This five-story. red-brick building in Denver went up in 1899 for John Sidney Brown’s wholesale grocery business. Strategically located at 1634 Eighteenth Street—across Wynkoop Street from Union Station—it was next to the rail lines it depended on for customers and for shipping goods to the Rocky Mountain hinterlands. Rail-era relics include boxcar door–level loading docks on the east and west sides. The building’s 1988 conversion to Colorado’s first brewpub, the Wynkoop Brewing Company, propelled the transformation of what was then “skid row” into the thriving Lower Downtown Historic District (LoDo). Today the district is the city’s most booming and densely developed neighborhood. The transformation of the mercantile building also fueled the political career of brewery cofounder John Wright Hickenlooper, Jr., who later became mayor of Denver, governor of Colorado, and a US senator.
John Sidney Brown, a founding member of what is now the Denver Chamber of Commerce, started his grocery business in 1861, when the city was three years old. Brown was also a founder and major investor in the Denver Pacific Railway and the Denver, South Park & Pacific, two lines that helped elevate a stagnating town into the business hub of the Rocky Mountain region. Thanks to railroad prosperity and Brown’s business acumen, by 1900 his mercantile store had grown into one of the largest businesses in the West, wholesaling everything under the sun.
When Denver and his business were booming, Brown decided he did not need to pay others to warehouse his goods. A large, elegant building designed by the city’s premier warehouse architects—Aaron Gove and Thomas Walsh—would give him more control over his own business, flaunt his name, and enhance his prestige and exposure. A heavy timber post-and-beam edifice in the commercial style, Brown’s 1899 warehouse is one of the most distinctive surviving structures in the warehouse row that stretches along Wynkoop Street from Coors Field to Auraria. It includes Renaissance Revival symmetry and other elements, such as a rusticated sandstone basement and trim. Large, double-hung windows brighten the first and fifth floors, with smaller, semiarched windows on the intervening floors. An ornate brick frieze and cornice adorn the building, as do recessed vertical window bays rising from the second floor to the fifth floor. Typical of warehouses, the largely unadorned upper floors were used for storage. The first floor, which held showrooms and offices, was much more stylish, with pressed tin ceilings, Oregon oak and pine paneling, and maple floors.
Wynkoop Brewing Company
From the 1920s on, all rail-oriented mercantile firms, including Brown’s business, suffered as wholesaling shifted from rail to trucking. During the Great Depression, Brown Mercantile continued to struggle. In 1937 the building and the business were sold to Brown’s longtime rival, C. S. Morey Mercantile. The building continued to be used for storage through the 1956 sale of Morey to Consolidated Foods.
By the 1980s, the once-thriving, elegant Brown building sat largely empty, only occasionally used for storage. Then a trio of young, unemployed oil workers—John Hickenlooper and Jerry and Martha Williams—joined with brewer Russell Schehrer; his wife, Barbara Macfarlane; and chef Mark Schiffler to create the Wynkoop Brewing Company. In 1988 they scraped together $935,000 to buy the Brown Building, then a bargain in what many considered skid row. Inspired by Dana Crawford’s creative restoration of Larimer Square, Hickenlooper imagined something similar in Lower Downtown. Still, the dreamers had trouble raising money in what was still a risky part of town, with Hickenlooper recalling, “Even my own mother refused to invest.” But Hickenlooper insisted that “brewpubs were going gangbusters on the West Coast and we thought they might catch on in Colorado.” He was later proven right: by 2018 more than 400 had bubbled up in the Highest State.
To open, Hickenlooper scrounged around to find discarded china from the Brown Palace; a walk-in cooler from an old Safeway store; a back bar from the old Tivoli Brewery; and cash registers, chairs, stools, and other fixtures from failed restaurants and bars. Hickenlooper and partners also completed a $575,000 restoration that brought the shine back to the 72,000-square-foot warehouse, which was honored with a listing in the National Register of Historic Places; it was later recognized as an anchor of the Lower Downtown Denver Historic District. With the first floor housing the brewpub, the second floor was converted to Denver’s largest pool hall, the basement to a jazz club and meeting hall, and the upper three floors to lofts.
After its grand opening on October 18, 1988, Wynkoop became one of the hottest spots in town. Hickenlooper credited its success partly to the stout old building, whose lofty ceilings, strong walls, and historic charm made it a perfect place to brew and enjoy beer. The legendary brewpub helped spark the transformation of Lower Downtown into a booming hub of lofts, shops, bars, and restaurants. Although the LoDo transformation has become a national model for transforming decaying urban cores, it is not without its detractors or unintended consequences; the infusion of wealth the project brought downtown helped drive a steep increase in housing prices and exacerbated income inequality in the city.
Today the J. S. Brown Mercantile Building remains home to the Wynkoop Brewing Company, which has become a fixture of Lower Downtown Denver after more than three decades in business.