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Archive of posts filed under the History category.

The Disappearing Carriage Lot

In a formerly quiet west-side neighborhood, there is a building boom underway. In the area bounded by 20th Avenue, Federal Boulevard, Colfax and Sloans Lake Park approximately 10 single-family homes have recently been scraped, not to make room for “McMansions”, but rather to make room for new 2-3 story, multi-unit townhome projects. Thanks to recent zoning changes, relatively large lot sizes and low land values (compared to the Highlands neighborhoods further north) and shifting demographic trends (i.e. young professionals who no longer desire the “house with a big yard” that their parents had), this neighborhood is suddenly undergoing a major architectural make-over. While there are certainly numerous pros and cons to this type of redevelopment, one aspect that I find somewhat unfortunate is the loss of a very unique land development pattern in Denver. While most neighborhoods in Denver were built with rectangular blocks, this area of town has square blocks with a “carriage lot” in the middle.

Back in 1872 when the Potter Highlands (a thirty-six-block residential district bounded by Federal Boulevard, West 38th Avenue, Zuni Street and West 32nd Avenue) was platted it was laid out in square blocks rather than the rectangular ones that predominate the Denver street grid. According to Historic Denver Inc., “this arrangement allowed for houses to face all adjacent streets and to contain a carriage lot (or carriage turnaround) in the center of the block. Many blocks still have communal garages; others have incorporated the central lot into the adjoining properties. About thirteen of Potter-Highlands’ thirty-six blocks still have a distinct central lot.” This distinct block pattern was extended a few blocks north and east of the Potter Highlands and is only replicated in a handful of areas of Denver: Parts of Jefferson Park, Sunnyside, a 15-block portion of South Park Hill and this portion of the Sloans Lake and West Colfax Neighborhoods. The following aerial photo shows clearly shows the relationship between the carriage lot blocks and the standard Denver blocks platted later.

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2014-03-27_park place XII rendering

Over time many of these carriage lots have been purchased by adjacent landowners and incorporated into larger yards, paved over for church or school parking lots, or in some cases developed into single-family properties in the middle of the block. Many still remain, however, in various states of use: some are simply open gravel lots, some have become more naturalized over the years with trees and grasses, one that I found still contained an old stone garage (that I imagine once contained horses and buggies). In a few cases, however, they’ve been turned into more informal public space. The photo below shows one that has been turned into a community garden.

2014-03-27_Carriage Lot Garden 2014-03-27_Communal Stables

Unfortunately with the new zoning allowing for greater densities in the Sloans Lake/West Colfax section of this square grid, developers have their eyes on these parcels. One has recently been purchased by the adjacent land owner for potential redevelopment and another one that was divided between two land owners long ago is now being built and paved over to make way for the Park Place XII townhomes, a 3-story, 12-unit project that will dominate the center of the block as shown below. In the last few weeks, the unit to the south has also been scraped, likely to meet a similar fate. 

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While were gaining density, and increasing land values in the area, I’m afraid we’re also losing an interesting fragment of Denver history, and an opportunity to create more public open space within the community (something that a good number of people in the neighborhood are calling for in light of the new development boom). Since these lots are publicly owned, they could easily be developed into community gardens, dog parks, pocket playgrounds, and communal places of refuge. If we, as a city, invested in a few of these parcels instead of selling them off to the highest bidder, we might not only preserve a piece of Denver history but create places for this new generation living “without yards” to run their dogs, meet their “blockmates,” grow some vegetables or simply relax and enjoy nature away from the din of the street. With two-three story houses on all sides, many of these carriage lots feel like little enclosed courtyards, and could be wonderfully comfortable and enjoyable open spaces: a pleasant surprise to those who find them and/or seek them out. Until then, I encourage you to seek out and explore this relatively unknown piece of Denver’s urban fabric. Check them out before they disappear.


Gentrification in Denver

The concept of gentrification is relatively new in the urban planning lexicon only appearing in print in 1964 and generally defined as “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.” Whether or not a racial component of displacement is integral to this definition is still up for debate. With Spike Lee’s recent rant on this very subject as Brooklyn continues to gentrify, I decided to look at some Denver examples of gentrification to see how we compare.

