Rising 330 feet above Sixteenth Street, the Daniels and Fisher Tower in Denver was based on St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice and opened in 1911 as a beacon drawing shoppers to the adjacent Daniels and Fisher department store. The Daniels and Fisher department store closed in 1958 and was demolished for Denver’s Skyline Urban Renewal Project in 1970–71, but the tower was spared and eventually converted into offices. The tallest structure in Denver for more than forty years after it opened, the tower continues to be one of the city’s most iconic buildings.
Building the Tower
The merchant William B. Daniels came to Denver in 1864. He established the dry goods business that later became Daniels and Fisher after he took on William Garrett Fisher as his business partner in 1872. By the 1890s, Daniels and Fisher had become the largest retailer in the state, with a prominent store at the corner of Sixteenth and Lawrence Streets.
Daniels died in 1890, and his son, William Cooke Daniels, took over the business after Fisher’s death in 1897. After reorganizing the store and hiring his friend Charles MacAllister Willcox as general manager, the younger Daniels left for Europe, where he preferred to spend his time at a rented castle in France.
Back in Denver, Daniels and Fisher continued to prosper. In 1909 the company prepared for expansion by buying the Merchants Publishing Company building on Arapahoe Street and taking a ninety-nine-year lease on the Alkire block at the corner of Sixteenth and Arapahoe Streets. The acquisitions next to the existing store gave the company a 266-foot front along Sixteenth Street, which by that time had displaced Larimer Street as Denver’s prime shopping district.
At the corner of Sixteenth and Arapahoe, where the enlarged store’s main entrance would be, Daniels wanted to build an impressive tower to serve as an artistic advertisement for the store. Designed by Colorado architect Frederick G. Sterner, the tower was based on St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice, which had collapsed in 1902 and was being rebuilt at the time, inspiring replicas around the world. The Daniels and Fisher Tower would be a few feet taller, though, prompting the Denver Times to joke that Venice was building a smaller copy of Denver’s tower.
In May 1910, the existing buildings at the site were demolished to make way for the department store expansion and tower. The tower’s foundation required the excavation of a twenty-four-foot hole and was poured separately from the rest of the building. Construction went quickly, with crews working day and night (with the aid of electric lights) to place brick and terra cotta over the tower’s steel skeleton. The tower topped out by the end of 1910, and it opened along with the enlarged and remodeled department store in 1911.
At 330 feet—375 counting its flagpole—the tower was the tallest building in Denver and one of the tallest in the country when it opened. Before it was overtaken by taller buildings in the 1950s, it could be seen for miles and became for many the defining symbol of the city. The tower’s bell chimed the hour, and the sixteen-foot faces of its electric clock told the time to anyone in downtown Denver who glanced up.
The attached Daniels and Fisher department store had about 400,000 square feet of space (roughly nine acres), so the tower itself did not need to house any commercial functions. Its floors were used for employee lounges, break rooms, and lunch rooms, an in-house hospital and school, and store manager Willcox’s offices. The twentieth-floor observation deck attracted about 1,500 people a day during the summer.
Decline of Daniels and Fisher
After World War II, Daniels and Fisher lost its spot at the top of the Denver department store hierarchy. It suffered from poor management and merchandising, proximity to Larimer Street’s skid row, and the rise of new shopping areas in other parts of the city.
In 1953 the New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf obtained a controlling interest in Daniels and Fisher in order to move the store to his new development at Courthouse Square (also known as Zeckendorf Plaza), which needed an anchor tenant. After several sales and mergers, the Denver-based May Company combined with Daniels and Fisher to create May-D&F. Zeckendorf’s company bought the existing Daniels and Fisher building on Sixteenth Street, and in 1958 May-D&F moved to Zeckendorf’s development at Courthouse Square.
There was now a vacant 400,000-square-foot building on Sixteenth Street that took up half a block of downtown Denver and included a replica of a Venetian tower. Different parts of the building were owned by different companies, and some of the land underneath the building was still owned by the heirs of John Alkire, who had leased it to Daniels and Fisher in 1909.
Threat of Demolition
The air of uncertainty surrounding the future of the Daniels and Fisher building was cleared up quickly when Denver voters approved the Denver Urban Renewal Authority’s (DURA) Skyline Urban Renewal Project in 1967. The project called for the demolition of most buildings in a twenty-seven-block parcel stretching from Cherry Creek to Twentieth Street and from Curtis Street to Larimer Street. The Daniels and Fisher building stood almost exactly in the center of the project’s proposed swath of destruction.
By 1969, DURA had acquired the entire Daniels and Fisher complex, but in the meantime the vast scope of the Skyline project had spurred the city’s preservationist community to action. The Denver Landmark Preservation Commission was able to convince the City Council to declare the Daniels and Fisher Tower a landmark, and soon after that the tower was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These historical designations helped spare the tower, but DURA had no intention of saving the rest of the department store, which was demolished in 1970–71. Today, a change in the color of the tower’s brick exterior marks where the department store used to attach.
DURA did a poor job of maintaining the tower while it searched for a developer of the flattened Daniels and Fisher block. By the end of the decade, a plan was in place for developer David A. French to renovate the tower into office condominiums. French bought the building from DURA for just $72,000 and spent $3.5 million remodeling the interior into sixteen office units. Interior work started in 1980 and was finished a year later, but French ran out of funding before he could repair the tower’s exterior.
By the 1990s, the tower’s exterior was in bad shape. Tenants Richard Hentzell and Michael Urbana spearheaded an extensive renovation effort with the help of several State Historical Fund grants totaling more than $500,000. Nearly every major part of the building was restored: the exterior, the entrances, the lobby, the Seth Thomas clock, the observation deck, and the cupola. The decade-long, $5 million effort was completed in 2006.
Today the tower continues to house mostly office condominiums, as well as an events venue on the upper floors and a cabaret in the basement. Members of the public can access the tower’s observation deck in April as part of Doors Open Denver. Standing near the center of the Sixteenth Street Mall, the tower remains a beloved Denver landmark.