DENVER PARKS AND RECREATION DEPARTMENT RECORDS
Scope and Contents
Significant, yet not as complete, are the many site development plans for playgrounds and park recreational facilities in the city parks created mostly by Saco R. DeBoer during the 1940s and 1950s. Plans for the Red Rocks Amphitheater designed by Burnham Hoyt and the structures in City Park and Civic Center Park designed by Fisher and Fisher are included. The collection also contains numerous plans from the 1960s through the 2000s, which document the continuing development of the park system and the redevelopment of existing parks.
More specifically the collection includes improvement and redevelopment plans; reports on park facilities, history and use; planting and greenhouse records; survey books; financial, legal and personnel documents related to either the overall system or to specific parks. Oversize materials include requisition and warrant registers, herbarium sample books, and development plans. The bulk of the collection consists of design drawings, site development plans, master plans and maps.
Due to the fact that the documents and drawings were received from numerous offices within the Denver Parks and Recreation Department, the Public Works Department and from various park stations or offices, the collection did arrive in original order. Because of this, an artificial order was established for the collection. The documents are organized within three broad categories: the Denver Parks System as a whole, the Denver Mountain Parks and the Denver City Parks. Within these categories, materials are arranged alphabetically by park or site name. Whenever possible, the original order was maintained for groups of material donated by a specific office. Records (including correspondence, park profile sheets, and miscellaneous notes) in file folders are not necessarily arranged in chronological order.
The plans for the parks also arrived from different offices usually prearranged by a specific project such as the construction of a recreation center, playground or landscaping project. Due to the volume of drawings, the plans are organized within four broad categories: the Denver Parks System as a whole, the Denver Mountain Parks, the Denver City Parks, and the Denver Parkways. Within these categories, plans are organized alphabetically by park or site name. The majority of drawings and maps stored in the large plan case file folders are organized chronologically within each park so that the process of development at each park or site can be readily ascertained. Due to size constraints not all of the drawings for specific parks could be stored together.
Language of Materials
Conditions Governing Access
Biographical / Historical
From the more than 4,000 acres of Denver city parks and over 30 miles of developed urban parkways that make up the city's system of parks and parkways, the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation of the Colorado Historical Society has nominated 15 urban parks and 16 parkways to the National Register of Historic Places. The layperson tends to think of the National Register as a registry for architecturally distinct historic buildings; thus nominating a park and parkway system-a "theme resource nomination" -can be seen as a novel attempt to protect not only the built environment, but the landscape surrounding it. The nomination was made only after fully defining and refining the system to focus on those segments that retain their historic integrity today. These in turn were comprehensively surveyed by a six-person project team. What follows is excerpted from their final written report to the National Register of Historic Places. The entire document is available for purchase in the Museum Store at the Colorado State Museum.
Don Etter, author of the report and the project director; has written four books on the history of Denver architecture and lectures widely on local urban design subjects. He holds a B.A. in American history (including the history of architecture) from Yale and has studied land use planning at Harvard Law School. The research team consisted of Sally Pearce, staff historian for the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation at the Colorado Historical Society; Julie Woods, a community planner; currently studying landscape architecture at the University of Colorado at Denver; Jeff Woods, a landscape architect, a student in the master's program in architecture at UCD; and Barbara Norgren, preservation consultant and member of the Denver Landmark Commission, and coauthor of a history of Denver architecture and urban development. Gloria Mills, National Register program coordinator for the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation at the Colorado Historical Society, was responsible for compiling and reviewing the nomination form.
Denver's Park and Parkway system is an extraordinary resource, interwoven with the city's history, architecture, and culture. Further, it is a unique resource. No other urban park and parkway system of comparable scope or quality exists in the Rocky Mountain region. On a national scale, no other major park and parkway system has developed in a setting like that of Denver – the semi-arid climate of the High Plains with a 200-mile backdrop of snow-capped mountains.
