The Denver Eye Focuses its Lens on City History

Nightclubs, 1950s strip clubs, CSU's murderous dormitory, White Spot coffeehouses, old menus and high schoolers stealing off with a six-foot-tall Big Boy statue: As some folks tear them down, one man immortalizes the charming tidbits that comprise Denver's vanishing, beloved and bizarre culture.
Tom Lundin -- its pronounced Lundeen -- doesn't have much free time. The husband, father and computer engineer bides his scarce spare hours in the public library, mostly, unearthing historic images to share with the 8,441 folks who follow his personal blog, The Denver Eye.

It all started in the1990s, when Lundin wanted to learn more about music. He popped into Central Library, and began digging around the microfiche files. "Denver Eye just sort of snowballed," he says, explaining, "Both Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post would have pages and pages of ads, and I'd see old ads for movie theaters and then . . ."

Before long, Lundin was absorbed in images of midcentury architecture, too, and he began scouring the city for the structures he saw in the stacks, driving down backstreets in Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs. He drew pictures of the places he found -- not so uncharacteristic considering Lundin's induction into the work world had been as an illustrator for IBM.

"I started taking photographs of my favorite structures to use as reference for illustrations," says Lundin. He realized he was more interested in photography, and in 2009, Lundin launched his website as a forum for displaying personal photographs. A year later, he created a Facebook page, which he currently updates daily to showcase, well, just about anything that piques his interest.

Changing cityTom Lundin immortalizes the charming tidbits that comprise Denver's past and present.

"There's a guidebook by Michael Paglia and Diane Wray Tomasso called The Mid-Century Modern House in Denver," Lundin starts. "Many of the structures [in the book] aren't even around anymore."

According to Lundin, "The last decade has been the worst. I don't know if you drive up to Boulder," he says, "But it's like driving through a tunnel of four-story condos. You can't see the mountains anymore. Older people in Colorado say they can't even recognize Denver."

"It's sad, but I guess in some ways it's inevitable," Lundin continues. "People don't appreciate historic architecture until there's barely any left."

Lundin uses the fight to save the Mayan Theatre as an example of the public's general irreverence. "It literally was a last minute thing," he says. "They had people on the site trying to block the construction crew that was there to tear it down. If the Mayan can barely be saved, I don't know what's going to happen to lesser structures."

Lundin might not like it, but he prefers to stay positive. "I try to show stuff that's historic, and I try not to make a big deal about fighting the fight because it's almost too negative," he says.

Besides, Lundin continues, many of our town's old buildings are still here. "You can drive down Colfax or Federal and see buildings from the '20s or '30s," he says. "You couldn't do that in Los Angeles or in Florida."

If walls could talk

Lundin's specialty is unearthing Denver's "leftover architecture" -- his term for the scattered styles lining our streets.  

There are the early forms -- Prairie School, for example, which is where Frank Lloyd Wright got his start -- and the 1930 buildings in the international style -- "what you'd recognize as square and blocky, with lots of glass and aluminum features," Lundin says. The blogger's favorite look is usonian -- or U.S. utopian -- marked by a reliance on stone, wood and glass.  

You'll notice it today in old coffee shops like Tom's Diner, Lundin says, and the other White Spot restaurants "designed by Armét & Davis, who did most of the L.A. coffee shops, and Azar's Big Boy here in Colorado."

"White Spots were famous here in Denver," continues Lundin. There were about a dozen until the end of the '80s, when they were slowly torn down. "Denver Diner," says Lundin, "is another that's left, and there's one on West Alameda that has a trifold roof and is now a pot shop."

Englewood's stately Arapahoe Acres Historic District -- the first post-World War II residential subdivision listed as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places -- is one of Lundin's favorite local neighborhoods, with its 124 well-preserved usonian and international homes.

"Want me to tell you about my favorite house?" Lundin asks.  

That would be the Harry Huffman Mansion in Hilltop, designed in 1938 by Raymond Harry Ervin. "He was a movie theater mogul in Denver; he and his wife had seen the movie Shangri-La, and his wife said she wanted the house in the movie -- an Art Deco masterpiece," explains Lundin.

It's immediately clear he's drawn to architecture that comes with a good story -- and Johnson's Corner truck stop near Loveland definitely fits the bill.

"It was designed by Eugene Groves," Lundin says, explaining, "He did concrete construction, and I have a picture of his personal house. It's very bizarre: He put beds in closet spaces that were in the halls, and you'd open sliding doors and sleep in them. The kitchen table and cabinets were all concrete."

Lundin recently discovered that Groves "did a bunch of buildings on CSU's campus," he says. "According to a story I read and posted [on The Denver Eye], he built a men's dorm on the campus that had no interior stairs, and it says in the article they arrested him because he planned on killing his wife and burying her in that building."

"I don't know if that one's true; I'd never heard it before, and I need to look into it more," Lundin admits, noting that Groves "did end up in an insane asylum."

It's what's inside that countsLundin's favorite house is the Harry Huffman Mansion in Hilltop, designed in 1938 by Raymond Harry Ervin.

Lundin started his blog as a way of sharing personal photographs -- lately, though, he's been posting found pictures, often depicting life inside the buildings that attract him.  

In fact, the accidental historian currently has about 10,000 images from "newspapers, postcards, tourist guides, stuff like that," he says. They're all packed into his office. "That's just a huge mess," says Lundin. You might not notice, but he does a lot of cleanup and saturation of the photos prior to sharing whatever interests him most.

"Nightclubs, sometimes strip clubs from the '50s and '60s," he says, explaining, "There was one on Morrison Road called Tropics Nightclub that was fascinating -- it had hydraulics for when they lowered people from the floor to the ceiling, and there was a tropical storm in the place, with water and streams." That building's still around, by the way, and it currently operates as Stone Night Club.

Lundin recently "posted a photo from when students from East High School stole a famous Big Boy statue that was probably about six feet high, and buried it in the lawn at East," he says, noting, "Now, I think that same statue is on the roof of a pizza place on East Colfax."

"I love old restaurants," Lundin continues. "I like seeing old menus to see what people ate, and what things cost back then," he says.  

Cinema is another focal point. "The Curtis Street District had theater after theater," says Lundin. "Shortly after electric lights became popular, all of the theaters covered themselves with light bulbs. It was similar to going to Vegas in the '50s," he continues, adding, "Of course, it doesn't last, and people lose interest and lightbulbs become commonplace. But, during the silent era everything was covered in light."

Lights might fade, but Lundin's work keeps Denver aglow. And, it does much more than invoke nostalgia in older Coloradans or instill a sense of place in young out-of-towners. "I've seen where something I've posted takes on a life of its own, and gets a conversation going," he says.

And, for Lundin, that's plenty.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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