Back when Denver was a true cowtown and well over half a million cattle, sheep, hogs and horses moved through the city’s bustling livestock center each year, the Livestock Exchange Building was the grand red-brick heart of the city’s agricultural industry.
With an $8.5 million sale that was finalized Monday, that ornate, turn-of-the-20th-century building is set to become a key part of Colorado’s agricultural-related future and an iconic centerpiece of a billion-dollar overhaul of the National Western Center complex.
“Now, we’re going to make some new history,” said Brad Buchanan, the CEO of the non-profit National Western Center Authority, one of the partners in a consortium that purchased the exchange building from the City of Denver. “This exemplifies the huge economic impact agriculture has had and will have for the state of Colorado.”
The new owners, which include EXDO Development, Elevation Development Group and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, have big plans for a building that is currently empty except for the authority’s office, a temporary construction contractor’s headquarters, a saloon — and heaps of history. They hope to fill it with food- and ag-related businesses and agencies, just as it was more than a century ago.
The exchange building was constructed in three phases and three wings between 1898 and 1918. It was a time when “cowtown” was a proud moniker for Denver. The no-expenses-spared, million-dollar building reflected the high-flying agricultural industry of the period – an industry that buoyed Denver after gold let it down.
In architectural embellishments that remain to this day, floors in the exchange building gleamed with terrazzo-tile. Walls were decorated with marble wainscoting. Cherry wood lined windows and doors. Intricate wrought-iron railings accented a grand staircase.
The exterior proclaimed its importance with Beaux Arts-style classical columns, porticos, arched windows and decorative brickwork.
“The building was very much built to be a symbol of the prestige and wealth of the industry at that time,” said Annie Levinsky, executive director of Historic Denver.
Businessmen and officials gathered there to buy and sell livestock and to carry on the administrative, financial, regulatory and social activities related to food production.
The exchange building was located along railroad tracks and near meatpacking plants. It was set in the midst of livestock pens that were teeming with animals 24/7. The holding pens included a massive two-story sheep pen, named Le Mouton Noir, just behind the exchange building.
In its heyday, the exchange building housed an ag-related newspaper and radio station KOA – the King of Agriculture. Multiple restaurants, saloons and banks, a post office and a cigar store gave it the feel of an early-day mall.
Levinsky refers to it as “sort of a town hall,” with the Colorado State Farm Bureau, the local office of the U.S. Bureau of Agriculture Economics, the Colorado Brand Inspection Board (the longest tenant from 1906 to 2015), the Denver Live Stock Exchange and numerous smaller related businesses housed there.
The building was also the nerve center of the stock show that has continued at the site in north Denver for 114 years. The National Western Stock Show, which has been called the “Super Bowl of Stock Shows,” nowadays draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to the neighborhood of the exchange building each year for two weeks in January. (The 115th annual National Western has been postponed by the pandemic until January 2022.)
Preserving a curiosity
The exchange building and the surrounding stock yards hung on as a busy place until the 1960s when the last of the packing plants closed. In 1970, the Denver Union Stock Yards entity changed from the cattle business to a landholding company. Most rail operations on the site also ended that year. By the early 1980s, the stock show was the only real draw to the area.
The exchange building remained a curiosity to stock show visitors in modern times. They have been known to wander in and marvel at the intact architectural features of the east wing of the building and to pack into the west wing to imbibe and dine at the Denver Stockyard Saloon.
Beyond its eye-catching craftsmanship, the exchange building also holds historical curiosities. Large built-in safes serve as a reminder that there were big bucks to be made in the livestock business. An enormous chalkboard painted with spaces for “To-Days Livestock Market at Denver” still stands at the top of a staircase where agribusinessmen would gather to check the changing commodity prices as they were posted on the board.
The reason for a 10-foot-tall, 3-foot-wide marble and porcelain urinal off of one office is more mysterious.
Leftovers from more modern times include holding cells that were used when the Federal Bureau of Investigation rented offices in the building for its Rocky Mountain Safe Streets Task Force – a group that investigates bank robberies. Those working in the authority office now use those pens as places to park their bicycles.
Future nods to the past
Reviving the exchange building will include making suitable office space available for the many food- and ag-related entities the new owners hope to attract. The first tenant to move into the east wing will be the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, which had its offices there in the mid- to late-1900s.
Buchanan said dozens of other entities have expressed interest in locating in the building. With the sale finalized, he said he will be wooing new tenants in earnest.
The west wing will continue to house the saloon, which has served as a popular watering hole for stock show attendees since it moved to the building in the 1980s.
