Facing the State Capitol Building and completing the dominant east-west axis for Civic Center, Denver’s City and County Building (300 W. Colfax Avenue) is the grandest monument of Mayor Robert Speer’s City Beautiful efforts. The elegant neoclassical building houses the mayor, city council, many county and district courts, and other city offices. Conceived as part of Charles Mulford Robinson’s original City Beautiful Plan of 1906, which placed it on the north side of West Colfax Avenue, it took twenty-six years to materialize due to extended legal, political, and architectural battles. Completed in 1932 at a final cost of more than $5.5 million, it has not been altered much over the decades. After a 1970s restoration, it stands today as an anchor of the Civic Center National Historic Landmark District.
Earlier City Halls
Denver city government was conceived, born, and raised in a saloon, Libeus Barney’s Apollo Hall in the 1400 block of Larimer Street (which became Larimer Square in 1964). City fathers met there in September 1860 to create “The People’s Government of the City of Denver.” This extralegal attempt at city government subsequently met in a small shack on Blake Street and various other nonpretentious “city halls.” One of these ramshackle houses was washed away, along with city records, by the Cherry Creek Flood of 1864.
Not until 1883 did Denver build a distinctive City Hall at the southwest corner of Fourteenth and Larimer Streets on the banks of Cherry Creek. Architect William H.J. Nichols planned this $300,000 edifice. The four-story stone structure had a mansard roof with many dormers and bristled with decorative cresting. Besides the mayor’s office, city council chambers, and city offices, it also housed the fire department, central fire station, police department, and city jail. The building was most famous as the setting for the 1893 City Hall War in which the governor tried unsuccessfully to throw out corrupt city officials. After a 1921 fire, the building was reconstructed without the mansard roof and corner towers. In 1902 the consolidated City and County of Denver was carved out of Arapahoe County, whose seat moved to Littleton. Some Denver offices moved to the old Arapahoe County Courthouse at Sixteenth Street and Court Place in downtown Denver, but most stayed in City Hall.
After the new City and County Building opened in 1932, the old City Hall continued to house the fire department and central fire station until it was demolished in 1937. The site is commemorated to this day by Bell Park featuring the building’s bell and a parking lot.
Designing the New City Hall
In 1923 voters approved a bond issue and the full-block site bounded by West Colfax and West Fourteenth Avenues between Bannock and Cherokee Streets. The design came from a coalition of thirty-nine leading local architects formed in 1924 as the Allied Architects Association, led by Robert K. Fuller along with George Gray and Roland L. Linder. Construction began in 1929; a welcome effort during the early years of the Great Depression, it employed almost 400 men.
Completed in 1932, the City and County Building’s had a neoclassical style that reflected Denver’s aspirations to be the Rome of the Rockies or the Athens of the West. The stone edifice has a symmetrical H plan that measures 435 feet wide and 275 feet deep but only 90 feet high, to avoid blocking Denver’s cherished mountain view. The massive pedimented entry portico has six fifty-foot Corinthian columns; at its base is the entablature “Erected by the People City and County of Denver.”
The City and County Building’s most striking feature is the two four-story wings, fronted by Ionic columns, arching forward from the central structure—as cynics complained, like arms reaching out to taxpayers. The north wing leads toward the unattached 1910 Denver Public Library (now the McNichols Building) in Civic Center Park. It was to be matched on the south side by a twin extension, perhaps for an art museum, but that space remains grass to this day. Similarly, niches for statues of heroic Denverites on the exterior of the building were never filled.
Besides the wings with their Ionic columns, another dominant feature is a thin central tower whose clock and chimes were donated by Kate Speer in honor of her late husband, Mayor Robert Speer, who had pushed for the development of Civic Center during his tenure. The tower is crowned by an eagle with outspread wings, the position in which the bird defecates; according to folklore, this was the artist’s response to charges of corruption in the building below.
Travertine granite from Cotopaxi quarries and Stone Mountain granite from Georgia make up the exterior and some of the interior. These granites are among the many fine stones used in the interior, including Colorado Yule marble, pink Tennessee marble, Resea marble, Vermont gray marble, black and gold Italian marble, and Italian Botticino marble. Noted Denver artist John E. Thompson supervised interior décor and color schemes.
A large city council chambers reigns on the fourth floor, which also served as space for a never-realized city museum. The Denver Art Museum had some of its galleries there for decades before it opened its own dedicated building in 1971. One level down, the mayor’s office dominates the third floor. Various other offices and eleven county and district courts fill the rest of the building. Initially, the building also housed a jail as well as the police department and their shooting range until all of that moved to a new building at 1245 Champa Street in 1941.
The building’s notable artworks include Gladys Caldwell Fisher’s “American Indian Orpheus and the Animals,” an eleven-by-six-foot bas relief with panels of Colorado stone, and Allen Tupper True’s courtroom murals “Frontier Justice” and “Miner’s Court” (both 1950). Busts of Mayor Speer and of city planner Saco R. DeBoer distinguish either end of the main lobby. Another later installation was Denver artist Susan Cooper’s lobby collage of city landmarks.
Recent History and Recognition
During the mid-1970s, the building underwent a $20 million, bond-funded restoration, which also added air conditioning. Otherwise, this palace of the people has experienced very few alterations. As city government expanded, many minor offices and functions moved across West Colfax Avenue to the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building in 2002.
In 1974 the City and County Building was included in the Civic Center National Historic District. In 2012 it was celebrated as an anchor of Civic Center’s designation as Denver’s first National Historic Landmark, the highest federal honor awarded.