Medallion Name – E IS FOR EQUITABLE
The Equitable Building
730 17th St, Denver, CO 80202
added to the National Register of Historic Places: 1/9/1978, 78000845
State Register: 5DV.121
Significance – When Denver was still in its infancy, the New York Stock Exchange had already been roaring for more than 60 years. New York City powerbrokers believed the new territories in the West represented the next financial empire to be conquered. In 1892, the Equitable Life Assurance Society of New York erected Denver’s first office tower. It was then that newspapers heralded that Denver had become, “The Wall Street of the West.”
Constructed in 1890-92, the Equitable building is on the National Register of Historic Places. It has long been home to many of Denver’s most prestigious law firms and financial institutions, and is generally regarded as the last great building constructed in Denver before the Silver Panic of 1893.
At the time it was built, it was the largest and most stately building in the city with nine stories, complex massing and details such as the cherubs mid-way up its façade. Its elegance and distinction continue to make it one of Denver’s premiere buildings.
Location – 730 17th Street, Denver, Co 80202 * 39°44’47.3″N 104°59’29.2″W
Details – There was joy and hoopla when it was announced that the Equitable Life Assurance Society of New York would erect Denver’s first office tower. From the city’s earliest days, many believed that Denver was destined to be the commercial hub of the Rocky Mountain region. The vision Colorado Senator Edward O. Wolcott helped make it so. During the 1870s, Wolcott served on the board of directors for the Equitable Life Assurance Society in New York. He advised Equitable president Henry Hyde on mining investments. Wolcott was instrumental in making Denver the headquarters for the Equitable Life Assurance Company in the Rocky Mountain region.
This triumph was heralded as a turning point for the Mile High City. The Denver Republic newspaper proclaimed, “With this great investment here, the capitalists of the East will feel confident in the stability of Denver’s growth.“
The distinguished Boston architectural firm of Andrews, Jacques, and Rantoul was commissioned to design the building. The Equitable Society’s decision to hire the firm reinforced the idea that Eastern sophistication had come to Denver. The architects created Italian Renaissance Revival style edifice to portray permanence and reliability – a theme echoed throughout the building’s 9-story design. In honor of Equitable and to maximize light and airflow into offices, architects developed a floor plan in the shape of a pair of back-to-back Es and specified numerous Es designed into the molding and decoration on the exterior.
A new-fangled steel frame became the infrastructure of this amazing 173,000-square-foot construction. It grew to be a building of neo-classical design with rusticated façade of Colorado granite on the lower two floors and pale pressed brick on the upper stories – some with refined arched windows and a fifth floor balcony cornice adorned with Amorini (cupids). Terra cotta ornamentation was laced throughout the façade. The building was crowned by a boxed cornice is supported by elaborate modillions.
Construction costs for the 9-story structure were $1.5 million. When it opened 1892, the Equitable Building was both the tallest and most expensive building in Denver. The commercial structure instantly became the showpiece for the city’s burgeoning financial district.
The décor was magnificent. When you enter, the play of lighting on vaulted ceilings trimmed with Byzantine mosaic lifts one’s gaze up. At eye level, Vermont Yellow Marble pillars augment a lobby decorated with additional marble from Tennessee, Italy and France. A grand staircase of that marble and bronze rises to herald four Tiffany stained glass windows. The image in the center of the grand window was designed by John Quincy Adams Ward to be the Emblem of the Equitable Life Assurance Company. Named the Genius of Insurance, the stained glass window features Minerva – the Greek goddess of protection – comforting a bereft widow and orphan.
State of the art for its time, the Equitable Building contractors incorporated every fire-safety precaution, plumbing and the finest electrical conveniences available in the early 1890s. There were eight – count ‘em eight – hydraulic elevators, fireplaces with gas logs, and most rooms offered “wash closets, supplied with hot and cold water.”
The back-to-back E design created deeply recessed courts, enabling every office to have a window for fresh air and natural light while making the building “E” brand statement. The Equitable Building indeed confirmed that Eastern wealth and prestige had arrived in town. When it opened in 1892, the landmark structure represented a step towards sophistication and prominence, which many people felt Denver desperately needed.
“There are few buildings in the United States will equal the Graceful Beauty of its Architecture and the attractive loveliness of its composition,” praised the Rocky Mountain News. The 1892 Madison Avenue- inspired promotional pamphlet extolled the virtues of the Equitable Building. It declared that Equitable had spearheaded transformation of 17th Street into “The Wall Street of the West.”
So impressive was the edifice that all of the Denver bigwigs leased space. The early tenants list read like a Who’s Who of Denver. Equitable housed the Colorado’s governor’s office until Governor Davis H. Waite moved to the State Capitol Building in 1894. Mining and railroad tycoon David Moffatt opened First National Bank on the ground level, and the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad headquartered here, as did the Colorado Department of the U.S. Army. The city’s top law firms established a presence and the fifth floor grew to become the region’s largest law library. Mary Lathrop, one of the first two women admitted to the American Bar Association, made her office in the Equitable. As tenancy evolved, the Wall Street of the West vision became reality, the leading stockbrokers built their lairs, and investors came to watch the Equitable Buildings’ ticker tape.
Curious fact: the building was so tall that in 1894, researchers performed a “remarkable feat of heliographic signaling” between the Equitable roof and the top of Pikes Peak, some 60 miles away. Mirrors sent Morse Code between the sites. Delighted researchers proclaimed that, “The flashes of the mirrors on Pikes Peak could be distinctly seen by the naked eye during the transmission of the message.”
Those were heady times…the Silver Panic devastated Denver soon after, and despite its prestigious tenants, lease rates failed to regain their original level until 1902.
In 1908, William Barth, president of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, purchased the building for $1.3 million. Ownership changed two more times prior to the Great Depression, and in 1934 the owners defaulted on a $50,000 loan and the structure went into foreclosure. Charlotte Barth Howell, granddaughter of previous owner William Barth, purchased the building for $950,000. The building changed owners in 1956, 1962, and 1968, each time selling for about $2.5 million.
Modern times have restored the Equitable Building to its 1893 grandeur and the adaptive reuse into condominiums. Today, the National Register landmark is an anchor of the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission’s Downtown Historic District. This non-contiguous district, within the core downtown area, consists of 43 architecturally or historically significant buildings worthy of preservation. The structures are located on 18 different blocks between Tremont and Lawrence and between 14th and 18th streets. Many of the buildings have been reconverted through adaptive reuse and today a striking contrast to the sleek glass towers that surround them, enriching the Denver’s central business district experience.
- Which individual took the first steps in establishing Denver’s rise as the commercial hub of the Rocky Mountain region?’
- Why did Wall Street businesses want to invest in the West?
- What did the Equitable Building mean to Denver?
- Describe the architectural style of the Equitable building?
- Once it opened, why did all of Denver’s most prominent businesses want to move in to the Equitable Building?