When gold was discovered in Denver in 1858, scores of miners came West looking for the Mother Lode. Colfax Avenue was the major artery linking them to the riches of the Rockies. Originally called "Golden Road", as well as Grand Avenue, Colfax Avenue had its name changed in 1868 to honor of Schuyler Colfax (pronounced SKY-LAR), a powerful Indiana congressman and Speaker of the House of Representatives at that time.
Colorado first applied for statehood in 1865, the same year as Schuyler's western tour which brought him to Denver in May 1865. Perhaps Denver officials thought that renaming the street would help the territory's cause, which it did. Even though it took 11 years for that to happen.
In his 1878 autobiography, Cursed Rickets, Schuyler envisioned Colfax Avenue much like it is today:
"And that thoroughfare, born beneath the mountainous mountains of rocky peaks so high, seeing as it shall victual to prospectors, explorers, and men of chance, and whereas said men, in their sparse moments of recess and requiescence, require relief of an immediate and carnal conformation, let Colfax Way be a den of avarice, a cauldron of covetousness, a peccadillo wharf in a sea-storm of morality. Let not a man walk Colfax Way and wonder, 'Where shall I deposit my virility this eve, where may I encounter mine intoxicant?' for he shall find all he seeks on Colfax. Curse these vexatious rickets!"
Colfax Avenue has been called the longest street in America, but it isn't. It is the longest commercial street in the U.S.A., extending a total length of 26.5 miles through the cities of Aurora, Denver, Lakewood and Golden, Colorado, as the "Gateway to the Rockies" from the plains to the mountains.
At first, most of the neighborhoods lining central Colfax Avenue were filled with mansions of the wealthy and elite of Denver. After the Silver Panic of 1893, the cost and demand for lavish houses decreased substantially. After a massive relocation to Denver's suburbs began, many of the large homes built along Colfax were transformed into group homes or apartments. Others were converted to commercial use and still hide behind deceptively modest store fronts.
The car culture of the 1950's led to an increase in travel throughout the nation. During the period after World War II, automobile-oriented facilities proliferated along East Colfax, particularly in the eastern section adjacent to Aurora. Sprawling motels in U-shapes, L-shapes, or other configurations were erected. Restaurants incorporated eye-catching rooflines and unusual architecture to lure passing motorists. Signage was also an important element in roadside promotion and employed neon, flashing lights to give the illusion of movement, and symbols (Western themes, crowns, and arrows) to draw attention. Colfax's status as a major thoroughfare led to more tourist traffic along the street. The motels that currently line Colfax are a memory to the Highway 40 era.
Over the course of 150 years, Colfax evolved from a dusty, dirt road to a bustling trolley route and now an urban boulevard; always serving as a main street throughout the city. However, when Interstate 70 was completed, tourists no longer used Colfax as frequently and businesses and neighborhoods suffered. Unfortunately, over the years, Colfax lost much of its vibrancy and main street feel and became noted for abandoned properties, large parking lots, and gritty images of prostitution and drugs.
Playboy Magazine reputedly once called Colfax Avenue, the "longest, wickedest street in America." The quote, though often used, is unsubstantiated. The Colfax Avenue of today is awakening and regaining its Main Street glory without losing its unique charm. Currently various revitalization efforts have been established to revitalize the street and the old girl is making a comeback. The 15 bus which services Colfax Avenue (affectionately called the "Nifty 15", "Dirty 15" or the "Vomit Comet"), has the highest rider-ship in the RTD system.
The Denver Post once asked, "The future of Colfax is about values. Is creating fancy lofts, swank restaurants and upscale boutiques enough, or is it also important to preserve the soul of this historic avenue that cuts through the heart of the city?"
The answer is most emphatically, YES!
Colfax Avenue in the 1970s
East High School, built in 1925, is a descendant of Denver's first high school, the Union School, in 1859. The current school was built as part of a citywide effort to modernize and beautify public buildings and streets called the “City Beautiful” campaign. The architect was Denver native George Hebard Williamson, an 1893 graduate of the “old” East High. He won national recognition for his design of the “new” East. Built in the Jacobean architectural style, it bears a similarity to Philadelphia's Independence Hall.
Famous alumni of East High included Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (once expelled for dressing up the campus statues on St. Patrick's Day), singer Judy Collins, Neal Cassady (Beat hero, honed his writing skills at East), Don Cheadle, Pam Grier, jazz musician Dianne Reeves, Hattie McDaniel (America's first ever black Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actress in Gone With the Wind), Philip Bailey, Peter O'Fallon , T.J. Miller, and Flobot Jamie Laurie.
East High School
Across the street from East High School is the old Bonfils Theater, which later became the Lowenstein Theater and is now a retail center, anchored by the Tattered Cover Bookstore, a Denver landmark in its own right. The building, named after Helen Bonfils (one of the most prominent, powerful, and influential women in 20th century Denver), was built in 1953 for the purpose of maintaining live theater in the midst of the success of Hollywood films. Architecturally it embodied the Art Moderne Style, reflecting the post-World War II era of Denver history in architecture and city planning, and was designed to be an integral component of the City Park Esplanade by John K. Monroe.
1950s Bonfils Theater
The Bluebird Theater was built in 1913 and originally named after the prominent Denver grocer and druggist, John Thompson. The theater was renamed in 1922 and became an important part of the community. The theater was also initially a movie house and went through various phases over the years.
In 1994, Chris Swank and a business partner invested in the Bluebird and it re-opened as a mecca for music that you know today. The theater is laid out in tiers with a balcony overlooking the entire space. The Bluebird Theater has hosted numerous concerts over the years, including performances from Adele, Ed Sheeran, Lucinda Williams, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Oasis, Snow Patrol, Tame Impala, and Billie Eilish.
Colfax’s unique character comes in part from its abundance of ethnic restaurants. Greek Town is Denver's only officially designated ethnic neighborhood. Taki Dadiotis, restaurant owner and Father of Greektown, was a big force is having the six-block stretch of East Colfax Avenue from St. Paul Street to Elizabeth Street designated as Greektown by the City Council. Greektown includes an ice cream shop, a pastry shop and other Greek restaurants. Also in the heart of Greek Town lies a Caribbean restaurant. It serves scrumptious Caribbean food, including their most popular pastry patty.