Named for its site on a hill overlooking City Park, the Park Hill neighborhood in northeast Denver is bounded by Colorado Boulevard, East Colfax Avenue, Quebec Street, and East Fifty-Second Avenue. The area was first platted in 1887. As Park Hill matured, its tree-lined streets, parkways, and boulevard blocked the mountain view but brought the cooling shade of an urban forest that today distinguishes the neighborhood. During the 1960s, the once white, prosperous enclave became an integrated neighborhood. Today it is still distinguished by racial as well as architectural and economic diversity.
Park Hill got its start when Baron Alois Gillaume Eugene von Winkler, one of the wackiest developers in Denver history, paid $20,000 for a thirty-two-block site extending northeast from the corner of Colorado and Montview Boulevards. The Baron platted the land, previously occupied by several dairy farms and brickyards, as “Park Hill.” There he hoped to plant a suburban haven like his countryman, Baron Walter von Richthofen, had started just to the south with his suburban town of Montclair. Promoters puffed Park Hill as having “the entire city at her feet, while the mountains in the distance form . . . the most beautiful background which God ever hung on the walls of the world.”
Whereas Richthofen made his own castle the centerpiece of Montclair, von Winkler built a racetrack in Park Hill. It was soon put out of business by a bigger and better track at nearby City Park. Along with the racetrack, von Winkler raised horses and dogs, and hosted the city dog pound.
While the Baron’s estate remained largely undeveloped, the rest of the neighborhood east of City Park started to take shape. Beginning in the late 1880s, streetcar lines on Colfax, Twenty-Third, and Twenty-Sixth Avenues made the area accessible and encouraged locals and out-of-staters to plat subdivisions there. In 1886 Jacob M. Downing and his wife, Caroline, platted Park Hill’s most elite haven of Downington, stretching from Forest Street Parkway to Monaco Street Parkway between Colfax Avenue and Montview Boulevard. Wide, landscaped medians and generous setbacks distinguish Downington, as do some of Park Hill’s grandest residences.
In June 1898, Baron von Winkler committed suicide by swallowing enough strychnine to kill six men and then shooting himself twice. The next year, an eastern syndicate bought the Baron’s property for $60,500 and began decorating Montview Boulevard with houses costing no less than $5,000 (or $6,500 on corner lots) at a time when the average house cost roughly $1,000. Houses had to be set back forty feet from the street, giving room for the spacious tree lawns and sidewalks that characterize Park Hill to this day. In 1903 Denver annexed the unincorporated suburb of Park Hill.
Park Hill was not all houses. At its east end, the neighborhood’s most prominent institution, Colorado Women’s College, was founded in 1888 with a claim to be “the Vassar of the West.” But the college struggled, and it took until 1909 for its first building, Treat Hall, to be completed. The college faced new financial difficulties as women’s schools declined after the 1960s, and in 1982 it merged with the University of Denver (DU). In 2000 DU consolidated its operations and sold the Park Hill campus to Johnson and Wales, a culinary school. In 2021 Johnson and Wales closed in Denver and the campus was sold again, this time to a coalition of educational and charitable organizations.
North and west of the school, several small airfields opened in the early 1900s. In 1929 many of them were displaced by Denver Municipal Airport (renamed Stapleton in 1944), located just northeast of Park Hill. Three years later, the city opened Park Hill Golf Course on what had been the original Lowry Airport and Clayton College Dairy in northwest Park Hill. The land belonged to the Clayton College Trust but was managed by the city. In 1997 the city bought a conservation easement for $2 million to keep the site as recreational open space.
Following World War II, Denver—and Park Hill—underwent a housing boom. Much of north Park Hill was developed as tract houses of 1,000 square feet or less. Franklin Burns and the D.C. Burns Realty and Trust built many of these low-income houses, which sold for less than $10,000 and only 10 percent down. At the time, Denver’s Black as well as white populations were growing, but Colorado Boulevard remained a racial dividing line enforced by restrictive covenants forbidding people of color from renting or buying east of the boulevard. The US Supreme Court outlawed such racially restrictive covenants in 1948, and Colorado also toughened its antidiscrimination laws in 1959. Still, prejudice, threats, and even bombings impeded Blacks from moving into Park Hill. The usual American pattern of blockbusting began. As African Americans began moving east of Colorado Boulevard in the early 1960s, white Park Hillers were warned that their houses would lose value every month that they put off selling. Realtors knocked on doors, telephoned, and sent fliers announcing the neighborhood would soon become “dark hill.”
