LoDo ~ Denver's Lower Downtown Success Story

Back in the 1980s, Lower Downtown Denver was what we called "a little sketchy" - a lot of places were boarded up, and ones that were open were populated by the underground crowd, drifters, punk rockers and late nighters. Today, the bustling restaurant - sports bar - brew pub district looks like the Seattle or Portland we all longed for, with a huge variety of food choices both native and exotic, all kinds of great beer, espresso, chocolate, and other delicacies, and a wide array of clothing and accessory stores, art galleries, and high-end lofts. Thanks to LoDo, today, Denver actually has a place for nightlife, to stroll the streets, take in a baseball game or a comedy show, go dancing, or just people watch, into the wee hours, just like in the "Big City."

Lower Downtown Denver or “LoDo” is a 23-block area of the oldest and original settlement of the city. Reknowned for its nightlife, the area is a mixed- use historic district that is a prime example of urban revitalization. The area in is the Union Station neighborhood and is bounded by Cherry Creek/Speer Boulevard, 20th Street, Lawrence Street and the South Platte River.

The Lower Downtown Historic District, known as LoDo, was created by the enactment of a zoning ordinance by Denver City Council in March 1988. The resolution's intent was to encourage historic preservation and to promote economic and social vitality in Denver's founding neighborhood at a time when it still held significant historic and architectural value. The status granted by this special designation provided protection to the community's archivable resources and to the 127 contributing historic structures that remained after roughly 20% of Lower Downtown's buildings had been demolished through DURA policies in the 1960s and 1970s. LoDo's historic district ordinance includes zoning that restricts building height and encourages mixed use development. It stipulates strict design guidelines for rehabilitation and new construction.

During this time, the neighborhood began its renaissance. New businesses opened, such as Wynkoop Brewery, developed by future Denver mayor and Colorado governor John Hickenlooper. Gradually LoDo became a destination neighborhood. By the time Coors Field opened on the edge of the LoDo Historic District in 1995, the area had revitalized itself, becoming a new, hip neighborhood filled with clubs, restaurants, art galleries, boutiques, bars, and other businesses. Pepsi Center, located on the other edge of the neighborhood, opened in 2000 and further established the neighborhood as a sport fan's paradise. New residential development came to LoDo, transforming old warehouses into pricey new lofts.

From Historic Denver:

Lower Downtown, affectionately called “LoDo,” is a neighborhood rich in history, controversy, and wonderfully eccentric characters. As the birthplace of our city, and a recent revitalization success story, the area provides an important link between past and present. Today LoDo contains one of the finest remaining collections of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century commercial buildings in the American West. The city of Denver was founded at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek in November 1858 after a small amount of gold was discovered there. Prior to that time, the area had been inhabited by Native Americans, mostly Cheyenne and Arapaho, who had legal title to the land through the signing of the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851. Legal possession of the region, including the area that would become Denver, passed to the United States in 1861 with the Treaty of Fort Wise, which to this day is contested. The first towns founded here were Auraria and St. Charles. St. Charles began and ended as a single log cabin located on the 1400 block between Blake and Wazee Streets after William Larimer, a town founder, jumped the St. Charles claim to build Denver City. Auraria, across the creek, disappeared after merging with Denver City on April 6, 1860.

Denver’s early appearance typified western frontier towns. The buildings were long wooden sheds with false fronts and raised porches that doubled as sidewalks. When the cottonwood trees along Cherry Creek were exhausted, settlers turned to making bricks from the rich clay deposits found in abundance around Denver. The low cost of bricks, coupled with a devastating fire in 1863 and the passing of a city ordinance, resulted in Denver’s commercial district evolving into brick and stone construction. The buildings were of warm orange-red brick, characterized by repetitive round, arched windows and bays, with simple brick cornices and arched brick arcades.

The arrival of the railroad in 1870 brought new businesses, an improved economy, and a fast link to the East. In addition, the railroad brought new building materials such as pressed and cast metal, which was used for cornices, storefront columns, and window hoods, adding decoration to the plain facades of Denver’s commercial buildings. A number of excellent examples of these early structures remain in LoDo, including 1515–1533 Market and 1515–1540 Wazee Streets.

By the mid-1870s, Denver’s retail trade had shifted uptown as the growing streetcar system encouraged development. Despite this exodus of businesses, LoDo continued to boom as wholesale businesses established themselves around the railroad yards. Although the buildings constructed prior to 1870 were usually simple two-story structures, these warehouses were more massive, utilitarian buildings that were often adorned with interesting brickwork and window details. The Denver City Railway Building at 1635 17th Street and the Struby-Estabrook Building at 1660 17th Street remain as examples of warehouses appointed with fine architectural detail.

In 1893 the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed, sending Denver’s economy into a severe depression and nearly halting building construction in Lower Downtown. As the economy slowly recovered, a few new structures were built in the area, but never did this recovery resemble the boom years following the arrival of the iron horse. By the mid-1930s, construction in the district came to a virtual halt. Only a few buildings have been built since that time, one of the most recent being the Merchandise Mart at 1863 Wazee Street.

The period following the end of World War II saw the area go through a slow, steady decline due to the emergence of single-span clerestory warehouse technology and the development of the interstate highway system. Passenger service through Union Station went from a high of eighty-eight trains a day to only one or two today. Most of the hotels in the area closed or turned into flophouses, and LoDo became “Skid Row.”

In 1973 the 1400 block of Larimer Street was designated Denver’s first Historic District, sparking a movement to save the ancient heart of town from the wrecking ball of urban renewal. Following this trend, a small but growing number of urban pioneers saw the potential value of the area and began to invest in and renovate its many interesting buildings. In March 1988 the unique historical and architectural value of the area was officially recognized by the City and County of Denver when it declared Lower Downtown a Historic District.

The information regarding the LoDo Historic District is pulled primarily from a Historic Denver Guide, The Lower Downtown Historic District. Historic Denver, Inc. has published a number of guides for the various historic districts and building styles in Denver. These guides can be purchased at the Historic Denver, Inc. website, http://store.historicdenver.org/store/historic-denver-guides-series/. The guide for LoDo includes more information and tours of the area. More information on the City Beautiful Movement can be found in Denver, The City Beautiful by Thomas J. Noel and Barbara S. Norgren, also available on the Historic Denver website.

Our exhibit profiles numerous Lower Downtown landmarks, often drawing information from Barbara Gibson's Historic Denver series.