From humble beginnings to the iconic gem that it is today, discover the history of the Washington Park East Neighborhood.
In 1860, construction began on a ditch known as “The Big Ditch,” on the South Platte River about a half-mile above the modern-day Littleton to divert water for mechanical, agricultural, mining, and city purposes.
The completion of the irrigation system in 1867 enabled dry Brown’s Bluff to be transformed into lush Capitol Hill. The ditch meandered through the present site of Washington Park and Smith’s Lake,.
Although most of the ditch is enclosed in an underground conduit today, in Washington Park it still flows uncovered.
In 1886, pioneers James A. Fleming, Avery Gallup, and Rufus Clark planned to create a town known as “South Denver” in an attempt to escape the polluting influences of the big city and the “liquor element” which they feared would tarnish the wholesome qualities of the area in which they held substantial property.
The town of South Denver incorporated on August 14, 1886. The boundaries of South Denver extended from Alameda Avenue to Yale Avenue and from Colorado Boulevard to the South Platte River.
The East Washington Park Neighborhood received its own streetcar service in 1889, when the University Park Railway and Electric Line built through the area. The streetcar line stimulated settlement, and, in 1889, the Denver Eye reported that nearly one hundred houses had been built in South Denver.
In 1897, definite steps toward the creation of a long-anticipated park were taken using the land south of Smith’s Lake.
After the city acquired the land for Washington Park and the site began to take shape, residential development increased in the area. The commission selected the designation “Washington” for the new park in honor of the country’s first president.
The city selected landscape architect, Reinhart Schuetze, to design the new park Schuetze adopted the English landscape style for Washington Park, with focal points including a large meadow, the lake, and formal floral gardens.
Schuetze was assisted by John B. Lang, who served as the park’s first superintendent. John Lang directed the planting of trees, grass, and flowers; the construction of a children’s playground; and the creation of a Lover’s Lane at Kentucky between Franklin and Humboldt.
To enhance the park, a second lake south of Smith’s Lake was built in 1906, named Grasmere, and surrounded with willows.
In 1911, the city’s first bathing beach, complete with sand and a bathhouse, opened at the north shore of Smith’s Lake. 200 swimmers descended on the free facility on opening day.
The concrete bathhouse, built by C.J. Dunn, was described as “Mission style,” was a combination of Prairie and Craftsman style details, had a broad facade, with widely overhanging eaves and a small recessed entrance porch on the north.
In 1913, noted Denver architect J.J.B. Benedict designed an Eclectic style pavilion and boat house south of the lake. The upper level of the building was intended as a gathering place and picnic pavilion. The lower story was a boat house and ticket office for boat rentals, included storage space and a concession stand, and also served as a warming house for ice skaters in the winter.
The growth of population in the neighborhood resulted in the erection of the Robert W. Steele Elementary School in 1913. The school opened with 223 pupils taught by six teachers.
Work began on a new structure for the Washington Park Community Church began in 1917, and the building was dedicated on January 5, 1919. The church was one of the architectural gems of the East Washington Park Neighborhood, and a focal point of community social activity, even housing a branch of the Denver Public Library for a time.
When Denver journalist and writer Eugene Field’s house on West Colfax Avenue was threatened with demolition to make way for a gas station in the 1920s, Mrs. Margaret “Molly” Brown raised money to purchase the house and move it. In 1930, the Eugene Field house was moved to the eastern edge of Washington Park, in what was one of the earliest preservation efforts in the city.
A marble statue inspired by Eugene Field’s lullaby, “Wynken, Blynken and Nod,” had been commissioned by Mayor Speer in 1918. The statue was placed in Washington Park, and was later moved adjacent to the Field House.
The Park Lane Hotel, opened on June 16, 1928 on Marion Street Parkway between Washington Park and Dakota Street. The twelve-story apartment hotel encompassed 225 rooms and was known as the “darling of Denver’s high society.”
South High School was dedicated on March 25, 1926. One of the most remarkable features of the building was a tall tower which dominated the skyline above the neighborhood.
In 1924, a fire station for Engine Company No. 21 was built at 1540 East Virginia. The building had a two-story section with office and living quarters and a one-story bay with garage doors on the front. The station served the community until 1974, when a new building was erected at the same location.
