Sixteenth Street has been Denver’s main street for shopping, commerce, and celebrations since the late nineteenth century. Starting from Broadway just north of Civic Center, it stretches about 1.75 miles northwest to Tejon Street in Highland. To help revive downtown commerce and relieve congestion, in 1982 most of the street was transformed into a pedestrian mall with a free shuttle bus.
In November 1858, William H. Larimer, Jr. established Denver City across Cherry Creek from the new town of Auraria. He created the Denver City Town Company and laid out a street grid. He named the main street after himself and the parallel streets after his associates in the company. Larimer and three others built cabins at the corners of what is now Larimer and Fifteenth Street. As Larimer hoped, his street became the main street of the new city, while Fifteenth (originally F Street) served as the major connecting road between Blake, Market (originally McGaa), Larimer, and Lawrence Streets.
During Denver’s early decades, Sixteenth Street (originally G Street) was hardly distinctive. The best stores lined Larimer Street, and the fanciest houses were found on Fourteenth. Sixteenth was a side street like Seventeenth and Eighteenth, with the blocks from Wynkoop to Lawrence stocked with a mix of businesses—a few hotels, some hardware stores, livery stables, lumber yards, and the Denver Mint—and residences stretching from Arapahoe to Broadway. The Denver Town Company’s office sat at the south corner of Sixteenth and Larimer.
One important sign of future changes came in 1872, when the Denver Horse Railroad Car Company started a new transit line. The route began in Auraria, traveled on Larimer to Sixteenth, turned onto Sixteenth for four blocks, and then turned left on Champa to reach the fashionable new Curtis Park neighborhood. The transit line soon made the four blocks from Larimer to Champa more valuable, laying the foundation for Sixteenth Street’s later prominence.
Becoming Main Street
In the 1880s and 1890s, Sixteenth overtook Larimer as Denver’s main street. The man who started that transformation was Leadville’s “Silver King,” Horace Tabor, whose investments in Denver real estate changed the city’s landscape. When Tabor moved to Denver in 1879, he recognized that the city was developing to the southeast and that Sixteenth Street, with its early public transit line, would play a major role in the city’s future. He placed the Tabor Block, constructed in 1879, at the corner of Larimer and Sixteenth. Designed by Willoughby and Frank Edbrooke, it was the finest office building in the city. Two years later, Tabor again hired the Edbrooke brothers for the Tabor Grand Opera House, an elaborate building that cost $750,000 and included an auditorium that could seat 1,500. The Tabor Grand was located at Sixteenth and Curtis—three blocks from Larimer—and served as a clear sign of Sixteenth’s growing importance.
Over the next decade Sixteenth Street experienced a construction boom. One crucial development was the 1883 opening of the Arapahoe County Courthouse at Sixteenth and Court Place, more than half a mile from Larimer Street. The courthouse exerted a gravitational pull on the city’s growth, spurring further development southeast along Sixteenth. Tabor donated land for a new Denver Post Office (1892) at the corner of Sixteenth and Arapahoe, while elegant offices and stores designed by Frank Edbrooke made Sixteenth into the most impressive urban street between Chicago and California: the Essex Building (1887) and the nine-story People’s National Savings Bank (1890) at Lawrence, the Joslin Dry Goods Building (1887) at Curtis, the Denver Dry Goods Building (1889) at California, the Masonic Temple Building (1889) at Welton, and the Majestic Building (1894) at Cleveland Place.
Center of the City
The Panic of 1893 caused a dozen Denver banks to fail in a single month and ended most new construction in the city for several years. Paradoxically, the panic also helped cement Sixteenth Street’s status as the city’s top commercial address by sending Larimer Street into a decline from which it never recovered. By the time the economy revived, Sixteenth Street was where the best stores, theaters, and office buildings wanted to be.
Soon Daniels & Fisher, Denver Dry Goods, and May all had large stores along the street, making it the main retail center of the Rocky Mountain region. The 1910–11 expansion of Daniels & Fisher added the Daniels & Fisher Tower at the corner of Sixteenth and Arapahoe; it was the tallest building in the city and soon became a prominent landmark and symbol. Meanwhile, additions such as the Empire Building (1906) at Glenarm Place, the Sugar Building (1906) at Wazee, the McClintock Building (1910) at California, and George Olinger’s neoclassical mortuary (1910) at the far end of Sixteenth in Highland continued to build on the street’s growing reputation. The eight-block stretch from Larimer to Glenarm served as a popular promenade where city residents could see and be seen.
In the late 1910s and 1920s, Sixteenth Street saw three important changes that reflected the rise of mass consumer culture across the country. The first was the introduction of national chain stores. The second was the rise of the automobile, which started to clog Sixteenth with traffic. The third was the construction of grand movie palaces such as the American Theatre, which opened at Curtis in 1916. At Glenarm Place, the 2,500-seat Denver Theater (1927) opened across the street from the elegant Paramount Theatre (1930), designed by Temple Buell. During these years the Tabor Grand Opera House was also converted to a movie theater. These movie houses solidified Sixteenth Street’s status as the entertainment center of the city.
Little new construction took place on Sixteenth during the Great Depression and World War II. At the street’s southeast end, the Denver County Courthouse at Court Place was demolished after the completion of the new Municipal Building at Civic Center in 1932. The site was turned into a temporary park while the city waited for a developer willing to buy the block. To the northwest, the Larimer Street skid row expanded to an entire district that encompassed Sixteenth past Lawrence, with formerly fancy hotels transformed into boarding houses full of transients.
After World War II, two simultaneous changes remade Sixteenth Street. Suburbanization led to the development of outlying office parks and shopping centers such as Cherry Creek and Southwest Plaza. Meanwhile, modernization aimed to mitigate the effects of suburbanization by remodeling or redeveloping Sixteenth Street’s historic buildings to make the street a more attractive destination.
