Colorado National Bank (CNB) was founded in Denver in 1862 and managed to survive the state’s ups and downs until its 1998 sale to Minneapolis-based US Bank. The intermarried Kountze and Berger families, prominent as early Denver treasurers, civic leaders, and investors, ran the bank for most of its history. CNB’s 1915 home in Denver is one of Colorado’s best examples of Neoclassicism and a temple-like anchor for Seventeenth Street, the “Wall Street of the Rockies.”
In 2014 the CNB building was restored outside and revamped inside to accommodate a 230-room luxury hotel. Most of the ornate banking fixtures have been preserved, including the lobby’s mural series “Indian Memories” by Allen True. Next door, the twenty-six-story Colorado National Bank Tower (1975, now US Bank Tower) is one of Denver’s best modernist office buildings.
Birth of a Bank
On November 29, 1862, Rocky Mountain News editor William N. Byers noted in his pages the arrival of Luther Kountze, an old acquaintance from Nebraska “who comes to take up his residence and go into the banking business among us.” Once in Denver, Kountze moved quickly. On December 2, 1862, he opened the doors of Kountze Brothers in the corner storefront of Walter Scott Cheesman’s brick building at Fifteenth and Blake Streets. Just a month later, R. G. Dun & Company’s Denver credit agent reported that Kountze Brothers was a reliable firm that bought “a good deal of gold dust.”
The Kountzes were not the first or the largest Denver bank. Others opened as early as June 1859 to buy gold, provide credit to miners, and funnel outside investment into Colorado. Even with exorbitant interest rates of 25 percent a month, it was hard to keep banks alive in an unstable frontier town with a footloose population more inclined to move on than to pay up. One success story was Colorado Territory’s third bank, Clark, Gruber & Company, which opened in July 1860 at Sixteenth and Market Streets. A mint as well as a bank, Clark Gruber minted $2.50, $5, $10, and $20 gold pieces. After President Abraham Lincoln and Congress outlawed private mints in 1862 and passed the new National Banking Act in 1863 as part of the standardization of the nation’s banking and currency systems, Clark Gruber evolved into the First National Bank of Denver. The First would be Colorado’s leading bank for the next century.
The second-largest bank for decades was Kountze Brothers. In a town plagued by bank failures, the Kountzes earned a reputation for caution and conservative loans. With the assistance of their banks in Omaha and New York, they courted customers and investors locally and nationally.
In 1863 the brothers built a handsome, two-story brick bank at Fifteenth and Market Streets. Three years later, the comptroller of the currency in Washington examined Kountze Brothers and approved elevating it to Colorado National Bank. As with Clark Gruber becoming First National Bank of Denver, national bank status for the Kountzes meant they could issue notes secured by the federal government, serve as a federal depository, undergo a federal audit, and enjoy other privileges of a national bank.
“Hard Times Make Good Bankers”
After surviving Denver’s economic slump in the 1860s, CNB began to boom with the city after railroads arrived in the 1870s. On the eve of the rail age, Luther Kountze left the CNB presidency to his brother Augustus in 1869 and moved on to the Kountze Brothers bank in New York City. Augustus left the Denver bank in 1874 and handed over the presidency to the youngest of the four banking brothers, Charles. Charles also followed Luther as Denver City treasurer. He oversaw tremendous bank growth during his presidency, which spanned from 1874 to 1911. In 1882 Charles built a new home for the bank at Seventeenth and Larimer Streets in the heart of downtown Denver. This four-story stone fortress cost $100,000 and served as CNB’s headquarters until 1915. Charles and his bank played a major role in financing Colorado mining and railroading throughout these years.
Thanks to its cautious investment strategy, CNB was one of the few Denver banks to survive the Panic of 1893. Claiming that “hard times make good bankers,” Charles Kountze diversified investments to weather the depression. He acquired stakes in the Denver Dry Goods Company, the Globe Smelting and Refining Company, and Greenland Ranch, a huge cattle ranch between Denver and Colorado Springs. As Colorado’s economy shifted after 1893 from mining to agriculture, so did CNB, becoming a major investor in the Great Western Sugar Company, soon to be Colorado’s largest agricultural enterprise.
In 1911 Charles was stricken with pneumonia and died. His closest advisor was William Lewis Bart Berger, who had married Charles’s sister Margaret. The family selected their oldest son, George Berger, as the fourth president of CNB, a post he would hold until 1934.
