Chris Holzwart stands outside the two-story structure with elaborate red brick corbeling, explaining from an architect’s perspective the challenges and rewards of what seems an unlikely marriage: a historic Denver landmark and miniature golf.
Inside the 130-year-old Denver City Cable Railway Building, now on the National Register of Historic Places, workers continue to transform the space where the Old Spaghetti Factory, itself a LoDo landmark, fed metro-area families for 45 years until it closed in September.
“Our approach is to understand the original use of the building and take advantage of how that can inform the way we approach the design of the space,” says Holzwart, of the Roth Sheppard firm. “It gives a lot of pride to what we do, because what we’re doing is continuing the life of something that had been here for so long in a new, fresh way. It’s a responsibility — you almost treat it as something more valuable to you than something that was a blank space.”
And while some key elements that diners surely remember from the pasta restaurant will remain — most notably, the red streetcar No. 54 that provided a unique space for dining — the focus for the 12,000-square-foot first floor now turns to minigolf, though not in the traditional sense.
The new tenant, Urban Putt, hopes to build off its success in San Francisco, where 63-year-old CEO Steve Fox introduced the concept as a next career move after 35 years in publishing. He lashed together capital to launch a business that infuses recreational putting with imaginative craftsmanship to create an interactive experience — something he describes as closer in genre to Meow Wolf than Putt-Putt.
“Meow Wolf is the highest form of truly experiential, immersive art that tells a story and engages,” Fox says of the business scheduled to open in Denver in 2020. “We’re both part of this club that has huge respect for the people who live and play here and want to be engaged and participate, not just sit back on a bar stool.”
The basics: Urban Putt will feature two 9-hole courses with a bar, restaurant and — critical to the business model — space for private and corporate events. A family attraction by day, it becomes an over-21 space after 8 p.m. At $11 to play nine holes, and with a moderately priced restaurant ($$ on the Yelp system), Fox aims for affordability in the facility that targets a late summer or early fall opening.
As for the course itself, expect holes to pay homage to such Colorado landmarks as Red Rocks, Denver International Airport, familiar downtown architecture as well as the mountains and Elitch Gardens.
But the transition of the space on 18th Street between Lawrence and Larimer streets — and the inspiration for this eclectic variation on a beloved slice of Americana — come with their own backstory. It touches on historical research, a strong connection to Denver and urban life in general, an abiding love of miniature golf and years of legendary parties.
Although one of the tenets of going into the miniature golf business is to find cheap land in the middle of nowhere, Fox says, he and his wife didn’t think of themselves as “nowhere folks” and sought to translate the experience to an urban setting. After it worked in San Francisco, he looked for a similarly fertile market. In addition to Denver, he considered Austin and Seattle.
He wanted to find an older building that matched up with the era — 19th century industrial — he sought to recreate. He’d put the San Francisco Urban Putt into a former mortuary, despite all the attendant problems and structural issues that came with an aging property. And it worked.
So he decided to stick with what he knows when he turned to expansion. When a real estate agent told him about this historic cable railway building in Denver, he jumped. Not only did his wife grow up here, but the demographics lined up. And the building seemed perfect.
He huddled with the owners of the Old Spaghetti Factory and ended up striking a deal to purchase some defining aesthetic elements of the space — the signature streetcar No. 54, an antique bar traced back to an establishment owned by boxer Jack Dempsey (with his “Manassa Mauler” Colorado roots) and an arched facade that reputedly fell from outside the entrance during a storm decades ago.
Those provided a historical foundation for the remodel that Fox felt comfortable building upon.
“One, it feels familiar to me, and two, I know how to deal with it,” Fox says, noting he has rented an apartment a few blocks away so he can more easily oversee the undertaking. “Maybe there’s some hubris there. I’ll own up to it.”
That explains his choice of the cable building. But the hybrid twist on miniature golf grew from seeds planted long ago.
“Bring Your Own Hole”
The path that ultimately led Steve Fox to become “chief greenskeeper” of a historic Denver building began in 1993, in a modest San Francisco flat where he and his wife, Leslie Crawford, decided to throw a Valentine’s Day party.
In search of a theme, they leaned on childhood memories of playing miniature golf — he in New York, she in Denver — and decided on a BYOH affair: Bring Your Own Hole. Guests brought whatever materials they needed to cobble together a challenging test for their fellow golfers and set them up all through the apartment.
That provided plenty of beer-fueled fun, so the couple decided to do it again the next year. With all that time to think about it, the guests — now double the original 25 — put more thought into the design of the holes. By the time the third year of what already had gained momentum as an annual event, they had moved into a house, which was good because the field expanded to about 100 guests.
“The holes became amazing,” Fox recalls. “Highly conceptual, some very political, some a little raunchy, and many quite funny tongue-in-cheek. All of a sudden it became clear that this crazy little idea was taking on its own kind of art form. We didn’t have a high falutin’ concept of art, but people were creating things, thinking about them throughout the year, building them and then installing them in our house.
“All of a sudden, it was an institution.”
With so many creative publishing and tech minds unleashed to design the course, the holes stretched the imagination.
Vincent Van Golf required minigolfers to sink their putt into the artist’s ear. Tiki Torture demanded a treacherous putt over a flaming pit and into the mouth of Tiki God that stood eight feet tall. Golfopoly, a tribute to the Monopoly board game that spanned all three of the home’s floors, featured a hazard where a ball could end up in “Jail” or in a “Free Putting” area, before finishing in the basement.
