Anchored by one of the city’s most beloved parks, Washington Park, more commonly called “Wash Park,” is a neighborhood known for its charming bungalow homes, abundance of mature trees and the friendly attitude of the active residents who seem to always be out walking (or lining up for ice cream at Bonnie Brae!). The park itself is a destination known to all Denverites as a great place to jog, walk, picnic, bike, play tennis, go fishing, paddle a boat around the lake and enjoy some time outdoors with friends and family. This is something that hasn’t changed, even in a hundred years.
A Brief History of the Washington Park Neighborhood
Washington Park began as a farming community out on the semi-arid plains, south of Denver and two miles from the South Platte River. People had begun to settle along the banks of the river in this area in the 1860s, in a short-lived town named “Montana City.” The population mostly stuck within reasonable distance of the river’s bank, as land further east was awfully dusty and poor for agriculture.
“Smith’s Ditch,” later known as “City Ditch” brought water to much of southern Denver in the 1800s. Image courtesy Stephen H. Hart Library & Research Center, History Colorado.
A large part of the solution for expanding away from the banks of the river was settled upon by John W. Smith, early merchant, hotel owner, and flour mill magnate (he owned 5 flour mills and is credited with grinding the first baking flour made in Colorado). Smith hired an irrigation company to dig a canal, by hand and horse-drawn plow, from the river to the plains. Originally named “Smith’s Ditch,” and later renamed “City Ditch,” the canal supported farmers settling, a park being built, and a suburban neighborhood growing around that park. The canal, begun in 1865, eventually reached 26 miles in length. It ran from Chatfield Reservoir all the way to City Park, with a brief stop in Washington Park to feed Smith and Grasmere lakes.
The town that grew up along the ditch, originally called South Denver, was incorporated in 1886 and annexed by Denver shortly afterward in 1893. The park itself was begun in 1899 and completed in 1908, and eventually loaned its name to the new Denver “streetcar suburb” (so called because folks from further north reached the city via the new road, Broadway, and a series of horsecar, and then streetcar lines). Residents of South Denver were not exclusively from the extreme wealth that one would’ve encountered in Capitol Hill, although the area did feature the homes of William Byers (founder of the Rocky Mountain News), John Evans (Colorado governor), and J.K. Mullen (businessman and philanthropist). A large number of South Denver residents were farmers, soon replaced by comfortable shop owners, business managers, and other middle-income professionals.
An aerial photograph of Smith Lake at Washington Park as photographed by Otto Roach of the Denver Commercial Photo Co., circa 1932-1935. Image courtesy Stephen H. Hart Library & Research Center, History Colorado.
As the neighborhood developed, so too did the refuge for relaxation and recreation that was the park. The much-beloved bathhouse and boathouse on Smith Lake were built in 1912 and 1913, respectively. Swimming was popular in the park’s Smith Lake until the 1950s, when fears of pollution and polio ended the fun. In the winter months, when Denver was a colder place than it is today, the lake regularly froze solid. Smith Lake’s freezing provided ice for the city in the pre-refrigeration era, and later hosted the even more popular activity of ice skating. On any visit to the park today, during any season, one would find it one of the busiest parks in the city. Washington Park hosts runners, volleyball players, picnickers, bikers, dog walkers, tennis players, fishermen, paddleboaters and kayakers, folk dancers, kite flyers, cross-country skiers, and folks doing just about any other leisure activity you can imagine.
Two women sit in a row boat on Smith Lake in Washington Park circa 1905-1915. Image courtesy Stephen H. Hart Library & Research Center, History Colorado.
Moving outside of the park a bit, one finds stories of interest to both the north and south. Just immediately south of the park was land that had previously belonged to the Colorado & Southern Railway Company. In 1922, the city purchased a large swath of this land, and in 1924 laid the cornerstone for what would become the South High School we know today. South Denver’s high school students had originally shared a cramped building with lower grades in the Grant School at South Pearl and Colorado Boulevard, so the new building was a vast improvement for the neighborhood. Designed by the team of Fisher and Fisher, the school was intended to comfortably serve 1,600, and opened its doors to just over 1,000 students in 1926. As part of a Civil Works Administration project in 1934, famous Colorado artist Allen Tupper True graced the school with two beautiful murals, still visible today.
South High School. Image courtesy Stephen H. Hart Library & Research Center, History Colorado.
