When Historic Denver’s Larimer Square tour was first conceived the planning committee settled on the theme “Then & Now”. We felt this was the direction to go because, unlike Capitol Hill, we were dealing with second and third generation buildings. We were also dealing with a time span of 157 years. We were comfortable wrapping our minds around 1880, 1890, 1900 and 1910 but dropping back into history when there was no pavement or brick buildings became slightly unimaginable. Tom Sanders, a fellow docent, came up with the idea to paint a picture of Larimer Street with the things that were not there: schools, hospitals, sanitation and an established government. I liked that approach.
But what was Larimer Street like in 1858, 1859, 1864 and other early years? I decided to investigate any photos I could find of Larimer Street. When I googled Larimer Street, and clicked on images, I was surprised at the number of early photos that appeared. I decided to study them and make lists of what I did see, to get a feel of life in 1860 Denver.
Even in the earliest photographs the buildings sport awnings. The awnings were made of wood, and later striped canvas was the material of choice. The sun was both friend and enemy. Store fronts were built with large windows to let in the light. As the day progressed the awnings were cranked down, shielding the businesses from heat. The photos of Larimer Street show awnings extended on one side of the street, while the other side of the street has them still cranked up, closed.
Sun protection was also part of clothing. Most everyone in every photo wears a hat. Women wore light colored head coverings, men wore mostly likely dark hats, but there are some lighter colored wide brim hats in the photos. A few workers wore front brimmed hats. Men for the most part wore a coat, if they weren’t wearing a coat they had on a vest. Most shirts were of a white colored material.
Men in buggies had a shade. Work wagons had shades but the higher the freighter sat on the wagon the least likely he was shaded. Personal wagons had one horse pulling the buggy. Freighters controlled two horses. The street railway was pulled by one horse. The metal rails and metal wheels reduced friction, so pulling heavy weights was made easy. The street railway was at first a single track. Then passing tracks appeared. When the trolleys were powered by electricity there were two sets of rails, one uptown, and one downtown. For the most part it appears wagons stayed to the right, but like Seattle when parking or making deliveries, either direction was acceptable on either side of the street.
With the attention made to staying out of the sun it is apparent that trees were of no importance. No room was allowed for trees. It appears that trying to improve greenery on a thoroughfare was a late twentieth century idea. Residential blocks welcomed trees, but commercial blocks pushed the idea of trees aside.
Granted the large awning covered most of the side walk, it seemed trees were unwanted. But then artificial trees were planted, first to string telegraph wires. Then as phones became more popular, the poles gained height and the number of wires increased. Poles were painted white. Sometimes the bottom of the pole was painted, sometimes the poles were painted above about eight or ten feet. When phone exchanges were improved so each exchange did not need a separate wire, the next pole to appear was the trolley wire pole. Now poles were located on each side of the street to stretch a wire that held a power wire perpendicular to the supporting wires. Street lights came into vogue about the time telegraph poles were erected. These days Larimer Street hosts a number of street lighting poles with low voltage lights strung above the streets. If our cityscape does not allow seeing stars at night, we will power up artificial ones for atmosphere.
The early dirt streets were not crowned much. They were for the most part flat. Drainage ditches were next to the wooden sidewalks on each side of the street. Wooden ramps crossed the unsanitary ditches. The ditches were filled with litter and cast off garage. It wasn’t until pictures of the new Union Station appeared that we see sanitation crews picking up horse manure. Early photos don’t show any water troughs for the horses on Larimer. Later we know, there were some on Colfax.
Signs played a big part of the building’s exterior. At first small signs, describing the business hung above the main door. Later, larger, painted signs went up. As buildings grew in height, signs appeared that were constructed of iron framing on building roofs.
Windows were constructed of small panes of glasses joined with muntin bars to increase the overall size of the window. Larger store window had larger pieces of glass but still used muntins to join the glass into a large display window. Most small windows were six panes over four, or four over four with an opening lower sash.
As the number of buildings grew and were spaced closer together, “A” framed roofs gave way to flat roofs that drained toward the rear of the building. The buildings were positioned to take up the front part of a lot, allowing room in the rear for animals or outhouses. As second generation brick buildings were built, cornices became more ornate with finials, brick cornices, or metal cornices. Flag poles appeared on buildings toward the later part of the nineteenth century.
Overall streets were less crowded because each individual did not own a buggy. Individual horses with a rider were non-existing in photos before 1871. The only photo that shows men on horseback are those of the flood in 1864. Most people were on foot, watching the flood. It occurred to me that most wagons were in their natural color but in 1881 photos I did see wagons whitewashed, advertising was added over the whitewash.
Most buildings had chimneys. Small houses usually had one chimney, larger commercial building may have two or three. Slow burning coal would have been preferred over faster burning wood. At any rate, numerous fires in cold weather would have given the air a distinctive smell.
DPL Photo X-23469. The Gallup-Stanby Building, now The Market is the building with spirals on the top. The Congdon Building is the second building from left.
DPL X-17640, Larimer Street. I have not yet identified these buildings and if they are on the 1400 Block of Larimer Street. It gives a good example of the flat dirt street and wooden awnings that were used before canvas. The top photo shows canvas awnings. Also evident are the different types of signs, no sign zoning back then. These are William Chamberlain stereoscope pictures I cropped. His studio was on Larimer Street and he used the street as a subject in many photographs.
I will do some more forensic study before I start to write about each individual building on the tour. Getting the feel of Larimer Street is part of the story telling process.
Additions, corrections and comments are welcomed. Thanks, JOE S