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West Colfax Sketches

By Robert Autobee

Ahalf-century ago it was the Space Age. Optimism was in the air. An optimism that inspired a generation of architects to form inert materials into approximations of flight and transparency. Named after a Los Angeles coffee shop, the Googie style of architecture defines America’s mood between the joy of returning home from war and the uncertainty and mistrust of the Watergate era.  Swooping roofs, glass exteriors, and a radically revolutionary approach to structure characterized the buildings of this era.

Googie designs captured West Colfax’s economic giddiness during this period. One architect used Googie to give this mood a form.

Richard Crowther was one of Denver’s busiest architects during the city’s post-World War II economic boom. More or less self-taught, Crowther moved to Denver from San Diego to begin the redesign of Lakeside Amusement Park’s ticket booths and ride entrances in 1948.

From the drafting tables of Richard Crowther & Associates in Cherry Creek, his commissions – the Eddie Bohn Motel at 4801 W. Colfax (yes, in Denver, but still on West Colfax), Joslin’s and Fashion Bar department stores, and the Cooper Cinerama on South Colorado Boulevard – were instant landmarks epitomizing a young city racing to become a regional metropolis.

On West Colfax alone, Crowther’s buildings included Berry’s Drive In at 7030 W. Colfax (completed in 1956), the Copper Penny at 7290 W. Colfax (1958), and the Fox Theatre on Wadsworth one block north of West Colfax.

Half-century later, what do these Crowther-designed mid-century masterpieces have in common? They’re all gone. However, despite some alterations, two of his commissions still stand on West Colfax.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Lakewood was not yet a city, but West Colfax was Colorado’s main commercial artery. Expansion and growth were all around. Lots were still available along the avenue to build restaurants and specialty shops. New businesses wanted a new look. Enter Richard Crowther.

In 1954-55, Crowther ventured west from downtown Denver to design his first commission on West Colfax. To unaccustomed eyes, the Copper Kitchen at 8591 W. Colfax was unlike any other building standing on the avenue.

The building’s “look” merited a mention in its grand opening, full-page newspaper ad: “The Contemporary designs and furnishings will interest you immensely” tossed in between references to “Come as you are” dining and “Pit prepared dinners smacking with Hickory.”

The Rockley family has operated their music store in the building since the mid-1990s. Family matriarch Nina Rockley recalled that the Copper Kitchen was the hangout for Jefferson County’s movers and shakers in the days before Lakewood’s incorporation as a city.

On West Colfax it was raining copper for Crowther by the late 1950s. His Copper Penny design was much more in the Googie style than the Copper Kitchen.  At the Copper Penny, the roof soared and the Tiki-esque lettering of its neon sign shone at dusk. A review of Crowther’s papers at the Denver Public Library-Western History Collection includes a ripped page from an unidentified national publication complimenting the Copper Penny’s covered carports as “a must in the changeable weather of Lakewood (near Denver) Colo.”

Latecomers to the neighborhood might remember this building as Whisky Bill’s. The Copper Penny dropped in the early 21st century to make way for a Home Depot.

In October 1961, the women’s pages of both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News ventured out of downtown to lavish accolades on the Lilli Russell dress shop. The Post’s Fashion Editor, Gretchen, (yes, just Gretchen) commented that the shop resembled “a charming country club.” (What other kind is there?)  Once inside, “you’ll pause to recover your breath” after you took in the beige, white, and black interior. The News correspondent countered with just the facts: “The structure is fashioned from concrete block, utilizing a butterfly roof construction.”

Located at 8990 W. Colfax, the Lilli Russell dress shop has spent most of this century as the Hob Nob Doggie Daycare Center. Crowther used nearly all of the elements from what was hot in early 1960s commercial building design – brick, unusual roofline, plate glass fronts – to create this modest example of the Googie style. The good news is the building is still standing and still in use. And despite the change in the business’ target species, the Lilli Russell building has retained much of its original integrity.

At the height of his powers in the early 1960s, Crowther explained to the Cherry Creek Courier the architect’s role in the life of a city. Crowther believed the architect, “combines an aesthetic sense with mathematical perception to give his work something more than mere practicality. The finished work must breathe life as though it had an existence in itself.”

Crowther passed away on Christmas Day of 2006, in his 96th year. Googie was good to Crowther. Crowther was good to West Colfax through his designs that people still talk about today. Undoubtedly, he was aware that commerce has an unfortunate holdover architecture. Toward the end of his life, an assault led by the next generation of developers was already underway on even the most distinctive of his designs. This attack has resulted in a generation of less-inspired buildings. Those who appreciate the art within architecture realize that the sameness of today’s designs have yet to completely sweep away Crowther’s contributions and legacy.

Thank you to the Denver Public Library-Western History Collection for access to the papers of Richard Crowther.