Civic Center Park, like many of Denver, CO developments, went through a long and tumultuous public process before ground was broken. Many early Denverites like Mayor Robert Speer had grand visions for the events, artwork, and cultural exhibits the park would represent and host.
Its history can be traced back to 1878 when Mayor Richard Sopris created a plan for two city parks to be connected by a tree-lined boulevard. In 1890, when the State Capitol and its surrounding park were built, more concrete plans for a larger park complex were originated, heavily influenced by the City Beautiful movement and Mayor Speer’s vision. It continued to evolve through 1932 when the City and County building was finished. Between the completion of the two imposing buildings to the east and west, smaller structures like the Carnegie Library from 1909, now known as the McNichols Center, and the Voorhies Memorial and Greek Amphitheater both from 1919, were built.
But Civic Center Park did not go up in a vacuum. An early map shows that the plots of land where the Carnegie Library and the U.S. Mint stood were flanked by mostly brick buildings and livery stables in 1903. Electric railways ran along Broadway, winding between warehouses and businesses. Creating the Civic Center meant buying the land and razing these buildings to the ground. There were protests and debates about which blocks to buy, how much to spend, and the arduous task of connecting downtown’s 45-degree grid with the north-south direction of the rest of the city. Business owners and other influential Denverites quickly began squabbling over the cost of connecting the already-completed statehouse and its 20-acre park to an official Civic Center.
In 1908, it is feared that the largest civic center plans would effectually prevent the growth of the business district out Broadway, Acoma, and Bannock streets. Nothing should be done to prevent the spread of business. In 1909, the city of Denver voted on beginning land acquisition, and after two years of court battles with opponents, the Colorado Supreme Court allowed the process to begin. The city bought the land it needed for $1.8 million. A drawing by the sculptor Frederick MacMonnies in 1907, laid out the park much as it is today.
The European-style row homes surrounding the Civic Center and the massive fountain in the center may not behave materialized, but the Voorhies Memorial, Greek Theater, McNichols Center, and the City and County building came to be much like the proposal imagined, even though the final buildings wouldn’t begin construction until decades later.
Furthermore, in the mid-2000s, proposals to redevelop parts of Civic Center Park inspired heated debates and indicated that something needed to be done to preserve the century-old space, which the nonprofit Colorado Preservation Inc. listed as one of the state’s endangered places in 2007. In 2009 Denver’s Landmark Preservation Commission approved new design guidelines for Civic Center, and that year the city used $9 million from the Better Denver bond program to fund a rehabilitation project focused on restoring the park’s structures, walkways, and landscaping. By 2011 Colorado Preservation declared that the park had been saved.
The Civic Center Conservancy, a private nonprofit established in 2004 to help revitalize the area, now organizes a weekly outdoor café with food trucks during the summer as well as an outdoor film series, a fitness series, and other programs. Civic Center Park continues to serve as the symbolic heart of the city, home to festivals such as A Taste of Colorado, the 420 Rally, and Super Bowl victory celebrations as well as political demonstrations and protests.
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