it.

            But in general, keep the buildings with good bones. The ones which have serious, major structural problems or foundation failures; the wooden buildings which are riddled with dry rot; these are the ones to demolish.

            I don’t know whether the Fed building has good bones or not. Do you?

  3. Mark Barnhhouse says:

    Nathanael–

    I’m sure they built the Fed building “for the ages.” I’m no engineer, nor an architect, but given the client, it had to have been built to very high standards, probably higher than most spec office buildings.

    Given its size and architectural presence (love it or hate it, it has a definite presence), I think the Fed’s shell would make for a great department store. Of course the economics of that industry aren’t going to lend themselves to an expensive remodel, unless it’s a higher-end chain like Nordstrom. And given the proximity of Cherry Creek, it’s hard to imagine either they or Macy’s would be interested in the site. Fantasy is fun, but for now we just have to wait and see what develops.

  4. michael says:

    I once worked at the Bank of Denver on 15th and california. the building was a gem, hidden under an ugly 1960s facade. The building had amazing historic decoration that adorned it. Sadly all anyone saw was the big gray shell hiding its original glory. Sadly Shames-macovsky purchased the building, demolished it and it now sits as a parking lot. Now the Cheeseman Park development by Red peak aims to do the same, tear down more historic buildings to make way for big lackluster square boxes. Sad…

    • Freddie says:

      It may seem odd to you that I start off this thread by stating something to the effect of, “it should have been obvious this was a mistake” in reference to this school house and its neighbor being demolished in 1955, but then turn around and say what I’m about to say, but….well… here goes…

      Those Cheeseman Park apartment buildings being replaced by the Red Peak project are indeed old, but they aren’t especially architecturally unique or historically significant. Has anyone really taken a close look at them? They’re not particularly ornate – no more ornate than the “lackluster square box” taking their place in fact. In many ways, they’re the lackluster square boxes of their day.

      Do they have some charm? Well, yes. Am I happy to see them go to make way for the added density and “urbanism” this Red Peak development will add? Honestly, I’m a bit torn, but we have to be reasonable here. In this day and age, this is a RARE example where a Denver developer is tearing down something viable as opposed replacing a parking lot or dilapidated old warehouse. We should be glad about that. But demolitions like this will still happen from time to time – even during times when the city is most vigilant about saving historic architecture – because it will HAVE to happen from time to time.

      It’s really easy to lose your ass in real estate. REALLY easy. If I’m looking to risk tens of millions of dollars on a new development, I’m going to look closely at all my options and find the best location possible. I’m going to look for unfulfilled demand in the market. I’m certainly NOT just looking to fill the ugliest eyesore of a parking lot that annoys me on my ride to work every morning, or build a super awesome skyscraper to make our skyline look cooler, or any of that stuff we infill geeks fantasize about; I’m looking to make money. And if I determine that the perfect investment opportunity may exist at this very unique location next to the Botanic Gardens at Cheeseman Park, and that investment should be a large 156-unit building (for which the zoning appropriately allows) then obviously, due to the lack of vacant/parking lots in the immediate area, something will have to go. (And before anyone pounces: No, the small, Denver Botanic Gardens parking lot next door is not a viable option.)

      I guess what I’m saying is: We have to be reasonable. There has to be some compromise. Think about it. If every old, remotely-historic building in Denver were to have been be saved, there would be no skyline of Cheeseman Park. In fact, there would be no skyline of downtown Denver. There would be no corporate offices in downtown Denver. There would be no jobs coming to downtown Denver. Practically every new, large, multifamily development, and every new office building large enough to be suitable for a corporate headquarters would be relegated to the edge of suburbia.

      Is tearing down a magnificent piece of architecture with such historic significance as Denver’s first public school, to make way for a parking lot, a mistake? Obviously.

      Is tearing down a typical, two-story, Capitol Hill apartment building to make way for added density at Cheeseman Park a mistake? That might be a different story. If these 11th Ave. apartment buildings are sacred, is there ANY structure built before 1940 in ALL of Capitol Hill/Uptown that ISN’T sacred? Where does preservation of historic character end and NIMBY-ism begin?