Wash Park’s ‘rainbow house’ is up for auction along with the collections Gary L. Johnson left behind

“The personal property left behind reflects who that person really is” — or was.
9 min. read
Some of the items left inside Gary Johnson’s home west of Washington Park, July 25, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Gary L. Johnson's childhood home, across the street from Washington Park, has been full of stories from the beginning.

It was completed in 1911, supposedly by a ship captain who fashioned the glass-lined rotunda upstairs after a captain's quarters. Johnson's great grandparents moved into the home at 1051 S. Downing St. when the captain was finished with it. They eventually purchased two more homes on the block. His grandmother lived alone next door as Johnson and his three siblings grew up in the captain's old home.

They came of age and split ways. Johnson spent some time away at college, and then headed down to Roswell, New Mexico, to pursue his interest in aliens. In the 1970s, he moved back in for good. The house slowly transformed into a reflection of his own image: odd, meticulous and full of humor with a dash of darkness.

Gary L. Johnson's home in Washington Park West, July 23, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Casino paraphernalia covers the ceilings of Gary Johnson's home. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Johnson's sister and kids said he wasn't always a collector. But when the bug bit him, it bit hard.

By the time he died last April, at the age of 78, nearly every square inch of his home was covered with collectibles. Hats, cups, bags and miscellaneous knick-knacks from casinos hung from the ceilings in his living room, kitchen, bathroom and hallways. His garage was full of military ephemera -- bombs, grenades and gas masks -- and auto parts. More secrets still lay waiting to be discovered.

The home will be sold in a live auction on Aug. 10. Johnson's collections will be auctioned online.

Auctioneer Doug Carpenter held an open house for curious neighbors and would-be buyers who wandered in to see the house and marvel at what remained of Johnson's obsessions. While he usually just deals with real estate, Carpenter has seen plenty of items go on sale after someone dies.

"The personal property left behind reflects who that person really is," he said.

But, he added, it's often the tales that emerge when people start asking questions that really get to the heart of the person.

Gary Johnson won a free portrait once. He ignored the offer for months as a salesman called to coax him in. One day, he finally agreed, and smuggled this bazooka into the mall studio under a blanket to pose with a menacing face, what his son, David, says was his kind of humor. (Courtesy: David Johnson)

His sons, David and Chad, and daughter, Sherri, all agreed that their father's stuff says a lot about who he was.

"I think my dad was very artistic and meticulous," Sherri said. That much was clear from the way he displayed everything.

"His sense of humor was just way over the top," David said. Little jokes and jabs could be found everywhere, from the craps table supported by four humanoid legs to the smiley face on the house's exterior. A sign on a door read: "Reality is only for those who lack imagination."

The car parts and engines (some turned into art) in the backyard pointed to his history as a mechanic. He once owned repair shops on North Washington Street and South Gaylord Street. It was in that era he earned his nickname, "Gizmo."

David remembered that his father first collected sports memorabilia, stuff adorned with Broncos, Rockies and Avalanche logos.

"I'm not exaggerating. If you displayed it on a wall it would take up a whole house," he said of just the Rockies gear.

But his budding interest in casino treasures meant something had to go if there was to be room to see his new vision through. Johnson ended up giving the sports gear to his grandchildren as the new obsession took over.

Two items from Gary Johnson's extensive collection of casino ephemera. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

His sister, Karen Cleavenger, said it all started on his birthday. She liked to gamble, so she took him up to Central City for lunch.

"He didn't want to gamble. But all the sudden he's seeing all these things that they're selling real cheap or giving away, so he started collecting," she recalled.

Johnson and Cleavenger made a tradition of Central City lunches for their birthdays after that. Even if she didn't win, he'd always come home with a prize.

David said he thinks his dad had a "collecting compulsion." The family sometimes got upset about Johnson's acquisitions, especially if they involved a hefty price tag. But, generally, they loved him for who he was.

