Named a National Historic Landmark in 2012, Civic Center is a complex of parks, civic buildings, and cultural institutions stretching between the State Capitol and the City and County Building in the heart of Denver. Plans for the complex, which was developed in stages from the 1890s to the 1930s, involved many of the city’s most important politicians, architects, landscape architects, and artists. Since the 1930s the basic structure of Civic Center has remained intact, with the main changes being the addition of new buildings around the area’s edges.
The Civic Center Idea
The push for civic centers in early twentieth-century American cities grew out of a combination of Progressive Era ideas of government and society, City Beautiful urban planning, and Beaux-Arts classicism in architecture. The master-planned 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, known as the “White City,” provided inspiration for the civic center idea, as did the 1902 McMillan Plan for Washington, DC, which redesigned the National Mall and called for surrounding it with neoclassical museums, monuments, and memorials. Grand civic centers were envisioned by cities across the country in the early twentieth century, but only a few, including those in San Francisco, Cleveland, and Denver, were fully realized.
The heart of Denver’s Civic Center consists of four separate components built in roughly chronological order from east to west—the State Capitol and Capitol Grounds, Lincoln Park, Civic Center Park, and the Denver City and County Building.
The development of the State Capitol in the 1880s provided the stimulus and starting point for all future Civic Center plans. The building itself was designed by Elijah E. Myers in 1885–86 and built from 1890 to 1908 under the supervision of architect Frank Edbrooke. Situated on a hill with a commanding view to the west, the building featured a grand Renaissance Revival design and a central gold-plated dome rising 272 feet from the ground.
In 1895–96 the Capitol Grounds were laid out by city landscape architect Reinhard Schuetze. The two-block site, bounded by East Colfax Avenue to the north, East Fourteenth Avenue to the south, Grant Street to the east, and Lincoln Street to the west, sloped from east to west. Schuetze made the sloping lawn west of the Capitol the central feature of the grounds, designing a central portico and flight of stairs that projected out from the building and down the hill. Trees planted along the northern and southern edges of the lawn helped frame the view west from the stairway’s landings.
The higher eastern half of the grounds was considered the back of the Capitol. Schuetze planted this area densely with trees, giving it a more private and intimate feel than the grand western side of the grounds. In 1898 the Preston Powers statue The Closing Era, which shows an Indian hunter standing over a buffalo he has killed, was installed east of the Capitol after having been displayed at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The Capitol Grounds remain mostly unaltered from Schuetze’s original plans.
The second section of Civic Center to be developed was also the most commonly overlooked. Lincoln Park occupies the block directly west of the Capitol Grounds, between Lincoln Street and Broadway. Schuetze planned the rectangular park in 1895, when he was working on the Capitol Grounds, and he used it essentially as a western extension of the Capitol. A central walkway connected to the stairs coming down from the Capitol and extended west across the park. Elliptical walkways radiated out from the center of the park to its corners, and rows of trees extended along the park’s northern and southern borders to continue the framing device from the Capitol Grounds.
Originally Lincoln Park featured a central flagpole erected in 1898 to memorialize the state’s volunteers in the Spanish-American War. In 1990 the flagpole was replaced by the Colorado Veterans Monument, a forty-five-foot obelisk made of red sandstone.
New Buildings, New Plans
The third section of Civic Center, the central portion known as Civic Center Park, experienced the longest and most complicated gestation period. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, the Capitol Grounds and Lincoln Park stood alone, and it was unclear how or even whether the growing park district around the State Capitol would be extended.
Two new developments helped give shape to the vague but growing feeling that Denver needed a grand civic center at its heart. First, in 1902 the Denver Public Library chose a location for a new building one block west of Lincoln Park, at the corner of West Colfax Avenue and Bannock Street. Although the building had not been constructed yet, it was clear that any civic center plan would need to try to link it to the Capitol. Second, by 1904 the political will to build a true civic center was starting to fall into place. That year Robert Speer was elected as mayor on a platform that included city beautification, and the Denver Art Commission was established with President Henry Read, who was a strong advocate for creating a central plaza connecting other civic buildings to the Capitol.
Speer and the Denver Art Commission acted quickly to get beautification expert Charles M. Robinson to survey the city and lay out a parks plan. In 1906 Robinson proposed a park that would turn northwest from Lincoln Park and the library site to connect the Capitol to the city’s older diagonal street grid and extend to the existing Arapahoe County Courthouse on Court Place. This angled park plan got plenty of attention, but voters ultimately defeated it because of concerns about the cost.
At roughly the same time, a Pioneer Monument was being planned for the corner of Broadway and Colfax Avenue, where the Smoky Hill Trail had ended. After the first design submitted by sculptor Frederick MacMonnies—an equestrian statue of an Indian chief—met with disapproval, MacMonnies visited Denver to figure out a suitable monument to the state’s pioneers. He eventually settled on a thirty-five-foot fountain featuring a bronze equestrian statue of Kit Carson pointing forward to the west while looking back to the east. In 1911 the monument was dedicated just northwest of Lincoln Park.
While MacMonnies was in Denver in 1907, Read asked him to provide suggestions for the city’s civic center. In contrast to Robinson’s plan for an angled park, MacMonnies believed that the park should extend straight west to a proposed new municipal building facing the Capitol from the west side of Bannock Street. (The consolidated City and County of Denver had separated from Arapahoe County in 1902.) He also suggested adding a north-south axis to the park by including small parcels of land north of West Colfax Avenue and south of West Fourteenth Avenue. The MacMonnies plan met with immediate enthusiasm, helped along by the construction of the new Denver Public Library west of Lincoln Park in 1907–10.