The Whittier neighborhood, located north of 23rd Avenue and east of Downing (east of Five Points), has been closely associated with Denver’s black community since at least 1930. This was solidified by the 1950s as the so-called “color line” located near High Street in Whittier was broken as new housing opportunities were sought due to explosive growth in Denver’s black population following World War II. The white majorities along Race, Vine and Gaylord streets quickly vanished. A neighborhood that had once been nearly 100% white in 1890 had become 75% black by 1990. The process of this mid-century demographic shift has nearly been lost to history as the general perception has been that Five Points and Whittier have always been the heart of black culture in Denver. Whittier School did in fact become Denver’s first majority black school by the early 1930s as the population was increasingly segregated in this part of Denver especially following the Ku KIux Klan’s political grip on Denver and Colorado during the 1920s. But prior to this time, Denver’s black population was never large enough to dominate a majority of slots in any Denver school.

The Civil Rights Movement and fair housing laws eventually created more opportunities for housing choice, especially after 1970, and evidence of this is very apparent in Whittier. Between 2000 and 2010, there was a 43% drop in the black population of Whittier and an 89% increase in the white population (Whittier is coterminous with census tract 23). The neighborhood’s demographic breakdown now consists of a 29% black/42% white percentage, also indicating that there is a sizable Hispanic population in the area that was not in place in 1990 or 2000. Meanwhile, the black population has spread out into other areas of east Denver and into Aurora, no longer being forced into a few census tracts.

Whittier is not alone in this demographic shift that also coincides with a great influx of new residential construction (scrapes), home remodels and other major home improvements in most old Denver neighborhoods featuring historic homes with brick construction. We can quickly compare Whittier to Highland. I am referring only to the census tract located around 29th and Zuni, that includes “LoHi,” the area near Little Man Ice Cream. In 1990, this census tract (4.02) contained 5,986 people and was 65% Hispanic. Today (2010 census), the population stands at 5,314 people and is 35% Hispanic. Since 2000, the white population of the census tract has increased 32% and the Hispanic population has decreased 57%.

So ultimately I wonder if gentrification is only perceived as “bad” if it displaces minority residents. I know that for black homeowners in Whittier, many have suddenly lived the American Dream by selling their $39,000 home in 1989 dollars for $339,000 in 2014 dollars. While the faces in the neighborhood have changed, Whittier continues to be one of Denver’s most diverse areas. The influx of energy and money ensures that Denver’s central neighborhoods remain viable places to live over the long-term and are a welcome alternative when considering the urban decay and blight that a place such as Detroit is currently suffering. When you take any racial changes out of the equation however, gentrification’s foes are more quiet if we look at anecdotal evidence. One only needs to read the Denver Post over the past month about the booming Highlands neighborhood (west of Federal) pricing out even more people in the real estate market who are now looking at places such as Edgewater and Wheat Ridge where one can buy the same housing types as found in the 32nd and Lowell or 44th and Tennyson area for $100,000+ cheaper. These areas are being “rediscovered” and, although they have been historically “white” in character, they are no less deserving of the new investment.

Ultimately, cities are changing and dynamic places, if they are lucky. Otherwise, they can stagnate and decline. While it is painful sometimes to see places you grew up knowing in one capacity, there is a whole new generation of folks moving to Denver from across the country who have no preconceived notions of what an area is or is not supposed to be. So whether it’s Harvey Park in southwest Denver that has greatly increased its share of the Hispanic population (while it was nearly 100% white in 1960) or Whittier and Highland who have greatly increased their share of white population, the Denver area continues to grow and change—just as it has always done since 1858.


Perspectives on Downtown Denver’s Growth

While downtown Denver is experiencing new population growth at the dawn of the 21st century, a humbling perspective is brought to the forefront when we look at how the city handled growth toward the latter half of the 19th century. Over the past several months, I have been looking into this issue and was provided access to the archives of Central Presbyterian Church, housed at the imposing edifice at 17th and Sherman. Their historical material helped shed light on the amazing story of Denver’s cyclical growth patterns.

