The year was 1893 and the World’s Columbian Exposition (or the Chicago World’s Fair) was opening its gates, beckoning Americans to visit with the elaborate White City. The temporary fairground architecture, built by the likes of Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., was a grand Parisian-styled city the likes of which America had never seen. It kicked off an architectural movement known as “City Beautiful” that would soon make its way to Denver.
In 1904 Robert Speer was elected mayor of Denver and brought with him a City Beautiful vision of his own: a grand park by the Capitol that would serve as a civic hub for the Mile High City.
This would become the Civic Center Park we know today.
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As his vision came to fruition, the ideas behind the City Beautiful movement, a “holistic and multipurpose approach” (and perhaps gaudy, too), took hold in other parts of Denver.
A White City amusement park of our own sprung up and would eventually become known as Lakeside. A grand boathouse was built at City Park, a columned pavilion was constructed at Cheesman Park and the light-encrusted Denver Gas and Electric Building illuminated 15th Street.
These projects defined a new era in America, one marked by industrial fervor and a new prosperity. Through it all, Louis Charles McClure was there to document the fruit of this new American labor.
Though the photographer is “relatively obscure,” says Denver Public Library reseacher Randel Metz, “his cityscape pictures of Denver are among the most accurate and artistic depictions of any American city during the City Beautiful era.”
The library possesses over 4,000 of McClure’s plates and negatives.
Within his collection is documentation of many buildings that are iconic even today in the city. But since many were photographed nearly a century ago, the scenes surrounding these familiar structures illustrate a much younger version of Denver. A photograph of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, for instance, shows the church dwarfing a much lower neighborhood in an ocean of trees.
McClure’s body of work is fascinating in both the differences and similarities evident in the city from 100 years ago to today, proof that Mayor Speer’s legacy in Denver was a powerful and lasting one.
Be sure to check out Randel Metz’ entire collection of Acclaimed Western Photographers.