Robert Walter Speer (1855–1918) served as mayor of Denver for two terms, from 1904 to 1912, then was reelected in 1916, serving another two years as mayor before passing away in 1918 during the Spanish influenza pandemic. Speer is remembered primarily for implementing the City Beautiful plan that gave Denver an extensive system of parks, boulevards, neoclassical public buildings, and monuments that continue to shape the city today.
Robert Speer was born on December 1, 1855, to George Washington Speer and Jane Anne Brewster, and grew up in Mount Union, Pennsylvania. In 1864 Speer’s father, who had been serving in Washington, DC, as assistant provost marshal of the United States, passed away, and his mother was left to raise their five children alone. In 1877 the family decided to send Speer’s sister Margaret, who was severely ill with tuberculosis, to Colorado for treatment. The dry climate, sunshine, high altitude, and clean air of Colorado were considered beneficial for tuberculosis patients. Speer accompanied his sister to Pueblo for the summer. In the fall the siblings returned to Pennsylvania, where Margaret soon passed away.
Coming to Colorado for Good
Back in Pennsylvania, it soon became apparent that Speer, too, had contracted tuberculosis. After suffering a severe hemorrhage in 1878, he returned to Colorado, this time for his own treatment. Bypassing the cities on the plains, he went to the more bracing high-altitude air of a mountain ranch. He soon recovered and always attributed his improved health to the hard work and outdoor life at the ranch. Seeing the potential in the booming mountain west, he decided to make Colorado his permanent home—but not before returning to Pennsylvania to marry his childhood sweetheart, Kate Thrush, on May 16, 1882.
Settling in Denver with his new wife, Speer took a position selling rugs at the Daniels & Fisher department store. He soon found himself moving up in the company, writing the reports sent to stockholders in New York. Despite his success at Daniels and Fisher, Speer saw Denver’s exploding growth—the city’s population tripled during the 1880s, reaching 106,713—and decided to leave the firm for a career in real estate. This soon provided him with the wealth, connections, and broad civic perspective that he used to launch a political career.
In 1884 Speer entered his first electoral campaign, for the position of Denver city clerk. Denver politics had a reputation for being rough and tumble, and the election was not without drama. The city clerk was elected by the city council, where Republicans held a one-vote majority. But when the results of the secret election were announced, it turned out that Speer, a Democrat, had won. Republicans demanded an open vote, which resulted, predictably, in a Republican victory. A standoff ensued because the initial, secret election remained the legally valid election. To stake his claim to the office, Speer and a group of friends went to City Hall one night to take physical control of the city clerk’s actual office space. He found his Republican opponent already there. After a short scuffle, Speer’s adversary found himself deposited in the hall, unhurt except for his wounded dignity, and Speer’s career in Denver politics was underway.
Starting as city clerk, Speer gradually worked his way through the ranks of Denver politics. In 1885 President Grover Cleveland appointed him postmaster of Denver, a position he held until 1889. In 1891 the newly elected Republican governor of Colorado, John L. Routt, appointed Speer (still a Democrat) to the newly created Denver fire and police board. During his time on the board, Speer became well acquainted with not only the fire and police forces but also the characters who occupied the less respectable side of Denver’s business community, including the owners of gambling halls and brothels. He went on to be appointed police commissioner in 1897, then fire commissioner in 1899.
Speer’s pragmatic approach to Denver’s criminal elements and social ills relied more on containment and control than on eradication. To his detractors, this was evidence of corruption and ties to the city’s criminal underbelly. Among the police and fire forces and many of the city’s employees, businesses, and residents, however, he developed a loyal following. In 1901 Speer was appointed president of the board of public works, where he consolidated a political machine consisting of big business, illicit business, and city patronage.
In 1904 “Boss” Speer’s political machine exerted its power and cemented the support of the abovementioned three constituencies. Denver had achieved home rule and separated itself from Arapahoe County, and a bitter battle was raging over the city charter. Initially, reformers drafted a charter designed to curtail patronage appointments and to strictly regulate utilities, striking at the heart of Speer’s machine. His machine mobilized to defeat that charter and devise a new version that was friendlier to political appointments and made public oversight of utility companies more difficult. In March, after an election that was dirty even by Denver standards—complete with repeat voters and as many as 10,000 fraudulent votes—the new charter was adopted. Speer then ran for mayor of the newly autonomous city, winning and taking office on June 1, 1904.
Mayor of Denver
Speer’s first two terms as mayor of Denver, from 1904 to 1912, were marked by his most indelible legacy, his embrace of the City Beautiful movement. City Beautiful ideas had grown out of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, which Speer attended, and extolled the virtues of uplifting communities through public architecture and expansive parks. After seeing Chicago’s famed “White City,” Speer was determined to transform Denver from a dusty western city to a “Paris on the Platte” when he took office as mayor. The resulting parks, tree-lined boulevards, public buildings, and monuments, which still make up much of the city’s urban landscape today, are widely considered one of the best examples of the City Beautiful movement in the United States.
One of Speer’s first priorities as mayor was to tame the unpredictable Cherry Creek, which frequently went from a meandering, trash-strewn trickle to a raging torrent that inundated much of the city. To control the creek, Speer erected high concrete walls along its banks, which were then flanked by trees, gardens, walkways, and a boulevard stretching diagonally through the city. The boulevard, named for Speer, remains a scenic showpiece and critical transportation artery.
