Between 1946 and 1973, the Casa Mayan (1020 Ninth Street) served as a restaurant in the Auraria neighborhood of west Denver as well as a family home and multicultural meeting place for writers, musicians, artists, athletes, architects, politicians, and others. The Gonzalez family owned the restaurant and provided the hospitality and entertainment that made it one of the most popular Mexican American restaurants in Denver.
In 1973, when the Auraria neighborhood was slated for destruction to make way for a tri-institutional campus, the Casa Mayan closed after more than twenty-five years in operation. The restaurant building was saved, however, when Ninth Street was preserved as a historic landmark. Now home to campus offices, the Casa Mayan still stands today as a tribute to the rich cultural history of the Auraria neighborhood, with the Casa Mayan Heritage group preserving the history of this landmark for future Denverites.
One of the Oldest Houses in Denver
The Casa Mayan is the oldest surviving clapboard house in Denver. Built in 1872 by Dr. William Smedley, it was known for its green-and-white frame. Smedley moved to Denver from Pennsylvania in 1870 and became the city’s first practicing dentist. A prominent Denver citizen, he became the first president of the Denver Dental Association and first president of the Colorado Dental Association. He also served seventeen years as superintendent of North Side School District. He continued to live in the house on Ninth Street until his death in 1926.
In 1934 Ramon and Carolina Gonzalez bought Smedley’s former house on Ninth Street. Originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, the couple lived briefly in El Paso, Texas, during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, but migrated to Denver in 1918 to escape the turmoil of war. They had lived in Auraria for almost a decade by the time they bought the Smedley house, so they had already become integrated into the cultural fabric of the neighborhood.
It was a cultural fabric that had changed since Smedley’s time. Founded in 1858, Auraria had long been home to a diverse group of immigrants. During the 1920s, the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood began to shift as the sugar beet industry brought numerous Mexican immigrants into the state. Latino farmers and World War I veterans began to move their families to Auraria. From the 1920s through the 1960s, the Latino residents of Auraria created a rich cultural enclave, and the Gonzalez family found themselves at the heart of it.
Family Home Becomes Restaurant
The Gonzalez family was known among Aurarians for their generous hospitality. They decided to turn hospitality into a business in 1946, when they opened one of the first Latino-owned Mexican American restaurants in Denver on the first floor of their Ninth Street residence. They served traditional Mexican fare for lunch and dinner as well as beer and wine. The family (which included seven children) continued to live upstairs. The restaurant became one of Denver’s most popular, a cultural hub where artists, poets, musicians, and entertainers came together. Patrons noted the appeal of the musicians and dancers who performed there almost every night.
The restaurant was known for its inclusivity, welcoming people from all backgrounds. Not only was it a cultural center for Auraria’s Latino residents, but it also brought in the various other ethnic communities who called Auraria home. One of the Gonzalez family members, Marta Gonzalez de Alcaro, recalled, “We had an Irish family across the street, a German family, an English family. We never thought of being different. We were all, you know, in the same boat.”
In addition to locals, the restaurant drew famous visitors such as President Harry Truman, José Feliciano, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Andres Segovia, Marian Anderson, and Paul Robeson. The restaurant would remain a cultural hub in west Denver until the early 1970s, when the neighborhood was razed to build a higher education campus.
DURA and the Ninth Street Historic District
After the disastrous South Platte River flood of 1965, Denver proposed a bond in 1969 to buy Auraria land and relocate the people who lived there to make way for a massive college campus. In response, angry residents established the Auraria Residents’ Organization to fight the initiative. Their efforts failed as powerful institutions lined up to support the measure. The bond passed with 52 percent of the vote, and the city forged ahead. In total, 250 businesses and 330 households were displaced. The Casa Mayan restaurant was shut down by the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) in 1973. It was spared demolition, however, when Ninth Street was declared a landmark later that year to preserve its historic Victorian houses.
In general, Auraria homeowners each received $15,000 in compensation when their houses were demolished, while businesses received $27,000. Marta Gonzalez de Alcaro, the owner when the Casa Mayan was shut down, got the business compensation but not the homeowner compensation (even though her business doubled as the family home). It was not much, considering that the restaurant had been in operation for twenty-seven years.
Casa Mayan Heritage
As the Auraria Higher Education Center took shape, the Ninth Street Historic District was restored and turned into campus offices. The Casa Mayan returned to its original green-and-white colors and became a campus office in 1976. To this day, the building remains one of the many campus offices on Ninth Street.
Members of the Gonzalez family never forgot their family home and the rich history it represented. In 2006 Gregorio Alcaro and Trini H. Gonzalez cofounded the Auraria Casa Mayan Heritage organization. The foundation’s vision is “to increase community awareness of Auraria’s rich cultural heritage,” including the contributions of early Latino residents and other ethnic groups. Alcaro gives tours of the Casa Mayan and Ninth Street to inform Denver residents and Auraria students alike about the restaurant and the displaced Latino community that long called Auraria home.