And, memorably, there was the Monica’s Revenge hole — remember, this was the ‘90s — in which contestants had to finesse a putt strategically through a grinning Bill Clinton’s shorts.
For all the fun, it also proved a massive undertaking, with 200 minigolfers meandering about, constructing holes in the house and backyard. So Fox and Crawford scaled back their parties to every other year.
However, in a nod to the creativity of their friends, Fox asked a contractor who was doing some work on their house to install holes in the walls of various rooms, and then added plastic tubes to allow golfers to sink a shot into the wall on the second floor, run downstairs and finish the hole on the first; or start on the ground floor and finish in the basement.
As it grew in complexity, the event also started to take over their lives. Set-up could take a month and a half for a one-day event. Cleanup might take another month, including the repainting of rooms.
“When you basically have a version of Burning Man, except it’s in your own house, it’s not necessarily advisable,” Fox says.
Nevertheless, it went on for more than a dozen tournaments, with the bar for creativity set higher each time. Eventually, it became overwhelming. The couple announced one last CrawFox minigolf party.
The last hole, the grand finale, featured a giant tube decorated with clouds, and a light at the end of the tunnel: Minigolf Heaven, where every putt produced a hole-in-one. It seemed a fitting end.
“That first year afterward was such a relief,” Fox recalls. “But slowly, after some time, I was missing the spectacle.”
A party theme becomes a business
Fox, whose career spanned positions at PCWorld, CNET, InfoWorld, Popular Mechanics, Omni and others, found himself contemplating the gradual decline of independent publishing and wondering what came next.
That’s when his wife mentioned miniature golf, something they’d both always enjoyed, and he resolved to skip the idea of cheap property and see if he could make it work in San Francisco. He wrote four business plans and through the first three, the numbers simply didn’t add up. But then, when he started factoring a bar and restaurant into the equation, things began to look feasible.
He quit his job as editorial director at PCWorld.
In late 2012, he started looking for space, refining his business plan and raising money. He set up a company, refinanced his house and “went all in.” Over the next 18 months, he found a general manager, a chef, an architect and a team of builders well-equipped to produce the types of interactive minigolf holes — with sounds, lights, movement and imaginative tech wizardry — that he felt would set his courses apart.
When he opened the first Urban Putt on Cinco de Mayo, 2014, almost nothing worked for long.
“We’d built this playable art, but we didn’t understand the ravages that can be visited on things by 8-year-old boys and drunks with golf clubs,” Fox says. “Lots of things broke almost immediately. So we rebuilt with stronger materials.”
This time, everything — including the overarching concept — worked.
“We opened the doors and there was a line around the block,” Fox recalls. “It felt like something out of a movie.”
Fox wondered, after nearly five years and booming business, if the concept could be replicated in other urban areas.
“This,” he says, “is when I really decided to take everything we learned, all this arcane knowledge, a team of builders, and said, ‘Let’s try to do another one of these.’”
Market research and the familial connection to the city led to Denver, where Fox connected with Holzwart, the architect, and set about creating the new iteration of Urban Putt. Holzwart dove into research about the building, about streetcars of the late 19th century, and then he and his team began imagining ways to intertwine the steampunk motif and the miniature golf aesthetic.
Key to the strategy was how to incorporate those inclusions Fox bought from the Old Spaghetti Factory folks — the bar, streetcar and facade — into the overall layout.
The streetcar may have been the most problematic, even though it was simply moved from one side of the space to the other. A crane company was enlisted to transfer the relic, not with a crane, but inch by inch with other machinery to angle it through the building’s pillars to its final position.
The planned glass-and-steel vestibule, Holzwart says, will signal the transition from outdoors to the interior design that surrounds the space occupied by the two miniature golf courses.
The bar reputedly owned by Jack Dempsey hugs one wall, with the wooden facade, which served as a room divider in the Old Spaghetti Factory, soon to be perched behind it.
Normally, an architect might not get involved with choosing specific subcontractors.
“But in this instance,” Holzwart says, “we felt that it was such a crafted type of space that we worked with the contractor to select all the different steel fabricators, the furniture fabricator, the actual crane company that moved the streetcar, the wood company.”
Fox has a team of more than a dozen workers building and maintaining the golf holes for the San Francisco property from a workshop in Oakland — including a welder, machinist and master carpenter. There’s also a computer programmer who deals with the mechanisms that trigger the interactive nature of some holes through pressure plates, laser breaks and sound sensors. He employed fine artists for casting and mold making.
“This is a team that can build just about anything,” Fox says of the group that will also construct the holes for the Denver facility. “We sketch stuff out, make prototypes, then start modeling those things at half size, then create full size in hard wood and metal, epoxy and fiberglass. We have to make things that withstand tremendous punishment.”
In Denver, Urban Putt will have a workshop to stay on top of the continuous improvements the course demands. Two Bay Area workers are moving to Denver to serve as the maintenance crew.
The demolition phase is complete, and now the framing begins.
The courses do give a nod to one traditional aspect of miniature golf: One hole must feature a windmill. So while the course will have models of several recognizable Denver buildings, only one will be rigged with a windmill.
“You’ll see us having fun at the expense of Capitol,” Fox says.
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