The free shuttle took me along the pedestrian and transit 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver, Colorado. Created by I.M. Pei’s firm in 1982, the granite-paved mall (designed to look like the scale pattern of the Western diamondback rattlesnake) stretches 1.25 miles, from the Civic Center to the Lower Downtown section of the city. Lined with trees, planters, and sleek street furniture, and flanked by fountains, shops, restaurants, and businesses, the mall revived downtown’s main retail street. It also provided me very convenient access to many of the city’s most beautiful buildings. These are my favorites.
#1 Brown Palace Hotel
Built in 1892, the Brown Palace Hotel was the finest hotel and the tallest building in Denver, and one of the first fireproof structures in the United States (no wood was used for the floors or walls, but, rather, hollow bricks of porous terra-cotta fireproofing). Wedged into a triangular space, the three-sided, nine-story building softens its angles with round corners. Clad in red granite and sandstone, the façade features soaring arches that stretch up from the fourth to the seventh floor. Friendly-looking stained-glass dragons fill in the spaces at the top of fantastic ogee entry arches. I threw my head back to look up at the exterior’s most playful element: 26 medallions carved in stone, each depicting an animal native to Colorado, positioned between the windows on the seventh floor. I stepped inside and marveled at the opulence of the seven-story atrium lobby, topped by a stained-glass skylight. Balconies circle the atrium on every floor, guarded by ornate iron grillwork. Throughout, about 12,000 square feet of almond and ochre onyx paneling from Mexico surround you in pure luxury. To put all this together, a whopping $2 million was spent, an incredible amount of money for the time. Even if you’re not staying here (for a bit more than the cost of a room when it opened — about $4 per night) and adding your name to a guest list that includes Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, Queen Marie of Romania, the Beatles, and at least half a dozen U.S. presidents, then come for the afternoon high tea in the lobby and soak in its history and grandeur.
#2 Colorado State Capitol
Denver became the capital of Colorado in 1867, after Colorado City (now part of Colorado Springs) and then Golden City held that title. The capitol took 22 years to complete, in 1908 — two decades certainly well spent. This exceptionally handsome structure features granite and sandstone walls. The dome, 272’ above the ground and capped by a lovely lantern, is plated with 24-karat gold leaf, which replaced the original copper because the copper did not come from Colorado. Interestingly, and by no means surprisingly, the architect’s plan to top the dome with an allegorical female figure was ultimately scrapped when members of the legislature spent hours and hours ogling models in various states of undress and couldn’t agree on which one was the most shapely. The mile-high engraving on a step on the west staircase was found to be inaccurate in 1969 by a group of students from Colorado State University, who placed the marker three steps above it; in 2003 better measurements placed it on a different step. Triangular pediments with bas-relief sculptures top triple-arched entrances on each side. Inside, marble, brass, and a particular type of rose onyx used here and nowhere else in the world led me to the impressive grand staircase. Throughout, there are ornate fixtures, 1940s murals, and stained-glass windows with images of prominent Coloradans. Portraits of the U.S. presidents circle the dome’s rotunda. I had the opportunity to sit in the visitors gallery in the Senate, one of the capitol’s 160 rooms, while it was in session and got to experience a government that works, if not always in harmony, at least in a beautiful setting.
#3 Daniels and Fisher Tower
For a split second, I thought I had been magically transported to Venice. But, no, I was still in Colorado’s largest city, admiring the Daniels and Fisher Tower. Denver is still very much a brick city, owning to its close proximity to available clay rather than forests that were 50 miles away, and the D&F Tower is one of the finest examples of its usage. With the campanile in Venice’s Piazza San Marco as its prototype, this Renaissance Revival blond-brick tower soars up to 372’ right along the 16th Street Mall. Completed in 1911 and added to the list of National Register of Historic Places in 1969, the D&F Tower was the tallest building between California and the Mississippi River when it was completed. Clock faces with six-foot hands on all four sides make it easy to keep track of time. Originally part of an adjacent department store and spared the large-scale destruction of its neighbors during an urban renewal period, the tower was converted into office and residential space in 1981. A 2.5-ton bell takes up the full top two floors. The public can still access the arcaded observation deck with balustrades and terra-cotta swags on the 20th floor for wonderful views of the city (but no longer of the 200 miles of scenery that it offered back in 1911).
#4 Temple Center
Beige brick makes another appearance in the Temple Center. Opened in 1899 as Temple Emanuel, this was the first synagogue established in Colorado and the largest one between the West Coast and Kansas City. It served as a synagogue until it was sold to First Southern Baptist Church in 1957, then to LovingWay Pentecostal Church, and finally to the City and County of Denver, which is now using it as an events center. In 1987, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Throughout that bumpy history, this temple has maintained its striking beauty, and like Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio, its exoticism seems a bit out of place in its setting. But that is part of what makes it so attractive. Its Eastern-Islamic style features floral and geometric motifs common to Islamic architecture. The main façade presents an eye-catching example of asymmetry. Two broad staircases flank the central tower, but an arch graces the space above the right doors while a sculpted panel tops those on the left. At the roofline, the straight line on the left is countered by a gable with a small rose window on the right, topped with a Star of David. The center and right minaret-like octagonal towers feature arches, artful walkways supported by quartets of brackets, and Turkish-style copper domes, but the left tower, shorter than the others, is capped only by the dome and features a couple of balconets and two pairs of stained-glass windows. The green domes and red-tile roof add pops of color, and the striated brick banding emphasize the building’s horizontality. Temple Center should be more than a detour from the State Capitol, just a few blocks away (and a couple of blocks from the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, another of Denver’s top buildings); it should be a destination.
#5 Mayan Theater
The Mayan Theater could not be more unlike Temple Center, except for its exotic appearance. A rare example of a movie palace decorated extensively in pre-Columbian motifs, the Mayan went up in 1930 and remains one of only three surviving theaters in the United States designed in the Art Deco Mayan Revival style. Struggling to survive during the Great Depression, the theater sponsored a gamut of promotions and gimmicks to draw in patrons, such as “bank nights” that gave away money, “dish nights,” and “country store nights.” This Denver landmark dodged the wrecking ball in 1984, saved by a grass-roots preservation group, and today it’s still a working movie theater, focusing on independent films. Following a $750,000 renovation, the theater has been restored to its original glory, and how glorious it is. Rising about six stories, the beige façade is ornamented by technicolor terra-cotta zigzag strips. The tall “Mayan” sign drew my eyes toward the top of the theater and the terra-cotta Indian chief, sitting cross-legged and painted in dynamic colors. Inside, you step into a world of handmade art amid a flamboyant atmosphere of polychromatic colors and the distinctive Mayan style, with murals, masks, and geometric designs and accents. You may come here for a movie, but chances are you’ll remember the theater better.