Established in 1951, Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG) has grown from a small group of horticulturally minded citizens into a major civic organization. With a prominent conservatory and core city gardens complemented by a 750-acre suburban campus at Chatfield, DBG has become the nation’s most-visited botanic gardens, according to CEO Brian Vogt, fulfilling its stated mission “to connect people with plants, especially plants from the Rocky Mountain region and similar regions around the world.” From an original collection of mostly native plants, it has expanded to include plant material from all over the world in more than forty different gardens. Behind the scenes, DBG is also a research institution with scientists using the collections and field studies to learn more about topics such as biodiversity, conservation, and sustainability.
Built on a Boneyard
DBG’s main York Street site occupies the former area of the original city cemetery’s Catholic section. William H. Larimer, Jr., who founded Denver in 1858, established the cemetery a year later. The city acquired most of the cemetery in 1872 and ran it as City Cemetery. In the late nineteenth century, City Cemetery increasingly lost customers to newer Riverside (1876), Fairmount (1890), and Mount Olivet (1890) Cemeteries. In 1890 the city converted much of the site to Congress Park, the larger western portion of which was reorganized in 1910 as Cheesman Park. Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery continued to operate until 1950, when the City of Denver bought the eighteen-acre site and agreed to remove its roughly 6,000 bodies.
An estimated several hundred bodies still lie under the gardens and neighboring Cheesman Park. During recent construction in and around the gardens, about fifty bodies have been unearthed and respectfully reburied.
Birth of the Gardens
Incorporated February 3, 1951, as the Botanical Gardens Foundation of Denver, DBG was a consolidation of existing horticultural groups. Under the direction of leading nurseryman and naturalist George W. Kelly, DBG initially planned its gardens in the southeast part of City Park. In 1952 Gladys and John Evans II paid local landscape architect Saco Rienk DeBoer $10,000 to plan 100 acres of gardens there. In 1956 DeBoer laid out a rocky canyon simulating a high mountain canyon, which has been restored in recent times. A stream flowing through the canyon ended in a large lily pond. DeBoer donated forty-seven flowering crabapple trees, whose blossoms his experiments showed to be hardy enough for Denver’s late frosts, while the Denver Rose Society gave 4,000 roses in beds maintained to this day.
In 1957 DBG leased from the US Forest Service the 169-acre Mt. Goliath Alpine Study Area on the Mount Evans Highway about fifty miles from Denver. A two-mile nature trail meanders through this rare forest of 1,500-year-old bristlecone pines, a prime timberline attraction to this day. The trail is named for Michael Walter Pesman, a landscape architect, author, and teacher who helped found the DBG and championed native plants.
In 1958 Ruth and James Waring purchased the mansion at 909 York Street to give to DBG as its headquarters. Designed by Jules Jacques Benoit Benedict, the large two-story residence was originally built in 1926. The house features grey stucco walls trimmed with stone and brick beneath a steep, green terra-cotta tile roof.
Next to the new headquarters, in 1958 DBG began to transform the city-owned grounds of the old Catholic cemetery into gardens. Nationally prominent San Francisco landscape architect Garrett Eckbo planned the gardens with water features and plantings that have grown to include Colorado high plains, rose, and vegetable gardens as well as Saco DeBoer’s Rocky Mountain Garden. DBG also boasts North America's largest collection of plants from cold climates around the world. The Japanese Gardens, designed by Koichi Kawana, opened in 1979. The adjacent Bill Hosokawa Bonsai Pavilion, honoring a Denver Post editor and leader of the Colorado Japanese community, opened in 2012. A Home Demonstration Garden offers suggestions for home gardeners, while the world's first Xeriscape Demonstration Garden opened in 1987 to showcase low-water gardening.
Boettcher Conservatory and Center
The Boettcher Foundation, whose money came in large part from the Ideal Cement Company, funded much of DBG’s construction and encouraged use of concrete throughout. Even the ground’s lamps are concrete “trees” with globe lights posing as fruits.
Concrete is used most notably in the gardens’ signature building, the Edna C. and Claude K. Boettcher Memorial Conservatory. Opened in 1966, the conservatory was designed by Denver architects Victor Hornbein and Edward D. White, Jr. Their highly original design uses faceted Plexiglas panels between interlaced, cast-in-place concrete arches soaring fifty feet above tropical trees. The panels are sloped to prevent condensation from raining on visitors. Inside, in a humid, warm climate, some 600 species are cultivated amid waterfalls and pools constructed in a sloped, naturalistic environment. The raw concrete edifice features finely detailed flagstone paving and trim, oak doors in steel frames, and geometric stained and leaded glass in doors and windows. The conservatory complex includes greenhouses, storage, and laboratories. Hornbein also designed the Bromeliad House, added to the west end of the conservatory in 1981 for its namesake tropical flowering plants.