As the surrounding neighborhood added houses and population during the decade of the 1920s, commercial uses on South Gaylord between Kentucky and Mississippi avenues also expanded. The block featured four grocery stores, three meat markets, two confectioneries, two bakeries, two creameries, a restaurant, and a coffee shop.
A decade later, the block expanded to include two drug stores, a hardware store, a dry goods store, a novelty works, three clothes cleaners, two beauty parlors, two barbers, two plumbers, a sheet metal worker, several doctors, a dentist, a shoe repair shop, and the Washington Park Press. The area was historically and remains the neighborhood’s largest area of business activity.
In 1925, East Washington Park even received its own motion picture palace, the Washington Park D & R Theater at 1028 South Gaylord Street. On opening night, two Shetland ponies were given away as a promotional event. The first night program included a musical presentation, All Alone At Last; a Pathe comedy, The First Hundred Years; and the feature film, Raymond Griffith in The Night Club.
Washington Park’s swimming beach continued to be a popular attraction, never more than during the economic doldrums of the 1930s. The entirely white population which frequented the beach reflected racial segregation which was the status quo in Denver during the era.
According to reports in August 1932, 150 African Americans, tired of not being able to use the beach, arrived at the park with plans to enter the water. The Denver Post reported they were driven to the site by “white Communistic sympathizers’’ who had alerted the police that the group would arrive at the park to go swimming.
After they had been in the water a few minutes, more than 200 white bathers left the water and armed themselves with clubs and stones and advanced menacingly. The protestors attempted to leave, but two of the trucks they had arrived in stalled, and their occupants jumped to the ground, fleeing in panic. The riot raged for more than half an hour, and spread for ten blocks along the east side of the park.
The police rushed in to break up the melee and arrested seventeen, including ten African-Americans and seven whites who had encouraged the blacks to assert their rights. The following day, the Denver Post judged that the incident resulted from the “evil influences of Communism” and called the protest “a ludicrous bathing demonstration.”
Following World War II, the neighborhood continued to attract middle class families, as well as new institutions and businesses which played an important role in the life of the community.
By the 1950s, the swim beach at Washington Park was plagued with problems. In 1955, swimming was banned for a while due to pollution. In June 1957, the beach was closed as a result of the high costs of chlorination. At that date, the visibility in the lake was so poor that lifeguards were unable to see bathers one foot below the surface.
In July 1967, The Denver Post reported that “Denver’s first big hippie ‘happening’ rocked Washington Park…as several thousand young people turned out for a ‘Love America Rally’ that lasted 10 1/2 hours.”
The attendees were invited to “Just ‘be’ and you’re in. Come as you are, or come as you aren’t. Smile, maybe or frown. Deal out love.” The crowd, which included “hippies,” elderly couples, little children, and long haired girls, was mostly barefoot.
“Ear-shattering music” was provided by several local groups, and some couples danced in the water of the ditch or swam in the lake. Organizer Bob Gately described the event as “a very peaceful thing…a love-in. This is really a be-in…a love America be-in.”
In 1970, about one hundred Denver policemen with riot sticks and tear gas marched through the south portion of the park clearing out visitors. The incident began when a police patrolman was threatened by a crowd of youths described as “hippies,” who shouted “Kill the hog. Get the pig.”
When several police cars rushed to the scene, the youths began to turn over trash cans and shout obscenities. The assembled officers then prepared to clear the park with the assistance of the police helicopter, which flooded the area with a brilliant light. The officers walked through swinging their clubs and banging them against cars that didn’t move away. Tennis and horseshoe games at both ends of the lake continued as the south area was evacuated.
As Denver began to recover from the energy and construction-related recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s, East Washington Park was increasingly viewed as one of the most desirable inner city residential areas. Heavy development pressure mounted in the neighborhood, as small historic houses were expanded by “pop tops” or scraped off altogether.
In 1999, residents of East Washington Park, drawn together by their concern for maintaining the historic character of the area, founded Progress and Preservation Together, a group which believes that both progress and preservation are possible in one of the city’s most significant historic neighborhoods.
Today, the Washington Park East neighborhood is a thriving, beloved community.