One of the jewels of Denver’s park and parkway system, Cheesman Park (1601 Race St, Denver, CO 80206) sits on land that originally served as the city’s first cemetery. In 1890 the cemetery was closed, many—but not all—graves were relocated, and a park designed by Denver’s first landscape architect, Reinhard Schuetze, was put in its place. The park was later named in honor of early Denver businessman Walter S. Cheesman after his family donated funds for the park’s neoclassical pavilion. Beloved by locals who flock to its broad expanse of grass, the park has been described by Yale art historian Vincent Scully as one of the finest urban spaces in the United States.
The land that is now Cheesman Park—eighty acres between Eighth Avenue and Thirteenth Avenue, and between Humboldt Street and Race Street—was originally part of Denver’s first cemetery. In 1859 Denver founder William Larimer, Jr. staked out 320 acres on a hill east of the city as a burial ground. Initially called Mt. Prospect Cemetery, it had sections for Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Chinese, fraternal organizations, and paupers. In the early 1870s, however, the US Land Office declared that, as a result of previous Indian treaties, the cemetery was actually federal property. The city of Denver requested to continue using the land for burials, and in 1872 it bought 160 acres for $200. Eighty acres became City Cemetery, with other parcels sold for use by Catholics, Jews, and various fraternal organizations.
City Cemetery faced several problems. First, it was an unkempt plot of land on a hill with no irrigation, rendering it a desolate place full of cacti, sagebrush, and many unmarked graves. By the 1870s wealthy residents no longer wanted to be buried there. In 1876 Denver established a new park-like cemetery at Riverside as an alternative, with Fairmount (1890) and Mt. Olivet (1892) added later.
Second, Denver’s suburbs began to encroach on City Cemetery in the 1880s. The wealthy residents who were moving east of Capitol Hill pushed for something other than a forlorn graveyard in their midst. Denver lobbied Congress to change the land’s use to a park, which it did in 1890. Denver renamed the land Congress Park in gratitude.
If Denver wanted to use the former cemetery as a park, it first had to remove the bodies. Initially, the city asked friends and family of the deceased to move the caskets. This process left thousands of bodies still in the ground, so in early 1893 the city hired undertaker Edward McGovern to dig them up and move them for $1.90 per body. Through some combination of laziness, greed, and the difficulty of locating bodies in unmarked graves, McGovern and his team decided to skimp on the work. They separated bodies into smaller pieces, put each piece into a different casket, and filled the caskets with dirt and rocks to make it seem that they had removed many more bodies than they actually had.
McGovern’s fraud was found out within a few months, and he was fired. There were still plenty of bodies in the prospective park, however, so the city issued an ultimatum that family and friends of the deceased needed to remove all bodies within ninety days. Even after the ultimatum, it is estimated that more than 2,000 graves remained in the ground. There have been occasional reports of casket pieces, bones, and even full skeletons discovered or dug up in the park. In October 2010, for example, workers upgrading the park’s sprinklers found three skeletons underground near the pavilion.
The park sat empty for several years because the city had no money to develop it after the Panic of 1893. By 1898 the city’s first landscape architect, Reinhard Schuetze, had drawn up a plan for its development. Work on the park began in 1900, with plantings starting in 1902. Inspired by the Long Meadow in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Schuetze designed the park as a huge lawn ringed by a roadway, with plantings around the perimeter. The German-born Schuetze also sought to mimic the style of Berlin’s Unter den Linden street by placing rows of linden trees on both sides of the streets surrounding the park. This was implemented only on Franklin Street, which ran north–south through the west side of the park.
Cheesman Park and Pavilion
Schuetze’s plan called for several buildings in the park, including the rustic Japanese tea house that he designed for the north lawn. The most prominent building in the park was to be a pavilion at its highest point, which would provide a panoramic view of the Front Range. Denver could not afford to build the pavilion, however, so Mayor Robert Speer promised to rename the park after anyone who donated enough money to make the pavilion possible. When the unpopular water and real estate tycoon Walter Cheesman died in 1907, his wife and daughter promptly gave $100,000 for the pavilion to repair his reputation. Congress Park became Cheesman Park, and the Congress Park name was reapplied to a plot of land just to the east along what is now Eighth Avenue.
Construction on the pavilion began in 1908. Designed by the architects Marean and Norton atop a platform landscaped by George Kessler, it was built with Colorado Yule marble and meant to resemble a classical temple, with Tuscan columns and minimal decoration. It was completed in 1910. Until the 1970s, when automobile access was restricted, people could drive to the pavilion, park, and enjoy the mountain view. The pavilion has also been used for picnics, emergency flood shelter, and, from 1934 to 1972, summer opera performances sponsored by The Denver Post.
Schuetze died in 1910, before the park had fully matured. His successor, Saco R. DeBoer, completed his work with minimal alterations, and the simple strength of Schuetze’s original design remains clear more than a century later. The park is popular for walking and jogging, cycling, picnics, and field games, and it is connected to the rest of Denver’s extensive park and parkway system via the Cheesman Park Esplanade and Seventh Avenue Parkway.
The few changes that have occurred to the park’s design primarily involve automobile access. In 1912 Franklin Street was closed to traffic, covered with grass, and converted into a pedestrian walkway. Some crossover roads and other parts of the park were closed to traffic in the 1970s, including the pavilion, which lost its platform and auto court in favor of flower beds. The most significant changes to the look and feel of the park have occurred just outside its borders, with the rise of tall apartment buildings on the park’s eastern, northern, and western edges. Denver building codes now protect what remains of the park’s view west to the mountains.