All of Denver's parks and parkways share a common ecological background: they are part of a green oasis located at the edge of the High Plains – a place of little water, limited natural vegetation, a short growing season, and a harsh summer sun and cold winter wind. They also share a common relationship to and integration with the other layers of the city's basic urban design structure: the landforms, the transitways, and the grid system. And they are all part of a common legacy: the will, the effort, and the imagination of the first generations of Denver citizens, of energetic civic leaders, and of creative designers.
Denver's basic urban design structure consists of four layers. The first is made up of natural features, in particular the natural waterways (the South Platte River, Cherry Creek, and various gulches and ponds scattered throughout the area) and the mountain and piedmont landforms (the edge of the High Plains, the river bluffs, the mesas, the east slope foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and, of course, the extraordinary mountain backdrop). The second layer includes the transit corridors: the early trails, roads, and railways-evidence that Denver was both a hub and a jumping-off place-and the ditches and canals built to bring water from the mountains and plains and distribute it throughout the city. The third layer is the American grid system-of streets, blocks, and lots – which, in anticipation of the development to come, was laid out over the entire area within a few short years after the 1858 founding of the city. The grid system symbolizes and indeed promotes accessibility, which in turn is an essential ingredient of the American way of life.
The fourth structural layer is what has been called Denver's "garden system;” consisting of street trees, private lawns and gardens, parks and parkways, and other public open spaces. This is the layer which ties the others together and makes the overall design structure of the city coherent. Denver's parks and parkways are only one part of this garden system, but they are a large, much used, public, highly visible, extremely important, and symbolic portion.
In a complex and sophisticated way, Denver's parks and parkways interweave with the other three layers of the city's basic design structure. They have been designed to take advantage of splendid views of the Rocky Mountains, thus acknowledging the special relationship of the city to the great landforms of the West. They celebrate the availability, the use, and the symbolic value of water in an arid climate, thereby acknowledging that water is essential to both the reality and the image of the city. And they constitute landmarks which make the grid system comprehensible, reinforcing its rationality and softening its harshness, and thereby fulfilling a key part of the promise of urban planning in a democratic society.
In addition, Denver's parks and parkways reflect various styles of landscape design. They are the work of the great masters of landscape architecture and city planning – Reinhard Schuetze, S.R. DeBoer; Olmsted brothers, Charles Mulford Robinson, George E. Kessler; and others. The parks and parkways are planted with a great variety of horticultural specimens (which is particularly impressive in a dry climate supporting only a limited number of native trees and shrubs), and provide for both active and passive use – for sandpiles and for flower gardens. Some parkways function as transitways for heavy commuter traffic, while others are modest enhancements of residential neighborhoods. Some parks are tiny triangles of grass, embellished with a single tree, while others are counted, like Central Park in New York, among the huge "people's parks" of America. They enhance the urban environment by reducing noise and pollution and cooling the city in the summer.
Further, Denver's parks and parkways are located throughout the whole city, accessible to young and old, to rich and poor, and to all segments of Denver citizenry. They are the site of innumerable useful, beautiful, and memorable structures, including pavilions, gateways, statuary, fountains, and comfort stations, and they accommodate walkers and joggers, botanists and bird watchers, rugby fans and concertgoers. They form a sylvan backdrop to a dusty boom town and an amelioration for the pressures incident to urban crowding. And, perhaps most important, they are the foundation of the city's historic image and the quality of life which Denver citizens have enjoyed for over 100 years.
The Denver parks and parkways are, by any standard, an incomparable resource. But it is the fabric, the network of the system as a whole, which embodies and constitutes a key part of the basic urban design structure of the city. This system was first envisioned and initiated during the last four decades of the nineteenth century and was fully planned and carried to fruition during the first three decades of the twentieth century. The result is not simply a series of elaborately embellished or cleverly connected public open spaces. Rather it is a network, the combination of which not only commands the Denver urban setting, but provides a structural, a design, a functional, and an aesthetic framework for the city – Denver's historic urban design legacy.
Each of the plans for the three "cities" laid out in 1858 and 1859 at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek – Auraria, Denver City, and Highland – provided for various city blocks to be set aside for public parks. These particular blocks were in fact never set aside. However, the first Denver parks (it emerged as the sole city in 1860) did consist of individual city blocks, the first acquired in 1868 when local real estate promoters Francis Case and Frederick Ebert donated the one-block Curtis Park to the city. The promoters undoubtedly expected to profit from a greensward in the midst of their residential subdivision.