"If that's what makes him happy, who are we to tell him otherwise," David said.

He also said his father was deeply spiritual, though evidence of that was barely present by the time his house opened to potential buyers last week.

In January 2018, Johnson gave me a tour of his childhood home. It began with the rainbow windows in the second-floor captain's room, which I rang the doorbell to ask about. He was keen to show me the basement.

In the house's bottom floor was what Johnson called the "rainbow chamber," a kind of shrine with a homemade pedestal sporting bottom-lit crystals and metal pyramids. Lining each side of the room were seats upholstered in all seven colors of the rainbow.

In evenings in the '90s, he said, the room was often full of people who came to meditate there with him.

"It aligns their energy fields," he said, "and it doesn't matter if you believe me or not."

Guests would often "just kind of float out of here" when they were done.

"Spirit Master" Gary L. Johnson's "rainbow chamber" in his home across the street from Washington Park, Jan. 18, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
"Spirit Master" Gary L. Johnson's "rainbow chamber" in his home across the street from Washington Park. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Even though his father's beliefs sometimes put people off, David emphasized he was one of the smartest people he's ever known. His kids used to race their grandfather to the solutions of tough math problems. They'd use a calculator while he'd figure it out in his head. Johnson won every time.

The pedestal and crystals were removed before the open house. When they were, David said they found another of his father's jokes: a letter and some marbles stashed away inside an electric enclosure labeled "an extra special box" beneath the fixture.

The type-written letter read: "Ha! You have found another one of the mini-treasures I have hidden. This one is just to whet your whistle and is probably the easiest to find. I hid this on October 19, 1988. 2:55 p.m. Clue: this is the 4th time I have hidden 'treasure.' Congratulations."

David said there are things like this all over the house, inside railings and behind drywall.

The next owner of the house -- if it's not demolished -- may find them. Carpenter, the auctioneer, said some items like poker chips glued onto the ceiling will also remain if removing them might cause damage.

All three of the Johnson siblings agreed that selling the house hurts. Sherri said she cries every time she thinks about it. But they all have their own lives. And with so much land surrounding the home, it would be an expensive burden to take on.

Their father's collections are a different story.

"We were dreading this for 20 years," David laughed. "What are we going to do with it?"

Two items from Gary Johnson's extensive collection of military ephemera. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Trophies and an old oilcan left in Gary Johnson's home. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The auctions will close out a very long chapter in the family's history. Johnson's death also represented a certain kind of peace at the end of a difficult time for him. For years, his sister said, he stayed up working on projects all night and slept all day. But he was unable to sleep at all for some time before he died, and his insomnia took a toll.

David said he remembers his father as a "very happy-go-lucky person," but added he was generally "frustrated about all the chaos on this planet."

Sherri said he always said: "Just love people." It was his constant refrain, something he thought could be a straightforward solution to all the issues mankind faces.

He would have said he found that loving place in death.

"My dad always talked about moving on to a different dimension," David said.

In that place, he believed, hate and war did not exist.

"There was none of the chaos," David said. "That's where he thought he was going."

A portrait of Gary Johnson. (Courtesy: David Johnson)
Karen Cleavenger tells interested guests about her brother, Gary Johnson, during an open house at his home west of Washington Park, July 25, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Two items left in Gary Johnson's garage. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Military gear covers Gary Johnson's garage. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
A legged craps table inside Gary Johnson's home. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Two items left in Gary Johnson's home. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Playing cards and casino ephemera line a hallway inside Gary Johnson's home. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Gary Johnson's bathroom. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Engines-turned-art in Gary Johnson's backyard. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Two items left in Gary Johnson's home. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Casino paraphernalia covers the cabinets of Gary Johnson's kitchen. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Casino paraphernalia and an old phone inside Gary Johnson's home. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
A painting inside Gary Johnson's bedroom. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Rainbow stained glass that Gary Johnson installed in his second-story "wheel room." Jan. 19, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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