Whittier Neighborhood and San Rafael Historic District

The Whittier and San Rafael neighborhoods' early development was influenced by the Denver fire of 1863, which prompted the institution of a city ordinance that mandated a change in the quality of construction from wooden frame to brick structures. Increased urban population, a need for quality family housing, and the emphasis on permanent brick construction combined to shape this area of Denver. The first subdivision in the area, the Case Addition, located in the northeast quadrant of the Whittier neighborhood, was filed just after the Civil War in 1868. Significant development of housing followed in the 1870s and 1880s. In February 1874, the first annexation to the city of Denver included the area of San Rafael and a portion of what is now Whittier. An early advertisement described the area as “beautifully located overlooking the city with a glorious view of the mountains.” The majority of homes were built for middle-income Anglo-Americans. Residents included carpenters, bricklayers, and metalworkers—artisans who crafted many of the architectural details of Denver’s finest homes and buildings. Those details were often incorporated in many of the smaller houses constructed in these neighborhoods.

The San Rafael neighborhood, named for San Rafael, California, is comprised of three subdivisions filed for in 1874, 1882, and 1886 respectively. The San Rafael Historic District, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is bounded by Washington Street on the west, Downing Street on the east, and 20th Avenue through 26th Avenue on the south and north.

Whittier is named for the school that dominated the area located on the boundary of the two neighborhoods between 24th and 25th Avenues on the east side of Downing Street. The school’s name honored the nineteenth-century abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier. The boundaries of Whittier neighborhood extend from York Street on the east side to Downing Street on the west end. Twenty-third Avenue marks Whittier’s southern boundary, while Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard serves as its northern edge.

Beginning with the integration of the San Rafael and Whittier neighborhoods more than one hundred years ago, episodes of segregation and integration have played out there decade by decade.

To prevent them from living in other parts of the city, African-American residents were restricted to housing in the Whittier and San Rafael neighborhoods and the adjacent Five Points neighborhood. “Color lines” were drawn through the area, restricting the habitation of races to precise streets and alleys.

Whittier and San Rafael have been racially mixed neighborhoods for more than a century and have therefore been a flashpoint for many issues. In fact, the city’s history of segregation and integration was played out in large part in these neighborhoods. While portions of that history are painful, they should not be forgotten.