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Good-by to the dowager downtown. This is the new Denver.

Good-by to the dowager downtown. This is the new Denver

"Denver's downtown was once like plain yogurt--bland. Now we're building an image as an exciting city, and the 16th Street Mall is a big step,' says city planning director William Lamont, Jr.

Denver grew apace in the 1970s (population rose 29 percent) and glassy high-rises sprouted on the skyline--including three 50-plus-story skyscrapers. In the process, some historic buildings were razed--but preservationists rose to spare sections of old lower downtown.

The skyscraping architecture is by no means universally loved, and big-city nightlife is relatively scarce; still, the queen city of the Rocky Mountain West is discarding the image of a faded dowager. Downtown is alive with shops, cafes, and small hotels; nearby, a needed $41-million performing arts center has seen constant use since its opening in 1978.

The most startling change: the new 13-block transit mall that ties the old and new areas together and gives downtown back to the pedestrians.

Fall is an inviting time to visit this bustling, changing downtown, and mall shuttle buses make it easy. A new symphony and repertory play season has begun, and a huge new complex of shops and a hotel opens on the mall.

Using our map and listings as a guide, you can sample the best of old and new in an afternoon or all-day tour. Fall weather can vary from glorious Indian summer to wet and cold--so come prepared.

How does the new mall work?

Let's backtrack. It began with study, arguments, more study. Planners for the city and Regional Transportation District (RTD) looked at other transit malls. They checked out Portland, which routes its city buses onto its mall, creating a fumy din during commute hours. Planners looked at successful malls--Philadelphia's Chestnut Street mall, which links major activity hubs like shopping, office, and historic centers--and malls still having problems--such as Granville Mall in Vancouver, B.C., aimed to improve traffic flow but meeting limited success.

In the end the planners, working with architect I.M. Pei, decided to close 16th Street to all traffic except the RTD's 19 shuttle buses--and to make these as quiet and nonpolluting as feasible.

Apart from the shuttles and crossover auto traffic, the mall is for pedstrians only. Sidewalks are 19 feet wide, and a 22-foot aisle separates the two bus lanes.

The mall is paved with granite, lined with 200 honey locust and red oak trees, dotted with fountains, benches, and--a surprise --movable chairs. Detractors have called the design cold, but at noon it's lively with brown-bag lunchers and impromptu entertainment.

You can hop on the free shuttle at any corner. The 40-foot buses are easy to board, with double doors that open wide at street level. They move off slowly and stop at every block; each is announced.

Like horizontal elevators, they take people from one end of this major thoroughfare to the other, giving easy access to all downtown attractions. Hours are long: 6 A.M. to 1 A.M. weekdays, from 7 A.M. weekends and holidays. And service is frequent: during the day, buses run every 10 minutes (every 3 minutes in commute hours); between 11 P.M. and 1 A.M., they run every half-hour.

Sampling the sights on the mall: the capitol, a firehouse, Western art

A logical place to start your tour is at the Civic Center, where there's metered as well as lot parking.

The State Capitol (1), open 9 to 4 daily, offers free tours every half hour.

The nearby Denver Art Museum (2) has an impressive array of Asian, pre-Columbian, and Native American arts. Admission is $2.50; open 9 to 5 Tuesdays through Saturdays (till 8 Wednesdays), noon to 5 Sundays.

Want to shop for Southwest arts? Try the Native American Trading Company, a tiny gallery in an old house at 1301 Bannock Street across from the museum; we found rare saltillo sarapes, Bodmer watercolors, photographer E.S. Curtis folios. It's open 10 to 6 daily except Sundays.

The U.S. Mint (3) has free 20-minute tours, weekdays 8:30 to 3.

Across the street at the recently opened Denver Firefighters Museum (4), guided tours show off venerable fire trucks and memorabilia in an 1898 sandstone station house. The real fun is upstairs: the bunk room is a cafe with inexpensive, tasty fare (try the hook-and-ladder sandwiches). Both museum and cafe are open weekdays 11 to 2; museum admission is $1 for adults, 50 cents for children.

Walk three blocks down Tremont Place to the 16th Street Mall; look up for a view of sky-reflecting office towers. That notch-topped building is Philip Johnson and John Burgee's award-winning bank tower, dubbed "the mailbox' by locals. If you have time, cross Broadway and view the atrium lobby from 17th and Lincoln streets.

Architecture buffs will also want to check out the great lobby of the Colorado National Bank at 17th and Champa, with its marble columns and colorful murals.

One block north of the mall, the new Museum of Western Art (5) houses 125 impressive works, from the early landscapes of Bierstadt and Moran to action paintings and bronzes by Remington and Russell. A section on New Mexico artists includes works by Berninghaus, Blumenschein, and O'Keeffe. See them all in the stately 1880 brick Navarre Building; admission is $3, $1.50 for students and seniors; hours are 10 to 6 Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 to 5 Saturdays, 1 to 5 Sundays and Mondays.

Nearby, the 1888 Trinity Church (6) is a Victorian Gothic surprise, with a graceful lava stone spire; go inside to view the exquisite Tiffany stained-glass window.

Sunday and Monday nights from October 14 to April 20, you can attend Denver Chamber Orchestra concerts here ($13).

