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University Park’s utopian start

The cornerstone of Old Main is laid

The cornerstone of Old Main was laid in 1890. Photo: DU Archives

Clark Secrest, writing in Colorado Heritage magazine in 1992, pointed out that the short-lived town of South Denver had its own railway and its own university, but almost no saloons. The original boundaries of South Denver extended from Colorado Boulevard to the east, Pecos Street to the west, Yale Avenue to the south and Alameda Avenue to the north. The Town Hall was located at 1520 S. Grant St. in the former home of three-term Mayor James Fleming. South Denver formally existed for only eight years, from 1886 to 1894, but played a crucial role in the growth and development of the University of Denver.

Colorado Seminary, as the University of Denver was originally known, was founded in 1864 by John Evans and a group of prominent Denver citizens. Evans had previously founded Northwestern University in Chicago and wanted to create a college in Denver so future generations wouldn’t have to travel back east for higher education.

Colorado Seminary occupied a single building at 14th and Arapahoe streets in Denver, approximately where the parking garage for the Denver Center For the Performing Arts now stands. In 1880 the school added the name University of Denver as the degree granting institution; Colorado Seminary would own all the property and the University would grant the degrees. By the 1880s the seminary building was land-locked, making expansion difficult. Downtown Denver also was increasingly becoming home to a large number of saloons and brothels—just the type of institutions DU’s good Methodist founders wanted to avoid. They wanted to create a utopian educational colony, a “university park.”

Evans already had some experience in this area, having helped develop Evanston, Ill., the Chicago suburb where Northwestern was located. Deciding to vacate the downtown Denver location for a more pastoral setting, DU’s Board of Trustees in 1886 considered several offers of land, including parcels in Barnum’s Addition and in the Swansea area. The offer that was accepted came from a group of farmers headed by Rufus “Potato” Clark, who promised 150 acres three miles southeast of the city limits in what was then Arapahoe County.

Clark had conditions to go with his offer, such as the planting of trees and the laying out of a street grid. He also demanded that no alcohol ever be made or sold in the area. (Legend has it that Clark was a reformed alcoholic who had been saved at a tent revival. Today some homes in south Denver still carry old covenants against producing or selling alcohol on the premises.) In areas outside of Clark’s original gift, the town of South Denver applied a $3,500 annual saloon license fee—high enough to keep out most of these types of establishments.

Within a short time other gifts of cash or outright gifts of neighboring land swelled the University’s holdings to nearly 500 acres in the area. Methodist Bishop Henry White Warren and his wife, Elizabeth, demonstrated their support by purchasing land east of University and in 1887 beginning construction on a home that came to be known as Gray Gables.

Clark’s land offered a stunning 50-mile Front Range view away from the smoke and pollution of Denver. Charles Haines, an early resident, recalled in an interview that jackrabbits and coyotes outnumbered people for a number of years.

Over the next few years the University sold lots in the area to raise revenue. In 1887 the Denver Circle Railroad extended a line to University Park.

The next year ground was broken in University Park for Chamberlin Observatory. Real estate promoter and amateur stargazer H.B. Chamberlin gave the funds to build the observatory. One advantage of building an observatory in University Park was the lack of urban lighting, which interferes with stargazing.

Evans erected an office building at the corner of what is now Evans and Milwaukee, which housed the area’s first Methodist Church. The building still stands and today is a real estate office.

In 1890 ground was broken for University Hall, and in the fall of 1892 the school officially relocated to University Park. Church services were held in University Hall, which also housed all of the classrooms, administrative offices, the library and the gymnasium.

Though South Denver had several hundred residents by the mid 1890s, only a dozen or so residents were actually living in University Park. Despite these small numbers, the park already had telephone service, a post office, graded roads and water from a well at Milwaukee and Warren. It would be more than 10 years before electricity was installed throughout the community. South Denver was still largely farmland, primarily growing alfalfa, corn, beets, apples and cherries.

The town of South Denver ceased to exist when voters approved annexation by the city of Denver, primarily for financial reasons. Though the residents of South Denver wanted to maintain their independence from the city, the 1893 silver panic had negatively impacted real estate values; annexation would lower taxes and provide more city services.

South Denver was not alone. Within 10 years Denver had annexed Park Hill, Highlands, Barnum, Colfax, Globeville, Montclair and Valverde.

Today’s south Denver is a vibrant part of the metropolitan area with beautiful homes, large trees and a variety of shopping and restaurants. Though liquor laws were relaxed after World War II and it is no longer so difficult to find a drink in south Denver, neighbors still debate the granting of new liquor license applications.

The trolley tracks, torn out in the ’40s when buses became the norm, are being replaced by light rail. Chamberlin’s 20-inch refractor telescope remains the largest of its type in the Rocky Mountain region and still attracts scores of viewers to Observatory Park. Though much of the breathtaking Front Range view is long gone, glimpses can still be seen here and there from the higher vantages on campus.

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