The most prominent building at the Five Points neighborhood in Denver is the Rossonian Hotel. The lounge acquired a reputation as the best jazz club in the region. It hosted performances by jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie. The hotel and lounge declined during the 1960s, as Denver’s black population moved out of the Five Points neighborhood. Since the 1990s with business activity increasing in the area, the Rossonian has been the focus of numerous redevelopment efforts.
In Its Prime
In 1912 Robert Y. Baxter, owner of the Baxter Cigar Company, hired architect George Louis Bettcher to design a hotel. It was located on Welton Street at the Five Points intersection. With its triangular shape and Beaux-Arts style, the three-story Baxter Hotel quickly became a neighborhood landmark. At the time, the neighborhood was home to white residents and the hotel was patronized by Anglos.
The Five Points area saw an influx of African American residents in the 1890s. In the 1920s, as Denver’s housing market boomed, white people moved to outlying neighborhoods. Discriminatory housing kept black residents segregated in Five Points.
By 1929 about 5,500 of Denver’s 7,000 African Americans lived in the area. Five Points was home to a growing district of black businesses along Welton Street. Around that time the Baxter Hotel came under black ownership. It was renamed the Rossonian after the new owner, A. W. L. Ross. Ownership and management over the next few decades stayed with friends and business associates connected to Ross.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, the Rossonian Hotel was a central institution in Five Points. Black musicians visiting Denver for performances often stayed there when other hotels turned them away. As a result, the first-floor Rossonian Lounge became the most important jazz club between Kansas City and Los Angeles.
Top jazz performers played there on nights between concerts at larger venues downtown. They jammed there late at night, after they had finished performing at other clubs and returned to the hotel. The list of musicians who stayed at the hotel and performed at the lounge is long and distinguished. It includes Duke Ellington (who once spent a whole summer there), Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald.
The lounge became well known as a jazz hot spot. It attracted jazz enthusiasts from all over the region. By the 1950s the lounge’s clientele had a large number of white patrons, because they could more easily afford the cover charge.
Racial discrimination in Denver, including discrimination in hotel accommodations and housing, began to change after World War II. By the late 1950s and 1960s, African American entertainers had a choice of hotels. They no longer had to stay in Five Points.
In addition, the end of racially restrictive housing covenants allowed middle-class blacks living in Five Points the opportunity to move to other parts of Denver. The Rossonian Lounge could no longer count on a steady stream of top talent. The Five Points neighborhood as a whole lost population and wealth, causing businesses in the area to struggle.
In 1957 Denver city councilman Elvin Caldwell and his wife bought the Rossonian for about $100,000. They hoped to turn it into “the most luxurious establishment catering to visiting Negroes between Chicago and Los Angeles.” Their plans, however, were never realized. In 1960 they had to give up the building because of tax issues on the property, although they later regained the title. In 1965 they attempted to sell the hotel and the lounge as separate businesses. The hotel continued to decline and was the scene of arrests for crime and prostitution.
In 1967 the Caldwells leased the Rossonian, which was still operating as a hotel. The next year they sold the building to Vera and Joseph Hamilton, who hoped to sell it to the city of Denver for use as a “halfway house” to provide support for people who had been released from prison. But, the cost of renovations would have been prohibitive, so the building was not selected for the program. It continued to do some business as a hotel. In 1973, the Hamiltons sold the Rossonian to Harry Goens, Jr. The building was appraised at only $70,000.
Major redevelopment efforts at the Rossonian began in the 1980s. In 1986 PSTAR ONE Properties bought the building. They secured a $378,000 loan from the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development. They used the money to buy a parking lot and to create architectural plans. But they defaulted on the loan the following year.
The city of Denver took over the building. In 1990 developer Tom Yates got a $350,000 Mayor’s Office loan. He bought the Rossonian and planned to open a jazz supper club in the building. In the early 1990s Yates received more than $1.8 million in city loans for renovations at the Rossonian. These included new walls, plumbing, and electrical systems. A three-story addition on the back was added. When construction was complete, the Denver Housing Authority leased the top two floors. In 1993, however, Yates’s company went bankrupt and faced tax troubles.
The Rossonian was placed under control of a nonprofit group called the Rossonian Limited Partnership. In 1998 the city foreclosed on the Rossonian. The Denver Housing Authority relocated after finishing its lease.
During this turbulent period, the Rossonian and the Five Points neighborhood began to be recognized for their historic significance. In 1995 the Rossonian was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2002, Welton Street became a Denver historic cultural district. Later, the district’s name was changed to the “Five Points Historic Cultural District.”
In 2005 developer Carl Bourgeois acquired the Rossonian for $800,000. Bourgeois lived in Five Points and had worked on other buildings along Welton Street. He hoped to open a jazz club and restaurant. But, his plans fizzled in 2007 due to problems with financing and infrastructure. The Rossonian was boarded-up and abandoned.
Redevelopment plans for the Rossonian gained new life in the 2010s. Business activity and construction in Five Points increased. In 2014 Bourgeois partnered with Sage Hospitality. The company had worked on the redevelopment of Union Station. Together they plan to build a luxury hotel and condominium complex at the Rossonian.
Work is underway to renovate the Rossonian. The design calls for a new eight-story structure behind the original three-story hotel. The connected buildings will contain 105 hotel rooms, 40 condos or apartments, two restaurants, a jazz club, a fitness center, and 60,000 square feet of office space. The project has received a $150,000 grant from the Denver Office of Economic Development. The total amount of public funds invested in the hotel since 1986 amount to more than $3 million.