The landmark Daniels and Fisher Tower (7) at Arapahoe Street was built in 1909, inspired by the campanile of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. It has been renovated to private offices, not razed--a key success for preservationists.

At Lawrence Street is the new Tabor Center (8), due to open October 25 at noon with a parade down the mall. It boasts 60 shops and restaurants inside a soaring atrium fronting the mall; all will stay open until 9 each evening except Sundays. Across the street is Writer Square (9), a stylish brick village of designer shops and cafes.

A few steps away is the Larimer Square Historic District (10), the city's first downtown; most buildings date from 1870 to 1900. Here you'll find 40 shops and 11 restaurants, including some elegant ones. A two-block walk here reveals the common commercial architecture of the period. Three graceful standouts caught our eye. At 1421 Larimer, note the graceful archways echoed by rounded-top windows and the bracketed eaves. Next door at 1429, the Looms Building seems almost severe with its plain rectangular windows, relieved by dentils with Greek scrolls. At 1439 Larimer, the Crawford Building shows a return to delicate detailing with its scallop-topped windows, carved cornices, cast-iron columns.

For another look at early downtown, walk over to the Denver Union Station (11) at 17th and Wynkoop streets; Historic Denver offers a free changing show of historic photographs here, daily 7 A.M. to 9 P.M.

Dining, mall entertainment, carriage rides, and guided tours

Dining. The mall area abounds in dining spots. A few suggestions: Broadway Grill, 16th and Broadway, is jammed at lunch but great for people-watching through its glass walls. The Oxford Hotel, 1600 17th, has a wonderful art deco jazz lounge (music begins at 9 nightly except Sundays). Try China Terrace in Writer Square for good, inexpensive dim sum. Or buy picnic supplies at The Market at 1421 Larimer and lunch in one of the mall plazas.

Music. Noon prgrams are scheduled each Wednesday on the mall; call (303) 534-6161 for locations. And spontaneous music can often be heard at four lovely plazas: at Prudential Plaza and Skyline Plaza (Arapahoe and the mall), Republic Plaza (Tremont Place), and First Interstate Bank Plaza (17th and California).

There's a free Oktoberfest at Larimer Square on the weekends of September 22 and 23, 29 and 30, and October 6 and 7; listen to oom-pah-pah bands and watch folk dancing each day from noon on.

Tours by foot, carriage. You can explore downtown by foot or van with a guide from Historic Denver, Inc. A 2-hour walk costs about $5 a person; for times and reservations, call (303) 534-1858.

Three companies offer horse-drawn carriage rides along the mall or around Civic Center; prices begin at about $20 per couple for a half-hour ride. Call Denver Carriage at 230-8562, Colorado Carriage at 987-6850, or Rocky Mountain Carriage at 431-1894. All pick up at downtown hotels or at Larimer Square.

Concerts, plays. The fall season has begun at The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 14th and Curtis. The Denver Center Theatre Company presents plays in repertory from October 29 through June 7. The Robert Garner Center offers musicals October through April, and the Denver Center Cinema shows classic films. For details on all these programs, call 893-3272.

The Denver Symphony Orchestra performs September 20 through May 19, with Friday and Saturday night pops concerts from September 14 through June 15; call 592-7777.

Looking ahead: successes, challenges

Will the mall flouris or stagnate?

The outlook is promising. Upkeep and management are assured, thanks to the nonprofit Denver Partnership, Inc., supported by mall area businesses. A new ordinance backed by Historic Denver encourages facade renovations of historic buildings and gives incentives to builders to make new high-rises step back, preventing a concrete canyon look.

Although rush-hour traffic continues to clog downtown streets, a new transfer station at the mall's Civic Center end will soon ease the problem by taking 300 bus trips per day out of the core area.

While much remains to be done, preservationists recently scored a major success with a key zoning change. It allows owners of designated city landmarks that are not built as large as today's zoning allows to sell off their unused floor area allowance to other developers--who may then enlarge their proposed buildings. This should help spare some fine old buildings; it's an innovative approach that other cities are following with interest.

Photo: Double doors on free shuttle permit quick entry or exit

Photo: Glass-walled Broadway Grill looks onto high-rises at mall's northwest end

Photo: Viewed from office tower, 16th Street Mall (left) looks sleek; in map above, numbers key to sights listed in text

Photo: Graceful glass atrium covers elevated walkways of Denver Performing Arts Center; symphony and theater seasons begin in fall

Photo: Fountains, graceful lamps, and planters soften look of granite-paved mall; wide sidewalks and center aisle invite strolling

Photo: Elegant 1880s French-style coach of Denver Carriage Company takes passengers on downtown tour at dusk. Daniels and Fisher Tower rises in back

Photo: Sheets of water on 13 stainless steel tubes of fountain create a fun-house mirror effect at First Interstate Bank Plaza

Photo: Noontime on the mall often brings out unexpected performances, like this kilted group of dancers promoting Highland games (they'll take place again next August)

Photo: The first firehouse in the city is now a museum; you can try on helmets, flameproof clothing

Photo: An impressive collection at downtown's new Museum of Western Art includes boisterous Remington bronze, Coming Through the Rye

Photo: A chorus of Sweet Adelines (that's their name) sings before Victorian Trinity Church, site of regular Sunday and Monday concerts, starting in mid-October
COPYRIGHT 1984 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Oct 1, 1984
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