Amidst more than a century of change around it, the Daniels & Fisher Tower has remained a 16th Street landmark. The top five floors are currently for sale.
It's hard to imagine Denver's 16th Street Mall without its iconic clocktower, but that came very close to being the case back in late 1960s. Urban renewal nearly claimed this architectural jewel, but preservationists came to the rescue of the Daniels & Fisher Tower during an era of rampant demolition of many of Denver's historic buildings of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The tower was originally known as the Campanile Tower, and it was the third-tallest structure in the U.S. when it was built. It was modeled after the famous Campanile in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy.
When completed in 1911, the tower was was the tallest man-made structure west of the Mississippi River at 325 feet, or 372 feet with the flagpole -- the equivalent of a 26-story building.
The only buildings taller at the time were both in New York City, the Singer and Metropolitan buildings. To put its height into local perspective, the clocktower was over twice as tall as the next tallest buildings, the First National Bank and the Foster buildings at 160 feet.
The D&F Tower was originally adjacent to a five-story structure at the corner of Arapahoe and 16th streets that became home to the Daniels & Fisher Department Store,
a shopping destination in the early part of the 20th century. Complete with dapper salespeople and the D&F Tea Room, it rivaled stores in San Francisco, Chicago and New York.
Mark Barnhouse, author of Daniels and Fisher: Denver's Best Place to Shop
, says the department store was "central to middle-class and to upper-middle-class lives," noting, "They had something for everyone, they had a bargain basement but they also had very luxurious departments."
The tower was home to break rooms, a classroom for juvenile employees and an executive dining room on the 14th floor, Barnhouse adds.
He details what a visit to the tower was like for early patrons and tourists: "They were dressed up, because everyone dressed better in those days. They would purchase a ticket, hand it to the elevator operator and ride the elevator to the top." Waiting for them were million-dollar views and a curio shop.
Wrecking ball dodge
For almost 50 years, the tower stood watch over the D&F store, when Daniels & Fisher merged with the May Company in the late '50s and the building was vacated. During the 1960s the building had various tenants, some a bit dubious. In 1971, the department store building was demolished but thanks to an effort by preservationists the clocktower was spared and designated a historic landmark in 1969.
One of its more colorful uses was in the late '60s was home to the radio station KBPI. Richard Hentzell, one of the clocktower's longest running office owners, resident historian and clocktower benefactor chuckles when he recounts how Bill Pierson, the owner of KBPI (the BPI is short for Bill Pierson Inc.) refused an order from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) to vacate.
It was DURA's intention to raze the entire D&F structure, including the clocktower. Pierson refused to leave even after electricity to the building was cut off. Pierson had to climb a silo ladder in the elevator shaft to reach the staircase on the sixth floor before climbing the staircase to the 20th floor where the station's broadcast studio was located. He also purportedly ran an extension cable from sympathetic neighbors to the studio and his transmitter mounted next to the flagpole.
After Pierson left, the building remained vacant for most of the '70s and deteriorated further. Having been saved from the wrecking ball, the clocktower still faced an uncertain future. In some respects, the historic designation worked against it, because the facade could not be substantially altered. There was precious little space in the interior for the requisite staircases, elevators and enhancements that would bring the building current with modern building codes. DURA was looking for someone with a plan that revitalize the moribund structure.
David French was just that someone. "We were fortunate to come up with an idea, a scheme for business condominiums, and it was chosen by DURA," he says. On the second floor, Fred Larkin Photography is the only remaining tenant of the original "condominiumization" of the tower by French.
Today, 16 floors are spaces for offices. Most floors have approximately 1,200 square feet of space. The building narrows slightly as it rises above the 16th floor and is capped by a belltower with a 2.5-ton bell. The clock mechanism is housed between the 17th and 20th floors. The original clockworks are from Seth Thomas Clocks, an East Coast manufactures that's still in business. There's a steampunk ambiance to theses floors that's reminiscent of Martin Scorsese's Hugo
A new era
If you're in the market for one of the most unusual spaces in downtown Denver, you should look into making an offer for the top five floors, but you'd better bring a fat checkbook and be prepared to hurdle a host of historical designation obstacles to convert the space to your specific needs.
The tower's current tenants include the Clocktower Cabaret in the basement and the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation on the fifth floor.
The upper five floors of the tower are currently operated by Clocktower Events and are open to the public for booking their wedding reception. marriage proposal or corporate function. Holly Kylberg, the owner of the upper five floors and Clocktower Events, is booking dates through 2017.
Even though the approximately 3,000-square-foot space is on the market, the sale contract includes a provision to allow for events to continue for one year after the sale. "We are going to take a business-as-usual approach until the building is under contract, which could be well into the future," says Kylberg. Historic Denver also offers public tours of the space.
You still have a chance to experience Denver's early cosmopolitan history at the top of the D&F Tower and a room with a view for 200 miles.
Photos by Jerome Shaw.