Ah, Lower Downtown.
Through the decades, LoDo has seen it all - and been through it all - it seems.
After all, it is the city’s original business district.
When you're talking about arguably the busiest, most well-known place in the city, it's hard to nail down just one thing that makes LoDo stand out.
Besides being Denver's oldest neighborhood, a visit there will take you to some of the city's best-known restaurants, along with dozens of galleries and boutiques.
The city's heart has not always been the upscale bar and nightlife scene modern Denverites may know. There were many decades when LoDo lay forgotten, decrepit and derelict, until a historic designation reinvigorated the area.
Also, did you know a LoDo business owner was the first to ever sell commercially produced bolo ties and western snap shirts?
Join our Instagram tour of Lower Downtown Denver on Friday!
Brothels, Saloons and Scandal, oh my!
The very first “town” before Denver was St. Charles, a single cabin located at the 1400 block between Blake and Wazee Streets. Its first buildings were wooden - the unmarred image of a western frontier town.
On November 1, 1858, the town of Auraria (City of Gold) was founded just across Cherry Creek. Three weeks later, William Larimer arrived, crossed the creek, and marked Denver in what is today LoDo.
The 23-block area between Speer Boulevard, 20th Street, Lawrence Street, and the South Platte River has seen many eras.
It began - thick with saloons, barrooms and brothels - in the 1860s.
Denver's historic LoDo district, in photos
Denver’s first city government was formed in the Apollo Hall Saloon in Larimer Square, the city’s heart, at 1425 Larimer Street.
One of its first laws? Prohibiting the sale of liquor on the streets from wagons or tents.
Most of LoDo burned in a massive fire in 1863, and after that, buildings were reconstructed in brick.
One of the first to be reconstructed was the Blake Street Vault (1526 Blake Street). It was (what else?) a "boarding house" and saloon owned by a German immigrant. (Boarding house was code for brothel in those days...)
In the 1870s, the railroad brought more materials, more businesses, and more growth to the neighborhood.
At places like the Blake Street Vault, buildings were remodeled - in the saloon's case, creating a hidden basement only accessible by trap door.
Soon, during prohibition, wholesale liquor, cigars and other items were traded and stored in a secret basement vault (which you can still see by private tour at the bar today).
With the arrival of coal on the trains, tunnels were built under many LoDo businesses. They soon became safe passage for transporting prohibition-era alcohol - as well as men who wished to remain unseen - to neighborhood brothels.
It's rumored (especially at the vault) - that many of these entrances are haunted today!
Despite the rowdy early days of Lower Downtown, by 1893, the silver panic sent Denver into a depression and construction nearly halted.
Then, prohibition came in 1916 to Denver.
The Miller Building (1401 Larimer Street) became the city’s hottest speakeasy, operating in the basement of Gahan’s “Soft Drink Parlor.”
After World War II, LoDo was no longer the center of the city. It became desolate, with fewer trains coming in and out of Union Station. Hotels closed. Businesses shuttered.
In the 1980s, even the Denver Public Library calls it “a little sketchy.” Many places were boarded up, and the crowds roaming the streets seemed more like punk rockers and drifters than the business folks, couples and “LoDo bros” you come to expect to see today.
It was around this time that the Denver City Council voted to make LoDo a Historic District, saving many of the historic buildings, of which only 20 percent remained after the DURA policies in the 1960s and 1970s. (the 1400 block of Larimer Street was designated in 1973).
Slowly, but surely, LoDo developed into the bustling tourist-attraction it is today: with Coors Field on its edge, and the city’s first post-prohibition brewery, Wynkoop, anchoring its nightlife culture.
Many of the lofts and apartments in the area today are former warehouses and businesses, the names of which you can often see in faded paint upon the brick facades.
As more buildings became brick in LoDo during the late 1800s and early 1900s, “wall dogs” would paint coats of advertisements along the facades, which were often designed for optimum visibility of the adverts.
Two men could finish a wall in one day and earned $1 an hour for their efforts, according to the Denver Public Library.
As the bright lights of electricity and neon began to take over Denver, painted brick-wall advertisements began to fade away.
The Studebaker Carriage and Buggy sign, painted in 1883, on the alley at 1614 15th Street is said to be the oldest surviving wall painting in Denver.
Others to look for are: Pioneer Iron Works at 1439 Market Street (1908–9), Brecht Candy Company at 1333 Wazee Street (1920s), Cook’s Paint at 1318 15th Street, Vegomatic Cocktail at 1821 Blake Street, M&O Cigar at 14th and Wazee Streets, and Skelly Gas at 1955 Market Street.