Central Presbyterian Church, 1660 Sherman

It turns out that Central’s current building, circa 1892, was the third home for the congregation, which had its roots dating all the way back to the city’s earliest days in 1860. When moving to 17th and Sherman, the congregation sought to escape the growing density of downtown and escape to the suburbs (then located in Capitol Hill). At the dedication of this Frank Edbrooke designed building, built on land purchased from Walter Scott Cheesman for $40,000 by Donald Fletcher (founder of Aurora, whose home stood close by at 16th and Grant), church members reminisced about the remarkable growth of Denver over a short period of 30 years.

With the early congregation’s foundation in the First Presbyterian Church on the north side of 15th Street between Lawrence and Arapahoe, the church initially moved to a permanent structure on the outskirts of downtown in 1876—at 18th and Champa. Within 15 years, they needed to move again, not only because the congregation had outgrown its building but because the city was growing yet again and was well over 100,000 people by 1890—increasing from 4700 people only twenty years earlier. At the new church dedication in 1892, members recalled,

“It seems almost incredible, even to those who have been eye witnesses to this progress, that within thirty years the little hamlet upon the banks of Cherry Creek, containing a few log and frame buildings, should grow in this brief period into a city of perhaps more than 150,000 inhabitants.  The first Presbyterian church building, which was situated upon the corner of the alley on F street (now Fifteenth Street) on the ground now occupied by Clayton’s hat store was completed and opened for regular services in the spring of 1865. At that time it was in the midst of scattered dwellings. There were no store or business buildings above Larimer street on F, and none upon Sixteenth street except the Langrishe theater, a frame building on the corner of Sixteenth and Lawrence, where now stands the building occupied by Skinner Bros. & Wright. The business quarter of the town was on Blake, McGaa (now Market) and Larimer, extending from the creek as far as F street and on F from Larimer to below Wazee. Opposite the new church, where the Evans block now stands, was a lumber yard. On the corner of Lawrence and F, where the building stands, which was recently occupied as the post office, was the Overland stage barn and corral. On the corner adjoining the church stood the brick residence of Wiliam Graham, the pioneer druggist. Opposite on Lawrence was the residence of Mr. D. H. Moffat. Mr. George Tritch lived in a white frame house fronting onArapahoe and fifty feet from the corner of F and Arapahoe. Above this were a few scattered dwellings and beyond were the treeless, barren plains…there was not a growing tree on the town site, except along the margin of the Platte, until the spring of 1865 when a few were transplanted by General Pierce and one or two others that were watered by a small ditch conducting water from a spring on Cherry Creek above the present Broadway bridge.”

When the new 18th and Champa location was chosen, it “was at that time far from business buildings, residences lined Lawrence, Arapahoe, Curtis and Champa streets, and as yet there was little business above Larimer Street. It was believed the location would be quite permanent, business might possibly extend up Fifteenth and Sixteenth streets to Curtis, possibly to Champa, but no one dreamed that during the lifetime of the present generation it would go beyond.”  That building was designed by Robert Roeschlaub and had a seating capacity of 1000, making it the largest gathering place in the city. It was used for concerts, lectures, graduation ceremonies and the like for many years. When the church moved to Sherman Street in 1892, their “old” building was sold to the new 23rd Avenue Presbyterian Church on Ogden, where it was physically relocated (and later burned in a fire).

Central Presbyterian's second location at 18th and Champa

Today, Central Presbyterian Church is one of the few church buildings remaining downtown whose congregation stayed put instead of moving farther out into the suburbs, as many other congregations did after World War II. Its impressive sandstone building stands sentinel over the corner of 17th and Sherman and is one of the few structures remaining from this once residential neighborhood. And while downtown Denver, of which it is now considered a part, is once again growing in population, the church has no plans to vacate its location. This congregation, along with Trinity United Methodist Church, can proudly tie its existence back to the very foundations of the tiny hamlet of Denver over 150 years ago.


Royal Gorge Bridge damaged in fire, tram destroyed

One of Colorado’s most interesting and famous pieces of infrastructure, the Royal Gorge Bridge, has been damaged in the ongoing Royal Gorge wildfire.


Photo from Dave Soldano on flickr.