The street tree and parkway tradition is nearly as old. As early as 1867, Denver citizens began planting street trees, which were imported from the east by wagon and irrigated with water from the newly completed City Ditch. In 1869, the city itself first bought water for street trees. By 1874, Denver had acquired its first parkway land, the Park Avenue squares, a series of isolated tracts resulting from the diagonal extension of Park Avenue across the blocks of the north-south grid. By the late 1880s, maps and photographs show street trees, well-planted boulevards, and elaborately laid-out parks.
In the late 1870s and early 1880s, the farsighted Denver Mayor Richard Sopris, Colorado legislator Henry Lee, Denver civic leader Jacob Downing, and others discussed the creation of two great parks in Denver, one on the east and one on the north side, to be connected by a magnificent tree-lined boulevard, for which survey work actually appears to have been done. The Sopris-Lee-Downing "hourglass" plan was consistent with the national interest in large urban parks and founded on the simple Baroque principle of the ceremonial connection of great public spaces. Their plan, however, was only implemented to the extent of the acquisition of City Park.
In 1894, following the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, former territorial governor John Evans and his son William Grey Evans took a strong public stand in favor of a plan for a comprehensive Denver park and parkway system. That plan, which had been put forth by the city and was supported by the chamber of commerce, was attacked and ultimately defeated on the ground that it was overly ambitious. An undated map, prepared ca. 1894 by Edward Rollandet, a renowned local mapmaker who had immigrated to Denver from Holland and who was then soon to be chief draughtsman for the Denver Department of Public Works, shows a plan for the park and boulevard system of Denver which is undoubtedly the plan that the Evanses supported.
Rollandet's plan has an appearance of simplicity, but it was in reality quite sophisticated. He called for a series of parks scattered throughout the city, connected by parkways built along the existing grid of streets. The outer ring of parks were to be large water parks, which, with the connecting parkways, would provide a greenbelt around the city. The lakes themselves would celebrate the importance of water. Across the surface of these lakes would be uninterrupted mountain views. Although Rollandet utilized and emphasized the existing grid, he also provided for transitways along Denver's two natural watercourses, Cherry Creek and the South Platte River.
Rollandet's wonderfully ambitious plan for a "greenbelt grid" may have been defeated, but the park and parkway movement in Denver had not, as the Evanses had feared, been killed. During the next decade, Denver continued to build on the street tree, parkway, and park traditions which had been part of the life of the city in the four decades since the gold rush.
At the turn of the century, then, both the idea of a system and the actual physical beginnings were in place. However, the network, or fabric, which ultimately resulted was not fully articulated, rationalized, or designed until the time of Charles Mulford Robinson's brief 1906 report to the Denver Art Commission and George E. Kessler's subsequent 1907 map. (Robinson was an early-twentieth-century city planner of note and Kessler had a national reputation as a designer of parkways and boulevards.) Within two decades, the system proposed by Robinson and designed by Kessler was, for the most part, implemented, thereby providing Denver with an urban design foundation sufficiently strong that it still remains viable as the twentieth century comes to a close.
The Robinson-Kessler plan was simple, beautiful, and functional. It acknowledged and utilized the existing grid system as a foundation, with the same exceptions which Rollandet made. It is appropriate to note that the grid was not necessarily a design constraint for Robinson and Kessler. Their plan covered the entire city, as did the grid, but at that time much of the land over which the grid extended had yet to be developed. Their plan also recognized the significance of water and of Denver's mountain backdrop. Water features and mountain viewpoints thus became critical elements. The key to their plan, however, was the fact that they carried the design beyond the regular, overall pattern which would have resulted from the Rollandet greenbelt grid. They designed three circulatory parkway systems, which were to reach into East Denver, South Denver, and North Denver like the arms of a windmill, connecting and incorporating the parks like wind paddles. Those three arms were in turn connected with each other by the Cherry Creek corridor. It is the Robinson-Kessler "windmill" plan, then, which provides the theme for the park and parkway system.
