"LoDo" It's Denver's Lower Downtown District ... Tumbleweeds, Abstract Art, and 20 Blocks of History

Article excerpt

True grit still lingers in Denver's Lower Downtown district-a reminder of Western roots in the midst of renovated brick warehouse buildings. Contemporary galleries, funky cafes, and jazz clubs are newly opened (or planned) in former saloons and saddleries. Painted signs from early 1900s businesses are still legible on false-front buildings, now used for law offices and design studios.

As one resident gallery owner describes it, "You can be looking at abstract paintings, then turn around and see tumbleweeds roll down the street."

Rebirth of Denver's most colorful area

Lower Downtown (nicknamed "LoDo") is bounded roughly by the 20th Street and Larimer Square shopping areas and steel-and-glass towers to the southeast, Cherry Creek to the west, and the sprawling railyards of the Platte River Valley to the north.

In 1988, the city declared the 20-block area a historic district-though not before some classic structures had been razed to make way for income-producing parking lots, giving some streets an admittedly gap-toothed appearance. Even so, the area vibrates with a spirit that was missing in the lean years following the 1984 plummet in oil and property prices.

The best way to visit LoDo, crisscrossed as it is by one-way streets and looming viaducts, is to park and walk; unattended lots cost about $2 a day (most accept coins and bills). Or catch the free 16th Street bus shuttle; it drops you off at Market Street Station, 16th and Market. Here we highlight some worthwhile stops on a walk through the district; numbers correspond to the map above. Telephone area code is 303.

LoDo's matriarch: Union Station

A good place to start your tour is at Union Station (1). Activity surrounding the cavernous Beaux-Arts structure, first completed in 1880 and rebuilt between 1912 and 1914, is what made LoDo grow around the turn of the century. Back then, 80 trains a day stopped here, serving more than a million passengers a year.

Today, only two Amtrak trains arrive and depart daily (at 8 and 8), plus a ski train in winter. Tracks that covered the roughly 400 acres of the Platte Valley behind the station have been removed; new development on the site may include an amusement park and baseball stadium.

In the station's south wing, Grandpa's Depot is crammed with authentic railroad memorabilia-Pullman blankets, spittoons, and 101 types of dining-car china. Hours are 8 to 8 daily.

If you're in town the last Friday of the month, September through May, don't miss the free show in the station's basement galleries. From 7:30 to 9:30 P.M., you'll find model railroaders piloting up to 10 trains through a remarkable Rocky Mountain scene about the size of a rollerskating rink; tracks loop through tiny mining villages and over miniature mountain passes.

Fine fare and syncopated rhythm

From the station, head northeast on Wynkoop Street. Note the covered loading dock; a vestige of earlier days, it now functions as a sidewalk past the row of handsome brick warehouses.

Also look for decorative details on the buildings: brick banding, Romanesque arches, granite foundations. They hint at the dual purpose of these multistory warehouses: first floors often served as showrooms, grandly finished with pressed-tin ceilings, oak trim, and other details to impress customers; the upper floors stored goods or housed processing facilities. A good spot to see this workmanship is the Wynkoop Brewing Company (2), in the former J.E Brown Mercantile Company building at the corner of 18th and Wynkoop streets. The restaurant-brewery attracts a boisterous crowd at all hours; lunch and dinner are served daily. The menu leans toward pub fare with a Southwestern twist, with plenty of vegetarian offerings. Call 297-2700. Free brewery tours run between I and 5 Saturdays. In the evening, you may hear strains of fusion, big band, swing, and Dixieland jazz floating up from the building's refurbished basement, which once housed a spice mill. …