The Equitable Building (730 Seventeenth Street) is located in the heart of downtown Denver’s financial district. Built in 1892 as the town’s premier office structure, it arguably still is. It also signaled that eastern capitalists had begun focusing on Denver as the most promising location for their Rocky Mountain regional offices. In 1977 the building was designated a Denver landmark, and in 1978 it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Equitable Building was built by the Equitable Life Assurance Society of New York (a life insurance company) as its western regional home office. Henry Wolcott, a local power broker who also served on Equitable’s board of directors, helped steer the company to the Mile High City for its first building west of the Mississippi River. Equitable made the decision to build in Denver in 1890 and began construction in 1891. A close friend and confidante of company president Henry B. Hyde, Wolcott convinced Hyde to spare no expense in making the $1.7 million Equitable the finest building in town, complete with steam heat, hot and cold running water, its own electric and water systems, and a rooftop observation deck.
Denver boosters saw the building’s potential long before it was completed. Already in 1890, the Denver Republican projected that the Equitable would raise the value of properties along upper Seventeenth and Sixteenth Streets. Beyond the city, the building would serve as a sign that eastern businesses and investors had faith in Denver’s future.
In 1891 Scientific American ran a cover story praising the Equitable Building, then the tallest building in Denver, as “the finest and most costly west of the Mississippi.” Designed by the prominent Boston architects Andrews, Jacques and Rantoul, it was completed in 1892 as Denver’s first major Renaissance Revival building. The nine-story tower of gray pressed Roman brick is supported by huge Pikes Peak granite blocks on the two ground stories. White terra-cotta banding separates the upper floors into horizontal wedding-cake layers. Further embellishments on the facade include dentils, acanthus leaves, and an ambitious cornice. On the fifth floor of the Seventeenth Street facade, a Palladian window and balcony are adorned with nude cherubs, or amorini (Italian: “little loved ones”).
The building’s back-to-back, double-E plan as viewed from above echoes the Equitable Life Assurance Society’s logo. It also endows the Equitable with distinctive light wells showering the interior with sunshine and fresh air. While secretaries and stenographers in other office buildings typically occupied windowless interior offices, the women who had those jobs at the Equitable could see outside. Nineteen skylights also helped to brighten the building. This elegant environment helped the emerging white-collar class distinguish itself from manual laborers doing difficult, often dirty work at mines, smelters, factories, and farms.
In the sanctuarylike lobby, the red marble floor underlies a buttery yellow marble wainscoting beneath green French marble walls. Overhead, the barrel-vaulted ceiling is sheathed in tiny marble mosaic tiles with Byzantine motifs. Other marbles from Italy, Vermont, and Tennessee enhance the interior, with translucent Sienna marble used for the reception desk and the grand staircase walls. The lobby is illuminated by a tripartite Tiffany window at the southwest end. Another such window at the landing of the grand staircase is called “The Genius of Insurance.” This spectacular Tiffany stained-glass window personifies the Equitable Company as Minerva, the Greek goddess of protection, comforting a bereft widow and orphan.
The grand curving marble staircase has an ornate bronze railing with the same “E” logo seen throughout the building. Upstairs many offices originally had gas fireplaces. The eight vintage Otis traction elevators are still operated hydraulically by the building’s own artesian well in the basement.
The glowing accounts of Denver’s promise that accompanied the Equitable Building’s construction ended abruptly with the silver crash of 1893. But the Equitable, along with Denver’s other nine-story 1892 landmark, the Brown Palace Hotel, survive as the tallest monuments to the city’s 1870–93 boom. They would crown the Mile High City’s skyline until the 1911 construction of the Daniels & Fisher Tower.
In addition to its namesake company, the Equitable has been home over the years to the Colorado Governor’s Office before completion of the State Capitol, as well as leading Denver firms such as the First National Bank of Denver, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, Frederick Ross & Company Real Estate, the American Smelting & Refining Company, the British vice-consul, and the Women’s Bank of Denver. Leading stockbrokers and investment bankers nested there to be near the city’s first ticker tape. Leading law firms such as Holland & Hart and Mary Lathrop (Colorado’s first prominent female lawyer) also resided there and made the fifth floor into the state’s finest law library.
Although it architecturally portrayed a sense of security, stability, and style to a city prone to booms and busts, the Equitable has not avoided its own ups and downs. It saw rents tumble with the Panic of 1893, not to return to their 1892 level for a decade. William Barth, president of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, purchased the building for $1.3 million in 1908 and kept it for eighteen years. After that, a parade of different owners controlled the Equitable, which was humiliated by foreclosures and sales for as little as $950,000. A partnership headed by prominent Denver jeweler Jess Kortz paid $2.5 million for the building in 1956, and Kortz put his diamond business on the top floor.
Charles Woolley II and his St. Charles Town Company bought the Equitable in 2000 and spearheaded a $5.5 million restoration with the aid of History Colorado’s State Historical Fund and Historic Denver, Inc. Woolley converted the building to independently owned office condos and added a fitness center. It no longer houses top-tier corporate clients but is still occupied mostly by lawyers, investment firms, oil and gas companies, a design group, and assorted other businesses.
More than any other building, the Equitable earned Seventeenth Street the title “Wall Street of the Rockies.” It has been overshadowed by many newer, taller skyscrapers, but never outclassed.