But Park Hill bucked the usual blockbusting trend. In 1956 most leaders of the neighborhood’s nine white churches agreed to welcome Blacks to their congregations and their communities. Liberal homeowners joined the churches in arguing that it might be possible for Blacks and whites to live together. In 1960 they formed the Park Hill Action Committee to promote integration. Churches invited Black families to share pews with whites. Homeowners held block parties after a Black family moved in so neighborhood whites could meet the new family.
All was not perfect; with the racial wealth gap, Blacks prevailed in the newer, cheaper houses north of Twenty-Sixth Avenue, while whites predominated in the older, larger, more elegant houses to the south. The city strove to improve life in north Park Hill by building new facilities starting in the 1960s, including the Martin Luther King Recreation Center, the Hiawatha Davis Recreation Center, the Park Hill Neighborhood Health Center, and the Paulette Robinson Branch Library.
Keyes v. School District No. 1
The desegregation struggle intensified when the Denver School Board manipulated school boundaries in the 1960s to keep Park Hill Elementary School white. Wilfred C. Keyes, a Black resident of Park Hill, and seven others sued the board in 1969, claiming their children had been denied their constitutional rights. Federal District Judge William Doyle ruled that the school board had violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. He ordered desegregation. That case, Keyes v. School District No. 1, eventually wound up in the US Supreme Court, with the Court ruling in 1973 that Denver must integrate its public schools even if it meant forced busing. An uproar followed, including bombings at the houses of Keyes and of Judge Doyle, and of school buses. The busing order was lifted in 1995, and schools became less integrated over time. For the two decades it was in place, however, busing achieved its goals of reducing segregation and introducing entire generations of students to others from different backgrounds. A 2019 survey of more than eighty former Park Hill students who were bused to different schools revealed that many were appreciative of the intercultural exposure and could point to specific benefits it brought to their lives.
Park Hill Today
As of 2020, Park Hill was roughly 63 percent white, 27 percent Black, and 10 percent Latino. Architecturally, it features a diverse wealth of Tudor mansions and other stylish houses by the city’s leading architects, as well as Denver’s widest variety of bungalows. South Park Hill remains one of Denver’s most desirable neighborhoods, distinguished by landscaped parkways, oversized lots with expansive tree lawns and spacious sidewalks, and some of Denver’s most beautiful churches. Mayors, governors, and US senators have lived there. Meanwhile, north Park Hill has many modest post–World War II brick houses. It also includes an industrial area bisected by Interstate 70, light rail, and the Union Pacific tracks.
In recent decades, rising Park Hill housing prices and the opening of other neighborhoods to Blacks have contributed to Park Hill’s becoming whiter, particularly as wealthier whites have started displacing Blacks in north Park Hill. Some of the resulting tensions could be seen in debates over the fate of the Park Hill Golf Course, which the Clayton College Trust sold to Glendale-based developer Westside Investment Partners in 2019. Westside proposed a sizable mixed-use development, but a coalition of neighbors and open-space advocates challenged Westside because the property still had a conservation easement in place. The development’s supporters argued that open-space advocates were trying to take decisions about the property away from nearby Black residents, a majority of whom expressed interest in seeing at least some development. Dueling initiatives landed on the 2021 ballot. The antidevelopment initiative won, requiring Westside to seek approval from the whole city, not just neighbors, in order to lift the golf course’s conservation easement.
Still, cooperative action and integration in Park Hill continue to be championed by Greater Park Hill Community, Inc., the successor to the Park Hill Action Committee. Marcia Johnson, former city councilwoman and executive director of Great Park Hill Community, Inc., estimates that “half of Park Hill’s 510 blocks are integrated, making Park Hill one of the best-integrated neighborhoods in the United States.”