The school initially adopted much of the symbolism of the Confederate South, not only referring to students as “Rebels,” but hoisting Confederate flags at sporting events, and including the image of their original mascot, a Confederate soldier called “Johnny Rebel.” By the mid-1970s, influenced by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and decreased social tolerance for Confederate imagery, much of the symbolism was abandoned. The school keeps the “Rebel” nickname to this day, while also being one of the more welcoming, diverse high schools in Denver (with students from 65 countries, speaking 40 languages).
Immediately north of the park today one finds the grand parkway avenue of South Marion Street, which features apartment buildings and the Steele School. The apartment buildings on the east side of the street are a newer, 1970s addition, and actually replaced a large, grand hotel that filled the entire block between South Marion and South Lafayette, and between Virginia and Dakota. The Park Lane Hotel was built in 1928, and featured 134 apartments ranging from one to five rooms each. The hotel did serve tourists, but was primarily a residential hotel that provided long-term living for the likes of Denver’s Mayor Henry Arnold, composer Vincent Youmans (“Tea for Two,” “No, No, Nanette”), department store owners, and a descendent of H.C. Brown (of Brown Palace and Capitol Hill fame). At different points in its history, the hotel featured a 9-hole putting green, a swimming pool, tennis and handball courts, and a penthouse restaurant with scenic views of the park.
A view of the Park Lane Hotel which once filled the entire block between South Marion and South Lafayette, and between Virginia and Dakota. Image courtesy Stephen H. Hart Library & Research Center, History Colorado.
Despite being marketed as “the Friendliest Hotel in the West,” the Park Lane struggled through much of its existence, going bankrupt twice and being sold at least five times in forty years. One owner, Benjamin Weinberg, restored the hotel in the late 1940s. In 1949 he allowed the KTLN radio station to operate from the hotel’s ground floor, complete with a fishbowl window for watching the DJs. In 1952, Denver’s first tv station, Channel 2, also operated from the grounds of the hotel.
None of these gimmicks worked, in the end. In 1966, the latest iteration of owners conducted a fire sale of hotel furnishings, hardware, and embellishments. This sale was followed by a fire sale of a different kind: they allowed the Denver Fire Department to spend several weeks setting fires in the building, in order to train on high-rise emergency response. The hotel was eventually scraped, and apartment buildings built in its stead.
Other landmarks of interest in the Washington Park neighborhood include the shopping districts on South Gaylord and South University (“Bonnie Brae”). Both are delightful walking districts featuring restaurants, cafes, unique stores, and some local services. They have a small town Main Street feel, as indeed they were once the commercial hubs of southerly Denver, conveniently located on Denver Tramway Corporation trolley lines. You might be interested to know the special twist to the founding of Bonnie Brae: previously serving as farmland, the area drew the eye of developers in the early 1920s, with most construction beginning circa 1923.
The canals that run through Wash Park are a popular place for children to wade and catch crawdads. Image courtesy Tara Bardeen
Unlike downtown Denver’s unusual street grid, which is wonky due to a lack of coordinated platting by several property owners, Bonnie Brae was intentionally laid down as curving streets and diagonals, to enhance the exclusive, small village feel to the neighborhood. Of even greater interest was that much of the land was purchased and developed by George Olinger, the mortician of Olinger Mortuary fame (visited the Highlands restaurant Linger for dinner? That’s his old shop).
While Old South Gaylord and Bonnie Brae continue to foster a small town feel, they’re also magnets for visitors from further afield interested in weekend brunch, catching a ballgame on a barstool, or engaging in a little light retail therapy.
Coming back full circle, we started this essay with the City Ditch canal that was the original lifeblood of the community. You might be surprised to know the ditch is still there. Much of it now runs underground, but it still feeds the lakes in both Washington and City Parks. It is the open canal you can trace diagonally bisecting the park, and then running along the western edge near the running path. This unassuming ditch, responsible for the development of much of south Denver, continues to provide for flora and fauna, and beautify one of our favorite parks. In her 1959 book Denver in Slices, Louisa Ward Arps referred to it as “the oldest working thing in Denver.” Nearly 60 years after her quote, it still is.
Wrap Wash Park Around Your Neck and Take It Everywhere
“One of the things I realized in researching Wash Park is that although the landscape of the park has changed a bit over time, the photographs people have taken through the years from the early 1900s until now are very similar from the spot the photos were taken inside the park to the activities people enjoyed.” – Anna Johnson, designer at Knotty Tie