A spacious new building, Boettcher Memorial Center, opened on the northeast side of the conservatory in 1971. Designed to architecturally blend in with the conservatory, the newer building (also planned by Hornbein and White) opens into a spacious stone-floored lobby with a waterfall, pools, and many plants. The building originally housed a 400-seat Horticulture Hall, three classrooms, meeting rooms, a plant prep room, the Kathryn Kalmbach Herbarium, and the Helen Fowler Library. (The library and Herbarium have since moved to DBG’s Freyer–Newman Center.)
Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield
In 1973 DBG leased a 750-acre nature preserve southwest of Denver from the US Army Corps of Engineers. The corps had acquired the site along Deer Creek as part of its floodplain for the Chatfield Dam, Reservoir, and State Park built after Denver’s disastrous 1965 flood. The corps leased the land to DBG on the condition that it would remain a natural area, with wetlands along Deer Creek accessible by hiking trails.
DBG opened the Chatfield site to the public in 1988. Now known as Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield, the complex includes the 1886 Deer Creek School House as well as two working historic farms. The Hildebrand Ranch complex dating to 1866 is a National Register site consisting of a farmhouse, dairy barn, granary, icehouse, working blacksmith shop, and other outbuildings. It and the neighboring Green Farm have been restored as a working farm and interpretive center. The nearby one-room schoolhouse has been restored for educational purposes.
Chatfield hosts a popular fall corn maze and pumpkin festival as well as holiday lights. Rotating sculpture exhibits, a lavender test garden, a large historic iris garden, and other gardens adorn the site.
Funding has long been the gardens’ thorn on the rose. In its early years, DBG was a small, poorly attended, and underfunded organization heavily dependent on volunteers and delinquents sent over from the Juvenile Court to do weeding. In 1982 DBG began charging an admission fee.
Revenues have perked up as DBG began hosting popular annual events. Since 1980, DBG has used its grassy, sunken amphitheater for a sold-out summer concert series. Every winter since 1989, Blossoms of Light has attracted crowds to a spectacular holiday show of shrubs and trees decorated with more than 250,000 colored lights. In 2019 Blossoms welcomed 145,406 visitors and brought in $1.6 million in revenue.
A major source of regular funding came after 1988, when voters in the six metropolitan Denver counties approved a Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) sales and use tax of 0.1 percent. Denver pioneered the SCFD concept nationally as salvation for many often struggling cultural and scientific organizations. In the tax’s first year, DBG received 87 percent of its revenue from SCFD. This $2 million contribution has increased every year since. As of 2019, only 19 percent of DBG income is from SCFD, with membership, admissions, special events, and donations now accounting for a greater share of the gardens’ revenue.
In 2007 Denver architect David Tryba helped DBG handle its growing need to accommodate more visitors with a $45 million expansion. Tryba’s work included a new Bonfils-Stanton entrance and gift shop on the west side of York Street, as well as a three-level parking garage on the east side of York Street. Standing on the previous site of the DBG Children’s Garden, Tryba’s parking garage includes the new Mordecai Children’s Garden atop the garage. Inside the gardens, Tryba designed a new greenhouse complex with twelve greenhouses visible to the public along a glazed south-facing exhibit space known as the Orangery.
Most recently, the $40 million Freyer-Newman Center for Science, Art, and Education, named for donors Bob and Judi Newman and Jinny and John Freyer, opened at York Street and East Eleventh Avenue in 2020. Designed by the Denver firm of Davis Partnership, the building includes a 277-seat auditorium with a large video wall as well as six classrooms, three art galleries, a coffee shop, laboratories, and spacious new homes for the Kathryn Kalmbach Herbarium and Helen Fowler Library.
Two stories of underground parking at the new building serve staff, freeing up the main garage for visitors and the DBG’s small army of some 3,000 volunteers. The Freyer-Newman Center is the last piece of a $116 million, thirteen-year master plan that, under CEO Brian Vogt, has catapulted DBG into the top tier of botanic gardens.