Located immediately west of Denver in Jefferson County, the city of Lakewood began as a scattered farming community and was incorporated in 1969 during its post-World War II population boom. With a 2020 population of 155,984, Lakewood is now the fifth most populous city in Colorado and the third most populous city in the Denver metropolitan region.
The area that would become Lakewood was originally home to the Nuche, or Ute people, who traveled between the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, the foothills, and the high country. The river basin was an important trading site for the Nuche, who also spent time on what became Lookout Mountain and the Rooney Ranch areas, where they enjoyed the Iron Spring. Around 1800 the Cheyenne and Arapaho people arrived from the central Great Plains and camped near the river bottoms as they hunted bison.
The Arapaho under Hossa (Little Raven) were among the first to encounter white prospectors in the area that became Denver in 1858–59. Along with the Cheyenne leader Moke-tavato (Black Kettle), Hossa’s Arapaho signed the Fort Wise Treaty of 1861, which gave up much of the Front Range to the United States. A treaty with the Nuche followed in 1863, and the US military eventually forced the land’s original inhabitants to far-off reservations. However, throughout the 1860s and 1870s, the Ute leader Colorow and his band had friendly relationships with rancher Alex Rooney and continued using the spring near present-day Lakewood.
The earliest Euro-American travelers arrived via the Spotswood-McClelland stage line from Denver to Morrison. Farmsteads appeared along the stage line in Lakewood as early as 1859. Development began in earnest after major flooding destroyed orchards in the Denver area in 1864, leading many who lost trees in the flood to find higher ground west of the South Platte.
This new location had several advantages for farmers, including safety from future floods and a prime location to capitalize on a burgeoning transportation system. Two rail lines, the Denver, Lakewood & Golden, and the Denver, South Park & Pacific, succeeded the Spotswood-McClelland stage line and provided service to Denver and mountain mining camps.
Agriculture was Lakewood's predominant land use from the 1870s through the 1940s. Major arterial roads like Kipling Street and Wadsworth Boulevard were spaced according to five-to-ten-acre farm sizes. Lakewood boasted many fruit growers and small dairies. Fruit required less water per acre than cereal crops, and a profitable dairy required less land than raising beef cattle. Most farmers had small-scale operations, but by the interwar period, larger agribusinesses were appearing, such as the Montair Fruit and Produce Company, which purchased neighboring farmers’ produce to sell at the market. Other farms of note include the Peterson Turkey farm in what is now south Lakewood and the Robinson Dairy along what is now Colfax Avenue.
Lakewood was also home to several unusual agribusinesses, including fox fur farms and dog breeders. In addition to commercial farms, the town also had a population of subsistence farmers who commuted to Denver to work other jobs.
Railroad & Suburban Development
The late 1880s brought significant new developments to Lakewood, chief among them the arrival of real estate speculation. As Denver grew and attracted more residents, Lakewood became an attractive prospect for streetcar subdivisions. Railroad builders William A. H. and Miranda Loveland and their business partner Charles Welch saw potential in Lakewood. Their Denver, Lakewood & Golden (DL&G) line already ran freight and mail through the area, and they could see that the clear-aired countryside would be attractive to workers in the city. Early Lakewood residents might also work with the Denver Hardware Manufacture Company or the Denver Brick and Tile Company, which were located in the area. With an eye toward adding a commuter line to the DL&G and building housing for local workers, the Lovelands and Welch bought land in Lakewood to subdivide.
In 1889 the trio named their first subdivision “Lakewood,” and other plats along the streetcar line soon appeared. Although speculators arranged their suburbs to cater to high-density development, few lots sold, and Lakewood remained predominantly rural for another forty years. The DL&G line went into receivership in 1896, and in 1909 the railroad converted the tracks to a streetcar line. Incorporated into Denver Tramway’s electric streetcar system, the line made five stops in Lakewood: Lamar Street, Pierce Street, Teller Street, Wadsworth Boulevard, and Carr Street.
Tuberculosis & Sanitoria
Lakewood’s clean air and country living did not attract as many residents as the Lovelands hoped, but it did appeal to health-seekers. Medical theories at the time encouraged those who had contracted tuberculosis to seek out dry, sunny climates, believing damp air worsened the condition of the lungs. Colorado fit that description, and boosters such as William Jackson Palmer in Colorado Springs eagerly advertised Colorado as a healthy destination.
Several tubercular institutions called Lakewood home in the early twentieth century, including the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society and the Brotherly Love Colony. Both institutions took advantage of cheap land and the public perception of remoteness and privacy that Lakewood offered at the time. The Brotherly Love Colony, founded by Frank Craig in 1907, primarily took in those who had been evicted from their homes because they were too sick to make their rent. The tent colony became the more substantial Craig Hospital in 1923. With tuberculosis rates declining, the hospital changed its specialty from tubercular care to multiple diagnoses, specializing in spinal cord injuries. The hospital facilities have since moved to the Swedish Hospital campus in Englewood, and the original hospital is no longer extant.