The middle portion of the building – the oldest section, built in 1898 – was gutted by fire years ago. The fire burned everything down to the wall studs, leaving that section in need of major rebuilding before it can be used again.
The building’s historic character will not be altered under the city’s agreement to sell the exchange building to the consortium. The sale requires the buyers to apply for a Denver Landmark designation for the building within a year of the sale. That designation, which must be approved by the Denver City Council, will mean the building will be showcased as an important part of the city’s history. It cannot be demolished. Any exterior alterations will have to go through a city review process.
Levinsky said that designation is an important part of the project’s future.
“The Livestock Exchange Building really tells the story of not just the stock show, but of the stockyards,” Levinsky said. “Having this remain as the centerpiece is really important.”
Revamped building, redefined area
The sale and refurbishment of the exchange building goes well beyond bringing one building back to life. The building is planned to be the focal point in the National Western Center project that is already underway and is reshaping the stockyards area into a globally-recognized campus for ag-related business, education, entertainment, competition, research and promotion.
“We describe this as both a place and a platform. It is critically important to our effort to bridge a gap between urban and rural,” said Buchanan, who views the project through multiple lenses. He is a rancher, an architect, and he formerly served as Denver’s planning director.
The National Western Center complex that surrounds the Livestock Exchange building is already being transformed from gritty industrial area to an inviting year-around location for all-ages activities, including farmers markets, Western art exhibits, concerts, food-science classes and research programs.
As part of the project, the area along the South Platte River is being revamped with bike trails and running and walking paths. The trails and paths, bridges over the river, and a commuter rail station will tie the campus to the neighboring Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods that historically served as worker communities for the smelters and packing plants that once crowded the stockyards area.
In the first two phases, seven new buildings are being constructed in a partnership between the city and the county, the Western Stock Show Association and Colorado State University. Three research and education buildings make up the CSU Spur campus. One building, called Hydro, will be devoted to water education and studies. Terra will be focused on food and agriculture. Vida will be devoted to animal research and studies. Those buildings are slated to open in 2022.
More historic buildings and features, including an iconic old water tower, are being preserved and refurbished in the initial phases.
The riverfront renovations include an important sustainability piece for the National Western Center project. For decades two 6-foot-tall, above-ground sewer pipes have blocked access to parts of the river. Crews will bury the pipes, and a closed-loop system will transfer the heat of the wastewater to provide 90% of the heating and cooling for buildings on the campus.
“We believe it will be the largest system of its kind in North America and probably in the whole world,” Buchanan said.
Later phases of the project, including development of 60 acres of what is called “The Triangle Project,” have been slowed down by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“The city is monitoring Denver’s economic recovery and evaluating options and timing for the later phases of the redevelopment,” said Andrea Burns, chief marketing officer for the National Western Center.
A key part of a bigger project
Upgrading stock show facilities has been a key factor of the overall National Western Center project. The idea of renovating the area rose to a priority in 2011 when the stock show backers began looking for a new location because the facilities in Denver were in disrepair.
The thought of losing a show that puts $100 million into Denver coffers annually prompted Denver Mayor Michael Hancock to explore ways to keep the show in Denver.
The Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Colorado State University, History Colorado, the National Western Stock Show and the City and County of Denver joined in that effort to plan a project that would go well beyond simply refurbishing the stock show arena. The project grew to include expanding the 130 acres of the stockyards area into a 250-acre complex and turning it into a hub for research and education that would be busy all year long.
Jenna Espinoza, a spokeswoman for the Denver Mayor’s Office on the project, called the plan that came together “innovative and forward-thinking.”
It was popular with voters.
In 2015, voters approved a measure that earmarked $637 million in lodging and rental taxes to help with a makeover of the stock show neighborhood. Measure 2C passed with overwhelming support in every one of the 78 neighborhoods in Denver and with particularly high voter approval in the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea communities closest to the project.
The pandemic has not slowed down the two initial phases of the National Western Complex or the revamping of the exchange building. In fact, it is giving it more gravitas, Buchanan said.
He said the pandemic-heightened challenge of finding solutions to world hunger makes the National Western Center project even more important because of the spotlight it puts on where food comes from, and because of research components that will delve into ways to increase food production.
He said the gathering together of many food-related businesses under the single roof of the historic exchange building also has more significance now because of the current food supply pressures related to both the pandemic and the burgeoning world population.
It doesn’t hurt that the project helps to put a new shine on that old cowtown name for Denver.
“For a long time, I think Denver saw that phrase as maybe a limiter or a negative,” Buchanan said. “But in the last 20 years we have embraced it. I would say it has never been more relevant than it is today.”