You can take historic walking tours of Lodo (guided or un-guided), departing from Union Station. During October, some companies offer haunted tours.
Union Station and "Mizpah"
Denver’s Union Station building is as iconic as the city itself.
Built in 1881, it is a grand example of the Beaux-Arts style. Much of Union Station burned down in 1894, destroying the building's wooden clock tower. It was rebuilt quickly.
The "Mizpah" arch was formally dedicated in 1906. The arch itself, 65 feet high and 85 feet wide with 2,194 light bulbs, was built a few years prior, but “MIZPAH” was added to the Wynkoop Street side in 1906.
According to an old story, some rather unenlightened Denverites thought “Mizpah” was an Indian word for “Howdy, Partner!”
It sparkled for decades, welcoming people into the LoDo neighborhood. The arch was torn down in 1931 after it became a traffic hazard. The metal, which was to be restored at a later date, became part of the war effort instead.
In 1914, Union Station's stone clock tower was torn down and the building was reconstructed into its modern aesthetic.
The iconic, "Travel by Train" slogan was added atop Union Station in 1953.
A modern LoDo, still home to hidden history
LoDo is home to the completely renovated Denver Union Station, the bustling hub that connects the Regional Transportation District light rails to the suburbs and commuter rails to Denver International Airport.
PHOTOS: Lower Downtown is eclectic brick and modern
In 2014, Union Station reopened after billions of dollars in investment went into remodeling it. Today, it also houses the Crawford Hotel, several retail outlets and restaurants.
During its renovation in the 2000s, RTD workers reported sinks turning on and off without anyone nearby, eerie instances of misplaced papers and missing objects, adding to the urban legend that Union Station is haunted.
Dine, drink and wander
Rioja (1431 Larimer St.), which serves creative Mediterranean dishes, is among the top-rated restaurants in the area. Its head chef, Jennifer Jasinki, in 2013 even won a James Beard award for "best chef" in the Southwest category.
For fine dining, it's hard not to call out 1515 Restaurant (1515 Market St.), featuring a modern sophisticated "New American" menu, as well as The Kitchen, which has the whole farm-to-table, eco-friendly thing down pat.
Or, for a serious dose of sizzling, scrumptious meats, head to Rodizio Grill (1801 Wynkoop St.), an outpost of the Brazilian steakhouse chain that offers tableside skewered meats and a salad bar. Fogo de Cháo (1513 Wynkoop St.) is another option in the area.
Stoic & Genuine inside Union Station gets top marks for both style and its bar service, as well as its self-proclaimed, "freshest seafood in Denver." If you like people-watching, sit on their patio and watch travelers and city folk busily scurry by.
Wynkoop Brewing, famous for its brews and its wild game dishes, is one of the first microbreweries in the state, and is owned by Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Calling itself a "gastro-brothel," Ophelia's Electric Soapbox is practically a sensory overload. The multilevel bar, restaurant, and live music venue has top-notch food, cocktails, and pays homage to its lurid history as one of Denver's largest brothels and houses of sin.
Have dinner and see a show - or just stop by for brunch. Its sunken stage has live music, performances, and karaoke nights, too, in the historic Airedale Building at 20th and Larimer.
Other must-visits include Lucky Pie Pizzeria and Taphouse (1610 16th St.); Denver ChopHouse & Brewery (1735 19th St.); Wazee Supper Club (1600 15th St.); and Ted's Montana Grill (1401 Larimer St.)
And the real estate market there is still hot — according to JLL's third quarter office stats report, LoDo is the city's priciest commercial real estate market, with average direct asking rent of $42.50 per square foot, compared with the metro Denver average of $28.28 per square foot.
But those high prices aren't slowing down developers' interest. Earlier this month, Elevation Development Group purchased a half-block site along Market Street for a future development.
Residents of the many high-rise condo and apartment buildings in the area have expressed excitement over the Whole Foods Market that is set to open near Denver Union Station Nov. 15.
The market is part of the new Union Denver apartment complex (formerly marketed as SeventeenW and Pivot Denver) at 1701 Wewatta St., a couple blocks north of the historic train depot.
Although there are many areas to shop in LoDo, Larimer Square is among the best. The district houses many independent (and pricey) shops, such as Eve Inc. (a women's clothing store); Scarpaletto Shoes; Aillea (beauty products); among others.
The LoDo neighborhood is also home to the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, founded in 1996. It is home to a rooftop cafe at 15th and Delgany with captivating views of the city, whose skyline is ever-changing.