The Jewish Consumptive Relief Society (JCRS) filled an important niche in tubercular healthcare by specializing in caring for the Jewish community. Dr. Charles Spivak founded the society in 1904 with state-of-the-art housing and care facilities. The society took on only those who could not afford to seek treatment elsewhere and raised cattle on-site to help provide kosher dairy products to its patients. In 1912 the society installed the first X-Ray machine west of Chicago. It offered quality care well into the middle of the twentieth century when the discovery of penicillin changed tuberculosis care. In 1954 the JCRS campus was converted to the American Medical Center Cancer Research Center (AMC) and Hospital. Like JCRS, the AMC took on patients regardless of their ability to pay. Since 2002 the former JCRS campus has housed the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design (RMCAD).
Development in Lakewood slowed during the Great Depression. Most areas in Lakewood had virtually no home construction between 1931 and 1938. New home construction picked up somewhat from 1938-41 but was disproportionately located in the up-and-coming Eiber neighborhood. Development began again with the advent of World War II. The Denver Ordnance Plant spurred major development along Kipling Street. The ordnance plant, known as the “DOP,” created 8,000 construction jobs and nearly 20,000 jobs for plant operation, encouraging movement into the area. Although the plant only operated from 1941 to 1945, it was quickly converted to another employment driver when the General Services Administration purchased and changed the building to the Denver Federal Center.
As the largest concentration of federal agencies outside Washington DC, the Federal Center brought thousands of new residents to Lakewood.
The former Spotswood-McClelland wagon line found new life as US 40/West Colfax Avenue in the post-war era. The street became popular among tourists and commuters alike, and Lakewood entered a new development phase with increased east-west access via Colfax or Sixth Avenue. Businesses that catered to travelers included motels, motor courts, restaurants, and automobile services on Colfax. Business owners used eye-catching neon signs and western motifs to attract passersby and vacationers. By the 1950s, new shopping centers cropped up along Colfax, such as the JCRS shopping center at the former sanitarium and the Lakewood Shopping Center. The first indoor mall was the Rome-themed Villa Italia, which opened in 1965.
In 1973 the Casa Bonita restaurant opened its doors in the JCRS shopping center. A local favorite due to its combination of Mexican-inspired family dining and unique entertainment, Casa Bonita’s popularity only increased after Colorado natives Matt Stone and Trey Parker portrayed the restaurant in their hit TV series South Park.
With new commercial corridors, housing options, and places to work, Jefferson County grew from 35,000 residents in 1940 to 127,000 by 1960, and Lakewood’s population of 45,000 in 1962 doubled to 94,000 by 1969. In 1961 Denver Water responded to increasing pressure from surrounding communities to erase its “Blue Line,” a service line drawn around Denver that cut off suburban communities from the utility. After reliable access to Denver Water’s system was established, neighborhood development boomed in areas such as Green Mountain in northwest Lakewood.
Discussions of self-governance for Lakewood began in the post-war era. The University of Denver organized a study of Lakewood and Wheat Ridge in 1947 that assessed what type of municipal government might best fit the community. Most residents surveyed said they were not interested in paying city taxes in addition to county taxes. Although two separate resolutions were filed to incorporate, voters defeated both.
In the early 1960s, Denver annexed an area west of its traditional boundaries, sparking several Jefferson County communities to seriously consider incorporating. Lakewood, Wheat Ridge, and even the neighborhood of Glen Creighton all discussed the possibility of incorporation in 1961. After several years of discussion, Lakewood residents voted to incorporate and became Colorado’s third-largest city in 1969. Originally incorporated as “Jefferson City,” the community voted to change the city name to Lakewood. The newly established city council and staff developed the first long-range planning document for the city in 1975, named “Concept Lakewood,” and the first zoning ordinance was implemented in 1983. In 1988 the Regional Transportation District (RTD) purchased the right of way for what would become the West “W” RTD line along 13th Avenue through Lakewood. In 1994, the city annexed Denver West, an office park near the confluence of I-70, 6th Avenue, and Colfax Avenue.
In the twenty-first century, Lakewood has continued to grow. After thirty years of planning, the Regional Transportation Department’s light rail line—the W line—opened in 2013. The ease of access across town has facilitated denser housing development, such as apartments and row homes. In 2011 the St. Anthony Medical campus opened on Union Boulevard, and the city annexed the Federal Center in 2007. The Federal Center and surrounding office parks employ hundreds of Lakewood residents.
Nearly a quarter of Lakewood’s land is devoted to parks and open space, including the former Bonfils mansion along Wadsworth. The mansion grounds, deeded to the city by Denver Post heiress May Bonfils upon her death, have become Lakewood City Center. The mansion’s associated acreage is now home to Heritage Lakewood Belmar Park, Lakewood City Council, Cultural Center, government offices, and the Lakewood Police Department Headquarters. Across Wadsworth, the former Villa Italia mall was torn down in 2002 and is now the Belmar major shopping center.