Two vast developments illustrated these changes: William Zeckendorf’s Courthouse Square and the Denver Urban Renewal Authority’s Skyline Urban Renewal Project. In 1949 New York developer Zeckendorf acquired the former Denver County Courthouse site at Court Place. He paved the existing park to put in a temporary parking lot while he acquired more land across Court Place and assembled tenants to anchor the Rockefeller Center–style complex he hoped to build. To design the complex, he hired modernist architect I. M. Pei, who filled the blocks with a high-rise hotel made of precast concrete, a large rectangular department store, and a plaza and distinctive hyperbolic paraboloid along Sixteenth. As part of Zeckendorf’s plan for the complex, he arranged the merger of May and Daniels & Fisher; the combined May–D&F department store joined Denver’s first Hilton Hotel as the centerpieces of Courthouse Square, which was completed in 1960.
But with the effects of suburbanization accelerating and May and Daniels & Fisher no longer anchoring the Lawrence and Arapahoe corners, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) saw a large swath of downtown that seemed ripe for redevelopment. DURA’s plan, known as the Skyline Urban Renewal Project, called for the demolition of twenty-nine square blocks, including three blocks along Sixteenth (from Larimer to Curtis), to sell the empty lots for low prices to developers who would put up large new offices, hotels, and shopping complexes. Voters approved the plan in 1967, but it sparked a local preservation movement that hoped to save historic buildings like the Tabor Block. DURA spared Larimer Square and Daniels & Fisher Tower, but otherwise it leveled the entire area because it thought developers would prefer to start from scratch on empty blocks.
During the 1970s Denver experienced a boom as it became the headquarters of a growing energy resource market. The metropolitan area saw a 34 percent increase in employment from 1970 to 1977, and the metro area’s population jumped from 1.2 million in 1970 to 1.6 million in 1980. On Sixteenth Street, especially on the uptown blocks near Broadway, historic buildings came down to make way for gleaming new office skyscrapers. In 1976 developer Oxford-Ansco tore down the Majestic and Metropolitan Buildings and put up Great West Plaza in their place. A year later, Oxford-Ansco acquired the Republic Building, demolished it despite the opposition of local preservationists, and erected Republic Plaza on the site.
Sixteenth Street Mall
The skyscrapers that went up as part of DURA’s Skyline Project and the 1970s energy boom contributed to the growing congestion of downtown streets. At the same time, new jobs and residents meant downtown retail stores might have a future despite the ongoing suburbanization of shopping. To address both these issues—to revitalize Sixteenth Street as a shopping district while also ameliorating downtown Denver’s traffic woes—the city turned to the idea of a pedestrian mall.
Denver had first considered making Sixteenth Street into a pedestrian mall in the 1950s, but William Zeckendorf killed the proposal. The idea cropped up again in the early 1970s as a means of encouraging downtown businesses. Meanwhile, after the federal government rejected funding for a proposed subway line under Sixteenth in 1972, the Regional Transportation District (RTD) jumped on the embryonic pedestrian mall plan as a possible alternative: with a free shuttle bus along the mall and two hub stations at either end, RTD could reduce the numbers of cars and buses trying to navigate downtown streets.
By 1977, after several years of studies and planning, RTD, the Denver Planning Office, and the business group Downtown Denver, Inc. settled on the concept of a combination pedestrian/transit mall on thirteen blocks of Sixteenth Street, from Broadway to Market. Henry Cobb of I. M. Pei & Associates designed the mall, which featured three colors of granite paving blocks arranged in different patterns to designate sidewalks, shuttle paths, and a central pedestrian walkway. The plan generated enthusiasm among business owners and civic leaders, and construction started in February 1980, after the Urban Mass Transportation Administration agreed to fund most of the project. In October 1982 more than 200,000 people showed up to see the mall’s grand opening and watch the first Free MallRide shuttles go up and down the street.
Partly because of the mall’s success, even more of Sixteenth Street was later converted for pedestrian use. In 1994 the Sixteenth Street viaduct over railroad tracks, the South Platte River, and Interstate 25 was demolished and replaced with three pedestrian bridges, while most of the land between the railroad tracks and the river was made into Commons Park. In the early 2010s the redevelopment of Union Station sparked a building boom on Sixteenth Street in Lower Downtown and resulted in the extension of the pedestrian mall all the way to Wewatta Street. Today cars can drive on Sixteenth for only about two blocks in Highland and one block downtown.
Since its opening, the Sixteenth Street Mall has been one of the most successful pedestrian malls in the United States. It has simplified downtown transportation, encouraged greater pedestrian activity, and stimulated new developments such as the Tabor Center and Denver Pavilions. Many Denver residents use it daily for work or shopping, and it has proved to be an enduringly popular tourist attraction.
This status is not without its challenges. In the mid-2010s, the pedestrian-friendly and tourist-heavy Sixteenth Street Mall has drawn an increased number of transients, panhandlers, and people identified by Mayor Michael Hancock as “urban travelers”—voluntary wanderers who congregate on the mall. This phenomenon, along with a series of highly publicized violent incidents in 2016, have contributed to the perception among some city officials, residents, and visitors that Sixteenth Street is unsafe. In response, in 2016 the Denver Police Department tripled the number of officers on Sixteenth Street. Of course, people behaving erratically or violently in a heavily trafficked public space is hardly unusual for a city of Denver’s size—it even harkens back to the drunks and ruffians who prowled the city’s streets in the nineteenth century. Yet, through these and other challenges and changes, Sixteenth Street has remained for 130 years the main street of downtown Denver.