Established by Congress in 1862, the Denver Mint operated for more than four decades as an assay office, determining the quality of bullion but not producing any coins. In 1895 Congress authorized the mint to produce coins and also provided for a new building, which opened in 1904 at the corner of West Colfax Avenue and Cherokee Street. Expanded several times over the twentieth century, the mint now produces billions of coins per year and is one of the most popular attractions in the city.
After the Colorado Gold Rush began in 1858–59, companies quickly emerged in Denver to buy gold dust from miners and ship it to mints in the East. One of the most successful of these was Clark, Gruber, and Co., founded by Austin and Milton Clark and Emanuel Gruber. Shipping gold was expensive, however, so Clark, Gruber soon decided to mint gold coins in Denver. The company built a two-story brick building at what is now the corner of Sixteenth and Market Streets and started to manufacture gold coins in July 1860. By October the company had produced nearly $120,000 in coins.
In April 1862, Congress authorized the creation of a branch of the US Mint in Denver for coining gold. At the time, US Mints existed only in Philadelphia and San Francisco. The government acquired the Clark, Gruber building and machinery for $25,000 and opened the Denver Mint Assay Office in 1863. Despite its authorization to coin money, the mint did not make coins. It operated only as an assay office, which melted and assayed bullion before returning it to customers.
The Denver Mint operated as an assay office for more than four decades. In 1895, Congress authorized the Denver Mint to produce gold and silver coins and provided funds for a new building. In 1896 a site was acquired at the corner of West Colfax Avenue and Cherokee Street for about $60,000, and construction began in 1899.
The mint building was designed in the Second Renaissance Revival style, based on the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence, by the New York firm of Tracy, Swartwout, and Litchfield. James Knox Taylor served as the Treasury Department’s supervising architect. The exterior facade is made of rusticated Colorado granite, with ashlar granite rising above to a decorative frieze just below the red-tile roof. The artist Vincent Aderente painted three murals in the main vestibule to represent commerce, mining, and manufacturing. In 1904 employees moved from the old mint to the new building. Coinage did not begin until 1906, however, because the machinery intended for use in Denver was first displayed at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904.
In its first year of operation, the Denver Mint produced about 2.1 million gold and silver coins valued at a total of $17.9 million. At that time, it made gold coins in denominations of $2.50, $5, $10, and $20 (known as quarter eagles, half eagles, eagles, and double eagles, respectively) as well as a variety of silver coins. Since then the mint has produced many iconic coins, including Lincoln pennies beginning in 1911, Kennedy half dollars beginning in 1964, and steel pennies during World War II.
The Denver Mint has seen several additions to make room for greater production and increased storage. The original building fronted West Colfax Avenue between Cherokee and Delaware Streets, and it has gradually expanded south to occupy the entire block between West Colfax and West Fourteenth Avenues. Most of the additions have reflected the Second Renaissance Revival style of the 1904 building, but on a larger scale and with some modern design elements.
The first two additions, in 1935 and 1946, extended the mint to the south. The extra space was necessary in part because in 1934 the government transferred one-third of the country’s gold bullion from San Francisco to Denver, which provided a more secure, inland location. The Denver Mint still stores bullion along with the mint facilities in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and West Point, New York.
By the 1960s the mint was in need of repairs and upgrades. The federal government had two options: renovate the existing building or move to a new location. Several new sites were considered, both within Denver and in outlying suburbs such as Lakewood and Littleton, leading to local political drama over whether the Denver Mint would still be in Denver. After several years of planning and debate, the government ultimately decided to keep the mint at its existing location. In 1972 the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The decision to keep the mint downtown did not solve the problems of size and production capacity. To address those needs, in 1984–85 a large third addition was built along the western side of the existing building to provide a modern industrial processing area. More modern box than Renaissance palace, this addition prompted an outcry from some Denver residents, who felt it violated the integrity of the original design.
Design conflicts arose again later in the 1980s, when the mint proposed a new visitor’s center on the east side of the building to accommodate its roughly 500,000 annual visitors. This time the plans provoked such a heated response that the addition had to be redesigned. Completed in 1992, the final structure was still modern but incorporated motifs from the original building. Visitors now enter the mint through this addition on Cherokee Street.
The final addition to the mint came in 1996, when a die shop was built on the western edge of the property. Constructed of precast stone, it replicates elements of the original building’s facade.
In addition to its Washington, DC, headquarters, the US Mint maintains five facilities, in Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco, West Point, and Fort Knox. The Denver and Philadelphia Mints are the only facilities that produce coins for general circulation. In 2008 the Denver Mint made just over half of the coins for general circulation.
The Denver Mint also produces commemorative coins, uncirculated coin sets, and coin dies. With fifty-six presses operating five days a week, the facility’s roughly 350 employees make billions of coins per year. The mint has a production capacity of more than 50 million coins a day.
The Denver Mint offers free guided tours of its facility and is one of the most popular attractions in Denver.