A Bank That Looks Like a Bank
George Berger guided CNB during a period of growth and the construction of the bank’s landmark building, which still stands today at Seventeenth and Champa Streets. Before his death, Charles Kountze had acquired a strategic site at that corner for CNB’s fourth (and final) home. By then, Seventeenth Street had emerged as “Banker’s Row” or the “Wall Street of the Rockies.” In 1914 George hired Colorado’s most prominent architectural firm, William and Alan Fisher, to build a new headquarters there.
The Fishers, Kountzes, and Bergers agreed on a neoclassical building of 96 percent pure Colorado Yule marble. The Greek temple–like design featured three-story fluted Ionic columns on both street-facing facades. A slab of reinforced concrete thirty-five feet below street level anchored the steel skeleton of the four-story structure, making it strong enough to support an eight-story addition.
Not just another multifunctional office building, this was a bank that looked like a bank. Lavish details included a huge bronze front door and brass monogram CNB fixtures throughout the building, which caught sunlight streaming through the skylight. Above all, the $500,000 bank prioritized security, with a 60,000-pound, armor-plated main vault and a floor-gong alarm system connected to all fifteen teller cages, eight officer’s quarters, and major meeting rooms.
CNB thrived in its new home, leading the Bergers and Kountzes to ask architects Burnham and Merrill Hoyt to design an addition that perfectly matched the Fishers’ original. The Hoyts made one significant departure in their 1925 expansion: They persuaded the bankers to commission Colorado’s leading muralist, Allen Tupper True, to adorn the lobby with a series of murals on fourteen panels called “Indian Memories.”
True had become famous for his illustrations depicting a romanticized American West and Manifest Destiny. In his mural at CNB, he attempted to portray Indigenous life before contact with white people. Starting with boyhood and girlhood, the colorful murals depicted a bison hunt and warriors.
In 1934 George Berger, Sr., retired as president to become chairman of the board. He was followed as president by Harold Kountze, Sr., the only son of Charles B. and Mary Kountze. Harold guided CNB through the Great Depression by following the same conservative strategy that had worked in the past. In his own words, CNB stayed afloat by catering “to a large number of small depositors and staying away from loans and investing in a few good corporate and government loans.”
After Harold Kountze, Sr., stepped down in 1956, he was followed by a series of short-term presidents. One of them, Merriam Berger, launched the bank’s 1963–65 expansion. This $4.5 million project added two stories on top of the old bank. Architects John B. Rogers and Jerome K. Nagel designed this addition. Their starved classicism featured streamlined modern columns on top of and in supposed complement to the original fluted, Ionic columns.
Yamasaki’s CNB Tower
The bank, like Denver, boomed for three decades after World War II. To handle staff overcrowding and capitalize on the mushrooming downtown office market, CNB demolished the Ernest and Cranmer Building next door at Seventeenth and Curtis Streets. The bank then hired a world-famous Japanese American architect, Minoru Yamasaki (architect of New York City’s demolished World Trade Center), to design a twenty-six-story modernist tower next to the bank. Clad in white marble like the old bank, the 1975 glass tower also celebrated the old bank’s trademark columns with its own slender exterior support columns.
Bankshares, Inc. and Bankcards
In 1967 CNB created Colorado National Bankshares, Inc., a holding company that would allow the bank to open and operate branches. CNB soon had a dozen branches throughout Colorado, many of them mergers with existing banks.
During his tenure from 1986 to 1992, CNB president D. Dale Browning made CNB the Rocky Mountain regional leader in credit cards, debit cards, ATM networks, and electronic banking. He joined a California credit card system called BankAmericard, which became a moneymaker. Browning installed the system at CNB, initially calling it the Rocky Mountain Bankcard System. It was later renamed VISA. Browning also made CNB the first bank in the region to install a system of automated teller machines (ATMs) where members could deposit or withdraw funds twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Over the years, CNB absorbed other banks, including Denver’s prominent Bank Western and Central Banks. In 1998 CNB itself was bought by US Bank of Minneapolis. Part of a growing trend whereby a few giant national banks bought up locals in the wake of a 1994 act removing many restrictions on operating branches in different states, CNB was swallowed by an out-of-town giant. To this day, US Bank survives as the successor of CNB.
After the absorption, Colorado National Bank Tower became US Bank Tower. US Bank also occupied the old CNB building until 2007. The building then stood vacant until 2009, when Denver-based Stonebridge Companies purchased it. Stonebridge spent $48 million to convert the bank to the 230-room Renaissance Denver Downtown City Center Hotel, which opened in 2014. A restaurant was added and the lobby enlarged with a lounge offering views of the restored Allen True murals. The vaults became (very secure) meeting rooms.
Having found a new purpose and designations in the National Register and Denver Landmark District as one of Colorado’s best examples of Neoclassical architecture, the former CNB bank building should look the way it does for ages to come.