As summer grips the city and Coloradans bemoan our regrettable lack of ocean, we might do well to remember that Denver’s Washington Park once had its very own beach on a lake that once didn’t exist.
In the summer of 1911, Smith Lake, located near the northern end of the park, inaugurated its new swimming area — complete with sand, a diving platform and an elegant bathhouse. Two hundred enthusiastic bathers showed up on the lake’s north shore for opening day. Everything was free, including soap, showers and extremely modest turn-of-the-century swimsuits.
This was the era of corsets, big hats and propriety, so ladies donned knee-length shirts with capped sleeves before taking the plunge. And one can safely assume that none of the men wore Speedos. A line of rope modestly divided the male and female swimming areas.
All this seems remarkable considering that before 1867, this 18-acre lake did not exist. Beginning in 1860, local entrepreneur John W. Smith took on the job of building a 26-mile irrigation canal from the South Platte River into the dry, treeless scrublands of what is now central Denver.
More than four decades later, Denver residents were paddling rowboats and executing swan dives in the same place.
Smith put his new lake to work as a reservoir and source of ice for Denver’s cocktails, ice cream churns and ice boxes. Nowadays, the 10-foot-deep lake develops only thin, patchy ice in the winter. But longtime Denverites remember when Smith Lake regularly froze solid, attracting hordes of ice skaters.
In the late decades of the 19th century, Smith Lake acquired a scandalous reputation.
According to the Washington Park East Neighborhood Association (WPENA) website, “by the 1890s, the lake was considered somewhat of a nuisance as it attracted ‘young men who insisted on showing their anatomy in the waters.’”
The Denver Republican reported that so many boys were utilizing the lake in this manner that “ladies refuse to go on the elegant and beautiful drive in that vicinity.”
Despite the skinny-dipping, residents of south Denver began to envision Smith Lake as the centerpiece of a new park. The city began acquiring nearby land and eventually bought the lake from Smith in the early 1900s.
The newly-assembled Washington Park opened in 1903 as part of the City Beautiful movement, which originated with architects and urban planners in Chicago. Elegant European-style fountains, pavilions and gardens sprang up in cities across the U.S. and during this era, some notable architecture was also erected at Smith Lake.
Frederick Ameter and James B. Hyder designed the Dos Chappell bathhouse, completed in 1912 and now a state landmark.
On the south shore, architect Jacques Benedict — who went on to design other flamboyant landmarks like the Sports Castle at 1000 Broadway — created a striking boathouse. Now also a beloved Wash Park landmark, the 1913 building resembles an early 20th century take on a Greek temple.
According to WPENA’s account, the lower level originally sheltered boats and a ticket office for boat rentals, and also doubled as warming hut for skaters. The open-air pavilion on the upper level was intended for picnics and other public gatherings of up to 500 people, reflecting the public-spirited zeitgeist of the City Beautiful movement.
These days, the Smith Lake boathouse is especially memorable when it lights up in the evening, its white columns glimmering over the water. In normal, non-pandemic times, the city rents out the pavilion level for weddings and other parties. Passersby often hear distant strains of music as guests dance the night away.
During its nearly 50-year life span, the Smith Lake beach was wildly popular, serving thousands of water-starved Denverites every summer. Admission was free but as the Denver Library’s history site puts it, “… not everyone was not free to use it.”
Overt racism was rampant in turn-of-the century America, reflected in Jim Crow laws and the 1908 “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which severely limited immigration from Asian countries. In 1913, Japanese-Americans were banned outright from swimming at Smith Lake.
About 10 years later, in the mid-1920s, the Ku Klux Klan sprang back to life and began sponsoring car races and family picnics in Denver. By the early 1930s, Denver’s KKK leaders had been discredited, but racism was still alive in the city.
On Aug. 17, 1932, 150 African-Americans bravely attempted to swim at Smith Lake beach in an organized protest against de facto segregation. White swimmers attacked them with sticks and stones, but instead of arresting the attackers, police arrested some of the protesters.
Was Smith Beach ever integrated? It is difficult to know. The beach closed for swimming before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in public places. And well before the 1960s, the lake was suffering from age.
Urban lakes are delicate organisms, vulnerable to pollution, algae blooms and accumulating sediment. By the mid-1950s, lifeguards at Smith Lake beach could barely see a foot beneath the surface. The beach finally closed in 1957 amid the polio scare.
By the early 1980s, the once-elegant bathhouse had also fallen into disrepair and was being used as maintenance shed. Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC) — a nonprofit that tends to the state’s natural resources — and the organization’s then-executive director Dos Chappell, a Washington Park resident, led a fundraising campaign to restore the building.
Completed in 1996, the renovated bathhouse now bears Chappell’s name and serves as headquarters for VOC. The old locker rooms are gone and the bathhouse no longer gives way onto a sandy beach. But the handsome twin fireplaces remain — a reminder of the days when skaters warmed their toes in the lobby and Smith Lake served as an urban resort all year round.
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