The most prominent building at the Five Points intersection in Denver, the Rossonian Hotel opened in 1912 as the Baxter Hotel. Renamed the Rossonian in 1929, its lounge acquired a reputation as the best jazz club between the Midwest and the West Coast, with performances by jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie. The hotel and lounge declined after the 1960s, as Denver’s black population left Five Points, but with business activity increasing in the area since the 1990s, 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 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. It was owned by and catered to whites.
The Five Points area, which had seen an influx of black residents already in the 1890s, became majority black in the 1920s, as Denver’s housing market boomed. Whites moved to outlying neighborhoods and practiced discriminatory housing designed to keep black residents segregated in Five Points. By 1929 about 5,500 of Denver’s 7,000 blacks lived in the area, which was home to a growing district of black businesses along Welton Street. Around that time the Baxter Hotel, still owned by the Baxter family, came under black management and was renamed the Rossonian after manager A. W. L. Ross. Ownership and management changed hands a few times over the next few decades but generally stayed within a close circle of friends and businesses 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 white hotels downtown turned them away. As a result, the first-floor Rossonian Lounge became the most important jazz club between Kansas City and Los Angeles. Top performers who passed through Denver often played there on off nights between concerts at larger venues downtown or 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 so well known as a jazz hot spot that it began to attract white patrons from other parts of the city; by the 1950s the lounge’s clientele was mostly white because more whites could afford the cover charge.
Various forms of racial discrimination in Denver, including discrimination in hotel accommodations and housing, began to wane after World War II. By the late 1950s and 1960s, black entertainers had a choice of hotels and no longer had to stay in Five Points. In addition, the end of racially restrictive housing covenants allowed middle-class blacks in Five Points to move to other parts of Denver and the suburbs. The Rossonian Lounge could no longer count on a steady stream of top talent, and 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, came to nothing. In 1960 they had to relinquish the building because they had not kept up with taxes on the property. They later regained the title and in 1965 attempted to sell the hotel and the lounge/restaurant as separate businesses; the hotel had been the scene of arrests for solicitation and prostitution.
By 1967 the Caldwells had leased the Rossonian, then still operating as a hotel, to Jerry Roseman. 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 home. 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. By 1973, when 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 and secured a $378,000 loan from the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development (MOED), which it used to buy a lot for off-street parking and produce a series of architectural drawings. PSTAR defaulted on the loan the following year, and the city of Denver took over the building. In 1990 the developer and former insurance executive Tom Yates used a $350,000 MOED loan to acquire the Rossonian, with the plan of opening a jazz supper club in the building.
In the early 1990s Yates-controlled businesses received more than $1.8 million in city loans for extensive renovations at the Rossonian, including new walls, plumbing, and electrical systems as well as a three-story addition on the back. When construction was complete, the Denver Housing Authority leased the top two floors for five years at almost $12,000 a month. In 1993, however, Yates’s American Woodmen Life Insurance company went bankrupt and he faced tax troubles. Regulators placed the Rossonian under control of a nonprofit called the Rossonian Limited Partnership. In 1998 the city foreclosed on the Rossonian, and 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, and in 2002 Welton Street became a Denver historic cultural district. (In 2015 the district’s name was changed to the Five Points Historic Cultural District, but it still covers only Welton Street.) 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 plans fizzled in 2007 in the face of intractable problems with financing and infrastructure.
Redevelopment plans for the boarded-up Rossonian gained new life in the 2010s, as business activity and construction in Five Points increased. In 2014 Bourgeois’s Civil Technology firm partnered with Sage Hospitality, which worked on the redevelopment of Union Station, to plan a luxury hotel and condominium complex at the Rossonian. Early designs called for a new eight-story structure behind the original three-story hotel, with the connected buildings containing 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, raising the total amount of public funds invested in the hotel since 1986 to more than $3 million.