Understanding Denver Streets' decimal system; Or why the intersection of Broadway and Ellsworth is so important
Whether you've just moved to the Mile-High City or you've lived here your whole life, decoding Denver's street can be a real challenge. But the mystery of how the Denver street grid is laid out can be somewhat easily solved once you understand the importance of the intersection of Broadway and Ellsworth to the streets off the downtown grid.
While there are plenty of resources for helping decode Denver streets, we've found that local historian Phil Goodstein's encyclopedic work, Denver Streets: Names, Numbers and Logic (New Social Publication, 1994) provides the most succinct descriptions and was the main source for this blog.
To better understand why Broadway and Ellsworth is the nexus of Denver streets, you have to go back the late 1880's when Denver street names and naming conventions were something of a free-for-all. Street names were frequently assigned by land developers and little heed was given to the difference between streets and avenues. Though some attempts were taken to govern this mess, Goodstein points out that there was generally, "no correlation between an address and the location of the street."
In 1887, the city introduced a system that allowed for addresses to consistently identify their distance from a central nexus, which turned out to be Broadway and Ellsworth. But why that intersection? To answer that question, you have to go back to 1886 when Denver had only seventeen numbered avenues which began at Seventeenth Avenue and counted down to First Avenue. "The road one block south of First Avenue, Ellsworth Avenue, was consequently defined as being the zero axis dividing the north-numbered from south numbered streets," Goodstein says.
The decimal system of 1887 codified a system in which Broadway is the dividing line between east and west avenues; and Ellsworth is the dividing line between north and south streets. There is one catch that Denver travelers should be aware of: streets that aren't specifically labeled "South" are always north of Ellsworth while avenues without the specification "west" are east of Broadway.
For the downtown grid, which is diagonal mostly because it was laid out to follow the Platte River, a different decimal system is used. This one counts from the north using Broadway and Colfax as its nexus.
Each block was also assigned a number based on its proximity to the nexus. For example, Goodstein points out that Federal Boulevard is 30 blocks west of Broadway hence it is the 3000 west block.
But decimals weren't the only thing that came out of the 1887 re-ordering. City planners also introduced some order into how buildings in Denver were numbered. Since 1887, buildings on the east or south side of the street must have an even number. Buildings on the north or west side of the street must have an odd number. Though the origins of this system were rooted in Denver's earliest days, they weren't written into law until 1887.
Various other efforts to impose order on to Denver's unruly street grid, including the fabled Mahoney System, have been undertaken over the years with varying degrees of success. Every plan had to overcome major hurdles, such as the fact that "Denver" is something of a moving target that's composed of multiple, annexed municipalities that never considered they would one day be part of the Mile-High City. But with a basic knowledge of the decimal system, and an understanding of the importance of Broadway and Ellsworth, understanding Denver's Streets gets a whole lot easier.
I have been here a very long time and did not know some of these little details. Thank you!
Hi Sophia - We continually learn interesting new facts from Denver Streets and Phil Goodstein's other works. We're really fortunate to have local historians of this caliber. Thanks for reading and commenting!
Thanks!! I understood Broadway being zero but never understood Ellsworth. Makes sense to me now.
Hi Amy - The Broadway/Ellsworth continuum is one of the aspects of Denver's street plan that actually makes sense, once you get a grasp of it.
Thanks for reading and commenting!
Another oddity is the numbering of addresses on Speer. It is treated as a north/south west of Broadway. Since it is north, a directional designation is not needed.
East of Broadway, it is an east/west street with no directional designation until Pearl Street as the first six blocks are unambiguous. From Pearl to Downing an east is required to separate it from north addresses.
All of this will soon be moot as the Denver GIS mapping department has decreed that the use of north will be added to all addresses north of Ellsworth, at least in Denver.
Another Denver GIS decree is that Broadway is now Broadway Street. It has always been just Broadway to me (and Google maps).
Interesting article! Phil’s book “North Side Story” is a good read.
Thanks, Nicole! Phil's contribution's to our local history canon are priceless!
And interestingly, my mail sometimes gets delivered to the same address on South Bellaire even when the zip code indicates that my mailbox is located North of Ellsworth.
Also, I think it's now a Denver County requirement to have the letter "N" added to the address if your address is not otherwise indicated as South--something to do with property tax and/or voting district. Can you clarify this?
Phil Goodstein is a local treasure, a Denver legend himself!
I appreciated and learned from this article! Thank you, and yes, indeed, Phil Goodstein is indeed, a treasure.
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