Gone But Not Forgotten: Denver’s Vanished Landmarks

an old man and his grand child riding on a roller coaster
Photo Credit: Unsplash.com

Cities aren’t static; they’re living entities with scars, layers, and half-remembered stories written into their streets. Modern-day Denver, with its shiny skyscrapers and trendy neighborhoods, might give the impression of a city with its eyes firmly on the future. But hidden in plain sight, sometimes literally beneath the pavement, are remnants of a different Denver.

Picture grand buildings, bold architectural statements that once held pride of place. The ornate department store where your grandparents bought their wedding gifts, the bustling train station that welcomed countless newcomers, the quirky corner diner where legends say a famous musician first took the stage. These landmarks weren’t just bricks and mortar; they were woven into the fabric of daily life.

Progress, changing needs, and sometimes plain old neglect, all take their toll. Buildings fall out of fashion, land becomes more valuable for other uses, and what once seemed indispensable gives way to the new. But like ghosts, these vanished landmarks refuse to be entirely forgotten. They live on in old photos, in the memories of longtime residents, and in a lingering sense that the city you see today is built upon layers of its own fascinating past.

The Amusement Park Era: Lakeside & Elitch’s

Picture this: The sun beats down, the air crackles with a mix of excitement and a hint of nervous anticipation. There’s the smell of cotton candy mingled with hot asphalt, and the cacophony of shrieks and laughter fills your ears. For generations of Denverites, this wasn’t just a day out; it was the embodiment of summer. Lakeside and Elitch’s weren’t merely amusement parks; they were portals to childhood joy.

The thrill of the wooden roller coaster rattling your bones, the giddy disorientation of the Tilt-A-Whirl, the sticky-sweet reward of a funnel cake… these experiences hold a special place in the hearts of many. “I still remember the first time I went upside down on a loop-de-loop,” recounts a former Denver kid. “The world was never the same! Those parks made you feel brave, carefree…like anything was possible.”

Sadly, forces beyond childhood wonder proved too powerful. Shifting trends in entertainment, the allure of mega theme parks, and, most crucially, the skyrocketing value of the land they occupied led to their demise. Change often comes with a bittersweet cost, and the loss of these iconic amusement parks left a void in the city’s summers, a reminder that even the places that seem etched into our childhoods aren’t immune to the march of time.

Neon Dreams & Movie Palaces

Imagine stepping out of the bustling Denver streets into the hushed dimness of the Paramount. Plush velvet seats beckon, chandeliers drip with crystals, and the intricate Art Deco designs transport you to a world of glamorous escape. The Mayan Theater was a different sort of magic – its fantastical facade whisked you away to ancient civilizations, promising cinematic adventures within.

Going to the movies wasn’t just entertainment; it was a ritual. You’d dress up a little, anticipate the dimming lights, the hush falling over the audience as the curtain rose. “It was like stepping into a dream,” recalls a longtime Denver resident. “Those theaters made the movies feel larger than life, made you a part of something special.”

But the magic faded. Multiplexes, with their many screens and convenient locations, chipped away at the allure of grand downtown palaces. The rise of home video offered a different kind of convenience, making a night at the movies less of a necessity. Old palaces, expensive to maintain and often needing renovation, slowly fell out of favor. The Paramount’s twinkling lights went dark. The Mayan’s exotic facade crumbled. Progress marched on, and with it, a piece of Denver’s cinematic soul slipped away.

Not all losses were commercial. The grand Customs House, a symbol of Denver’s importance in the early 20th century, faced the wrecking ball in 1973, despite protests. The beloved Zeckendorf Plaza, with its iconic curving design, was demolished in 2010 amidst controversy. “These were architectural statements,” says a preservationist. “They added character and told the story of our city’s ambition.” Their loss highlights the constant tension between preserving the past and embracing the new.

Change is inevitable, and cities can’t cling to every old building. Yet, lost landmarks raise questions about balancing growth with a city’s soul. “When we erase our past, we erase something of ourselves,” argues an architecture critic. Others point to the necessity of revitalization and that cities must evolve to remain vibrant.

The loss of iconic buildings can ignite a newfound appreciation for those still standing. It fuels the work of preservation societies and prompts us to value architectural gems while we still have them. “Every brick, every arch tells a story,” says a historian. “These lost landmarks remind us to cherish the historical fabric that makes Denver unique.”

The Lingering Nostalgia

Photos, postcards, and personal stories keep the memory of these landmarks alive. Social media groups dedicated to Denver’s past buzz with bittersweet reminiscing. Those who rode the Lakeside carousel as kids recall the thrill, others lament the loss of the Paramount’s opulent balcony. Even those too young to have experienced these places firsthand feel a twinge of nostalgia for a Denver that exists only in fading photographs.

The stories of vanished landmarks become woven into the city’s folklore. They teach us that cities are ever-changing, that the buildings we take for granted today may one day only exist in memory. And, they remind us that preservation, whether through valiant efforts or simply appreciation, is how we ensure the soul of a city is passed down to the next generation.

Share this article

Denver Monthly: Bringing you the best of Denver’s news, from local happenings to global updates.