According to the Denver Post, the bridge’s wooden roadbed is charred. Its steel structure is intact but will need to be evaluated. The aerial tram has been destroyed and its cable collapsed to the bottom of the canyon.

Thankfully, none of the park employees or guests were harmed.

The Royal Gorge Bridge was built in 1929. It is Colorado’s only large suspension bridge, although there are other smaller ones in the state. Until 2001 it was the highest bridge in the world, crossing 955 feet above the Arkansas River. That record is now held by France’s Millau Viaduct China’s Sidu River Bridge.


Urban Artifacts

Have you ever wondered why you’re struck with that sense of charm and wonder when you encounter a street tightly knit with red brick?

Though it’s often exciting to witness a well-preserved historic building or space, it’s often the urban features that are camouflaged or embedded in the infrastructure of the present that are so profound. It is incredibly important to document the past and to have record of the ways in which our urban spaces were once used (i.e. books, photos, maps). Beyond that, there is an undeniable excitement preserved for the urban enthusiast in stumbling across the urban artifacts that dot the city’s landscape, leaving clues to a past he or she has never experienced.

What makes them interesting is that they are invisible, insignificant or simply misunderstood by the general public. Long metallic strips that sink into the street resembling a scene out of Pompeii are really just a reference to the rail age of our cities that has come and gone. Still intact, but encapsulated in a river of solid asphalt, the lines are like a mosquito preserved in a solid mass of amber. In Denver and most other major US cities, these lines surface to reveal themselves from time to time. Sometimes you’ll even get lucky enough to witness road construction taking place where the asphalt has been scalped back to reveal a lovely cobblestone or brick path peacefully resting below.

Denver Rail Under Street    LoDo Buried Rail Line

[Photos by Denverurbanism.com]

These purposeless hints of history that serve as nothing but infrastructural ruins have a story to tell about a way of life that is obsolete. For instance, in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, stairway networks once ran up and down the hillsides, taming the terrain and providing access throughout the city for pedestrians.  Today, many of those stairways have been removed, some sport the accessory of an “access forbidden” sign, and still others lay crumbled across the hillsides in disrepair. It’s odd to think that at some point, the car deemed these forms of infrastructure unworthy of their own traffic.

Abandoned Stairs Cincinnati    Abandoned Steps - Cincinnati

Pittsburgh Stairs     Cincinnati Public Stairs Today

[top left - Closed Stairs, Cincinnati, via building-cincinnati.com; top right - Abandoned Public Stairs, Cincinnati, via globalsiteplans.com ; bottom left - Vintage Pittsburgh Stairs, via shorpy.com; bottom right - Operational Public Stairs - Cincinnati, via soapboxmedia.com]

Even the most micro-level urban artifacts can be found if you look closely enough at your surroundings. Each city has found ways to cope with the natural environment it is surrounded by. These relics provide a window for us to see how our urban predecessors managed to mitigate the obstacles encountered in everyday life. In Boston, scores of historic buildings have an odd iron fixture just near the foot of each stoop. The “boot scrapers” were implemented as early as the 1600s to combat the dilemma of tracking mud (and animal droppings) into the beautiful homes of Beacon Hill. Since few people get around on horseback these days, and since our cars don’t poop on our streets (just in our air), they serve only an ornamental function.

Boot Scraper - Beacon Hill, Boston      Boot Scraper - Beacon Hill, Boston

[All photographs provided by Beacon Hill resident, Dominic Berardi]

And lastly, zooming back out to a larger-scale affect of this concept is the unique occurrence of the number of mini business districts scattered about Denver. Moving here, I often wondered why there were so many business districts that made up nothing more than a block or two. While this question piqued my curiosity for some time, it seemed like a no-brainer when I was finally informed of the reasoning. I was told that if I took a look at a streetcar map, I would see most all of the streetcar stops aligning with the mini districts in question. This case is a bit different from the others in that it is not purely an object left behind, but rather an urban form produced by the technology of the times.

So, now I encourage you to question the peculiar and pay attention to details. There is plenty your city or neighborhood has to tell you about its past without visiting a library or a museum. And for any of you urban explorers, feel free to populate the comments section with any additional examples of urban artifacts where you live!