The Key Elements of the Robinson-Kessler windmill plan were in place by 1920. Yet by that time Denver's civic leaders were already looking toward more ambitious plans. By 1929, the Denver Planning Commission issued a major new master plan for the parks and boulevards, conceived by S. R. DeBoer, the brilliant and influential landscape architect who, having immigrated to the United States from Holland in 1908, served Denver as its landscape architect from 1910-31, as an independent consultant to the city from 1932-58, and as the dean of his profession until his death in 1974. The 1929 plan was farsighted and ambitious and, like the Robinson-Kessler plan, both simple and beautiful.
But the 1929 plan was not just DeBoer's dream. It was hard edged. It attempted to integrate the past into the present; to assure the preservation and reinforcement of the system which by then was the key to the image and quality of life of the city; to deal with what were then seen as the major issues facing the system, namely dependence on the automobile for transportation and the growth of Denver into the core of a metropolitan area; and to respond to the need to make the parks more available to people of all ages, of all groups, and of all needs. And the 1929 plan attempted to address the issue of public participation in the planning process.
DeBoer's 1929 plan accepted the grid system and the Robinson-Kessler windmill plan, but his elaboration resulted in a plan which looks like a wagon wheel laid on top of a grid. The hub of the wheel was a boulevard which would encircle downtown Denver; the rim a ring of parks and parkways encircling the outer perimeter of the city. The spokes included the city parkways developed pursuant to prior plans, but DeBoer extended the spokes beyond the rim ring into the suburbs.
In addition, DeBoer urged new parks and parkways along undeveloped (and to some, inauspicious) waterways. He urged the full development of boulevards along the city's historic transit corridors and the extension of the great historic diagonals, including Speer Boulevard. He urged a continuing emphasis on the grid, planted with street trees in the Denver tradition. And, perhaps most important, he urged that all of this be done in a way which would maintain and enhance the historic foundation of the Denver park and parkway system.
In 1986 a large part of the Robinson-Kessler system is still intact. The well-known City Park, Cheesman Park, and Washington Park, along with twelve others of varying sizes and shapes, are connected, with some gaps, by sixteen parkways. These thirty-one parks and parkways contain a wide and interesting selection of plant material and indeed are an extraordinary High Plains arboretum. The dominant plant material is mature, having largely been planted during the last decade of the nineteenth and the first three decades of the twentieth century.
From the beginning, early planners, Denver boosters, tourists, and residents alike had viewed and used the Denver parks and parkways as a circulatory system, both for pleasure and for convenience. In his 1906 report, Robinson stressed that the system should be designed so that one could ride from park to park, taking one route after another through the city without ever backtracking. Robinson also emphasized the development of parkways within the confines of the existing grid, the only exceptions being the Speer Boulevard and Park Avenue diagonals, and a short parkway segment along the South Platte River. Kessler's 1907 map implemented those objectives.
The park and parkway system can best be visualized and understood today if it is described in a "circulatory" manner; that is, as if the reader were taking the kind of tour through the parks and along the parkways that Robinson suggested, that Kessler's design provided for, and that thousands of Denver residents and tourists alike have enjoyed.
435 oversize folders
11 photo boxes
10 oversize volume
9 oversize folios
2 audiovisual boxes
Immediate Source of Acquisition
- City planners -- Colorado -- Denver. Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- City planning -- Colorado -- Denver. Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Landscape architecture -- Colorado -- Denver. Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Parkways -- Colorado -- Denver. Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- DENVER PARKS AND RECREATION DEPARTMENT RECORDS
- Mary Foley, Tammi Haddad, Jeff Malcomson, Patti Plambeck, Andrew Quick, Ellen Zazzarino, Merrie Jo Schroeder, Abby Hoverstock and Kellen Cutsforth
- 1998; Revised September 2011
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Code for undetermined script
- State Historical Fund, administered by the Colorado Historical Society
- Edition statement
- Revised and encoded by Merrie Jo Schroeder, Abby Hoverstock and Kellen Cutsforth in 2011.