Beyond the banks of Cherry Creek, Speer worked to forge a comprehensive plan for Denver’s civic development. In 1906 he retained New York City planner Charles M. Robinson to draw up a master plan for the city, and in 1907 he commissioned landscape architect George E. Kessler to design a system of parks and parkways. Both plans revolved around a proposed Civic Center at the heart of the city. Ideas for the Civic Center complex evolved over the years. In its final form, the Civic Center stretched from the new state capitol to a planned City and County Building two blocks west, with the Pioneer Fountain and neoclassical Voorhees Memorial and Greek Theater and Colonnade defining its central north-south axis. Radiating out from this central hub would be a network of parks and parkways, many incorporating high points with sweeping mountain views such as Cranmer Park, Inspiration Point, and Cheesman Park.
Another civic project close to Speer’s heart was the Denver Municipal Auditorium, which opened in 1908. With a hall that could hold 12,000, at the time it was second in size only to New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The giant auditorium had a partisan purpose—it allowed Speer to host the 1908 Democratic National Convention, the first to be held in a western state. Speer also felt strongly that the auditorium should be a site for the cultural betterment of Denver’s citizens. He arranged for (and often attended) free weekly band concerts, Sunday movies, and an annual Christmas Tree celebration. The auditorium has been extensively renovated over the years and is still in use today as the Ellie Caulkins Opera House at the Denver Performing Arts Complex.
In addition to his major civic projects, Speer also initiated numerous small-scale improvements that collectively transformed life in Denver. In 1905, for example, he initiated the first annual tree day, offering free trees, three per person, to plant along the city’s streets. This program gave away 111,000 saplings by 1912, and many of the trees survive today, contributing to Denver’s leafy canopy. Other projects included the erection of Denver’s streetlight system, the laying of hundreds of miles of sewer pipes and storm drains, the grading and surfacing of many of the city’s streets, and the establishment of public bathhouses and swimming beaches.
In 1911 Speer was part of a delegation of mayors and officials who traveled to Europe to study municipal government. He was an avid student while there, often skipping banquets and speeches to inspect public works, interview city managers, and study civic governance. He wanted to put what he had learned into practice, but he encountered political challenges at home. Despite his accomplishments as mayor, he faced a rising reform movement and complaints of corruption and high taxes. In 1912 he decided not to run for reelection. A reformer named Henry J. Arnold won, and the city then embarked on a brief, unsuccessful experiment with commission government. Many of Speer’s projects came to a standstill. In front of the state capitol, for example, entire blocks of buildings had already been demolished to make way for Civic Center Park, but those lots sat for years as nothing more than a stretch of grass.
The citizens of Denver decided they missed their energetic mayor and convinced Speer to run for reelection in 1916, which he did as a nonpartisan candidate. After his trip to Europe, his views about city governance had changed. He had come to believe that partisanship had no place in municipal government and had been inspired by what some of his business acquaintances considered socialist ideas. He increasingly felt that there was a civic duty not just to provide pleasure and culture but also to alleviate suffering.
If Speer was going to return to politics, however, it was going to be on his own terms. He presented a new plan for city governance, calling for executive power to be centralized in a mayor, an independent council of nine, and an independent auditor. The mayor would have the power to appoint all officials without need for confirmation and also to remove any city employee, with the exception of the fire and police forces. Citizens would have the power of the municipal initiative, referendum, and recall. The Speer Amendment, which also named him as mayor, was adopted on May 17, 1916.
In addition to continuing the improvements begun under his first terms as mayor, Speer made it a personal mission to elicit donations from wealthy Denver citizens to pay for continued improvements to the city. He outlined his wishes in his famous “Give While You Live” speech on December 8, 1916. His appeals were successful, with more than $500,000 donated in the first eighteen months. Gifts included a pipe organ for the Municipal Auditorium, a gateway at the Esplanade entrance to City Park, an art collection valued at $100,000, and an expansion of the Colorado Museum of Natural History.
Speer’s main challenge during his third term as mayor was to deal with the mounting effects of World War I. By 1917 the war was causing precipitous increases in the cost of coal and flour. In response, Speer organized a municipal coal department and contracted directly with three Colorado coal companies to buy their output. By September 1917, the new municipal coal department was able to provide coal for all city and county institutions and to sell coal to citizens at a reduced rate. Similarly, in December 1917 Speer started a bakery at the county jail, which helped reduce the cost of bread.
Death and Legacy
In May 1918 Speer suddenly fell ill at his office. He died just a few days later, on May 14, one of the millions of victims of the worldwide Spanish influenza pandemic. The city was stunned. Speer’s funeral was held at his beloved Municipal Auditorium to accommodate the crowds of mourners, said to number more than 10,000.
After Speer’s death, his estate was found to be surprisingly small for a man so deeply involved in real estate and politics. His lack of wealth helped disprove the detractors who had speculated for decades that he was using his power to enrich himself at the city’s expense. In reality he had been a formidable manager of city funds who consistently oversaw surpluses, all while investing in civic monuments and improvements that increased the welfare and pleasure of the citizenry and that continue to define Denver to this day.