Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the City Beautiful movement sought to create a livable urban environment with healthy and agreeable conditions and an abundance of recreational facilities in the midst of rapidly industrializing cities. Cities throughout Colorado undertook City Beautiful programs with varying degrees of success, but it was in Denver under Mayor Robert Speer that the City Beautiful movement found its fullest expression in Colorado.
Mayor Speer's City Beautiful
Denver was a thriving but ugly city in 1901. It had grown rapidly in the last decades of the nineteenth century, but civic beautification was often neglected or ignored during that rapid growth. Jerome Smiley wrote in his 1901 History of Denver that the city should be “an example, a standard, for other American municipalities.” It would become one under the leadership of Mayor Robert Speer.
Speer came to Denver in 1878 as a tuberculosis victim; he spent the next twenty-five years building a political base before being elected mayor in 1904. Like millions of other people in the United States, Speer had visited the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and was inspired by what he saw. The Court of Honor, designed by architect Daniel Burnham and popularly known as the White City, was a group of architecturally similar buildings around a central lagoon. The buildings, along with Frederick Law Olmsted’s grounds, were clean, orderly, and safe, and contrasted starkly with the city of Chicago, which was dirty, dark, and chaotic. Many people still debate whether or not the City Beautiful movement grew out of the exposition. But when the movement took off in the late 1890s, the White City of the Exposition was the image that many leaders had in mind when they turned to Burnham and Olmsted to help beautify their cities.
During Speer’s three terms as mayor, workers graded and paved more than 300 miles of city streets, installed sandstone sidewalks and granite curbs, and cleaned all of it every night. New sanitary and storm sewers helped keep the city’s streets clean, and in 1908 more than 150,000 people bathed at the new public bathhouse at Twentieth and Curtis Streets. Decorative streetlamps replaced the seven arc lamp towers that had lit Denver since 1883, and many of the city’s buildings were covered in lights, leading some to argue that Denver rivaled Paris as the City of Light. Denver also built a $650,000, 12,000-seat Municipal Auditorium, Speer’s “proudest accomplishment” during his first term. The city presented free Sunday afternoon and evening concerts at the auditorium, and it opened in time to host the Democratic National Convention in July 1908. In 1909, the city also started publishing Denver Municipal Facts, a free weekly magazine with stories on civic improvements and other government business.
Speer’s greatest love, however, was Denver’s park system, which provided flood and firebreaks and recreation and clean air for residents. Under Speer, parks throughout the city were landscaped, and benches, playgrounds, fountains, and drinking fountains were installed (the last a move by temperance advocates to cut down on alcohol consumption). Children were encouraged to play in the fountains, and there were no “Keep Off the Grass” signs as there were in New York’s Central Park. Speer also allowed displays of physical affection in the parks, which the Rocky Mountain News proclaimed would help increase Denver’s population. Robinson also encouraged expressions of affection in his Colorado Springs plan, writing that on benches in Monument Valley Park “lovers may find more pleasure, in safer environment, than in five-cent theatres.”
Speer’s favorite park was Civic Center Park, which he saw as similar to the Columbian Exposition’s Court of Honor, with government buildings grouped around a central plaza. Speer believed the park would beautify Denver and make government more efficient. Speer’s dream was only partially realized in the 1930s, when the new City and County Building (across the park from the state capitol) was completed under Mayor Benjamin Stapleton. Speer also started Denver’s Mountain Parks system, which by 1941 totaled 20,000 acres and included Genesee Mountain, Evergreen Lake, Winter Park, Red Rocks, and others.
The Movement After Speer
After Speer’s death in 1918, Denver’s City Beautiful program received only sporadic attention, mostly focused on the city’s parks. By the 1930s, the City Beautiful movement had largely fallen out of favor nationally, as critics declared it a cosmetic fix to more serious political, economic, and social problems. In the 1940s, Civic Center Park was surrounded by “bars, strip joints, and even a mortuary” according to Colorado historians Tom Noel and Stephen Leonard, but city planner Maxine Kurtz decided to clean up the park and encouraged construction of new state office buildings on the east side of it. In 1955, the new Denver Public Library opened on the park’s southwest side, followed by the Denver Art Museum, helping make the park the gathering place Speer had envisioned. In 2012, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
In 2006 the Civic Center Conservancy, a private group that partnered with the city to raise money for the park, asked architect Daniel Libeskind to create a new design for the park. His plans included replacing most of the flowerbeds and grass with a six-inch-deep water feature, glass enclosures for shops and restaurants, and a bridge to a nearby bus stop. Reaction to the plan was highly critical, and backers quickly shelved it. The following year, the Colorado Historical Society proposed building a new museum on the park’s south side that would have fit with Speer’s vision. Critics of the plan quickly derailed it, arguing that it would have robbed the city of open space. As these two controversies demonstrate, the City Beautiful movement still plays a prominent role in Denver.