In 1912 Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and Arnold W. Brunner fleshed out the MacMonnies plan with details for the land between Lincoln Park and the proposed municipal building. They called for splitting the area into upper (eastern) and lower (western) terraces, with a balustrade and central stairway between the two. The lower terrace, already home to the Denver Public Library, would have a large lawn and a second, similar building (an art museum or a concert hall) south of the library to make the park symmetrical. A forested concert grove would occupy the southernmost portion of the park.
Bennett Plan for Civic Center Park
In 1913 the land between Lincoln Park and the proposed municipal building was cleared of its existing apartments, residences, and businesses to implement the Olmsted-Brunner plan for Civic Center Park. At that moment, however, Denver was embarking on an unsuccessful experiment with commission government and made little real progress on the park. Only after 1916, with the return of Speer as mayor, did Civic Center Park finally take shape.
Speer immediately hired Edward H. Bennett to plan the park and started a “Give While You Live” campaign to raise money for city beautification. Bennett’s 1917 plan provided a design for a park that could serve as a daily public space, host special civic events, and frame the municipal building still planned for the west side of Bannock Street. Bennett retained the basic ideas of the Olmsted-Brunner plan but added a broad north-south promenade connecting two monumental gateways to the park.
At the southern end of the park, Bennett replaced the forested concert grove from the Olmsted-Brunner plan with an open-air Greek Theater meant for large outdoor events and entertainment. Designed by the architects Marean and Norton in collaboration with Bennett, the theater had an open stage on a central pavilion in front of a sunken orchestra and theater floor that could seat up to 1,200 spectators. The theater was framed by a 210-foot semicircular Colonnade of Civic Benefactors, which had murals by Allen True on its interior walls. The whole structure was completed in 1919 and began to host regular vaudeville performances, concerts, and other entertainment.
At the northern end of the park, the architects Fisher and Fisher designed the Voorhies Memorial Gateway to serve as a grand entrance to the park from the city. Named for banker John Voorhies, who provided a posthumous gift for its construction, the gateway was completed in 1921. Double colonnades extended toward the park from both sides of a central arch, framing an elliptical reflecting pool with two bronze fountains in the shape of sea lions.
City and County Building
The final, long-envisioned piece of the Civic Center complex was a new Denver City and County Building facing the State Capitol from the west side of Bannock Street. First proposed in the MacMonnies plan of 1907, the building became more than just an idea in the 1920s. Downtown building owners opposed the plan because they did not want to see the courthouse relocated, but in 1923 voters overwhelmingly approved the acquisition of the Bannock Street site. A group of thirty-nine prominent Denver architects united as the Allied Architects Association to win the commission and design the building, with construction starting in 1929.
The roughly H-shaped municipal building dominated its block, with a monumental east-facing portico and a Colonial Revival cupola to balance the State Capitol and its dome on the other side of Civic Center. Two curving wings reached out like arms toward Civic Center Park, framing a forecourt that served as the western edge of Civic Center’s landscaped grounds. The building was completed in 1932, and its grounds were finished in 1935, marking the end of Civic Center’s major period of development.
Since the completion of the City and County Building, the main changes to Civic Center have taken place along its borders as new state and city buildings and cultural institutions have been added to the north, south, and west. These additions have helped concentrate governmental and cultural facilities around Civic Center and have also provided a buffer of low-rise buildings between the park and the surrounding city. Some of the earliest and most notable were Frank Edbrooke’s Colorado State Museum (1915) and William N. Bowman’s Colorado State Office Building (1922).
The blocks south of Civic Center Park have become home to a cultural district that includes the Denver Art Museum (which moved from the City and County Building in 1949), the Denver Public Library (which moved from its building in Civic Center Park in 1956), the Clyfford Still Museum (2011), History Colorado Center (2012), and the Byers-Evans House. North of the park lie two white modernist structures, the Denver Newspaper Agency Building (2006) and the University of Denver Classroom Building (1949), which was acquired by the city and later connected to the new Webb Municipal Building in 2002.
Several other new state and city buildings also form a part of the Civic Center idea. In 2010 Denver opened a new jail and courthouse complex on a two-block site west of the City and County Building. Along with the Denver Mint (1904), this stretch of civic buildings serves as an informal extension of Civic Center toward Cherry Creek. In 2013 the state built the Ralph L. Carr Judicial Complex on the block south of Lincoln Park. The new complex replaced an earlier judicial center and history museum dating to 1977 and now serves as home of the Colorado Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.
Efforts to protect and preserve Civic Center began in the 1970s. In 1971 Denver approved a municipal ordinance to preserve the western view from the State Capitol steps, and in 1973 another municipal ordinance put a cap on building heights near Civic Center. In 1974 Civic Center was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the mid-2000s, proposals to redevelop parts of Civic Center Park inspired heated debates and indicated that something needed to be done to preserve the century-old space, which the nonprofit Colorado Preservation Inc. listed as one of the state’s “Endangered Places” in 2007. In 2009 Denver’s Landmark Preservation Commission approved new design guidelines for Civic Center, and that year the city used $9 million from the Better Denver bond program to fund a rehabilitation project focused on restoring the park’s structures, walkways, and landscaping. By 2011 Colorado Preservation declared that the park had been “saved.”
In conjunction with these restoration efforts, Civic Center was named a National Historic Landmark in 2012, making it the first National Historic Landmark in Denver. The Civic Center Conservancy, a private nonprofit established in 2004 to help revitalize the area, now organizes a weekly outdoor café with food trucks during the summer as well as an outdoor film series, a fitness series, and other programs. Civic Center continues to serve as the symbolic heart of the city, home to festivals such as A Taste of Colorado, the 420 Rally, and Super Bowl victory celebrations as well as political demonstrations and protests.