Denver truly offers something for everyone, including architecture aficionados. The city was founded in 1858 and what started as a collection of humble cabins during the Gold Rush era has morphed into one of the most impressive and innovative city skylines in the country.
Take a chronological trip through time and discover Denver’s history through some of its most striking architecture.
Denver Union Station
Built in 1881, renovated in 1914 and 2010–2014
Start your architectural tour at Denver’s downtown transportation hub. Originally constructed in 1881, Denver Union Station was designed by D.H. Burnham & Co. in the ornate Beaux-Arts style made famous in 19th century Paris, with terrazzo floors and a Columbine motif on the borders of the interior. In the intervening decades, the building withstood fires, floods and economic upheavals. As railway travel waned, the building fell into disrepair, but with the recent revitalization of downtown and a major renovation from 2010-14, Union Station is once again a flurry of activity. In addition to traditional rail lines, Union Station also serves as a bus and light rail station, and it also houses numerous bars, restaurants, shops and the Crawford Hotel. The renovation, which incorporated recycled materials, increased ventilation and natural light, earned Union Station a coveted Gold LEED certification for green building — the ninth transit building in the country to earn LEED designation.
Photo op: Instagram the iconic “UNION STATION TRAVEL by TRAIN” sign, added in 1952.
Extra credit: You can explore more Beaux-Arts architecture at the peach-colored Grant–Humphreys Mansion (1902) in Denver’s historic Quality Hill neighborhood.
Built in 1889
It’s an honest-to-goodness castle in the middle of Denver! Built in 1889 by architect William Lang, Castle Marne sits on the corner of 16th and Race Streets in the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood. Lang designed and built more than 300 homes in Denver during the Victorian Era, including the famed Molly Brown House Museum, many in similar Queen Anne and Richardsonian Romanesque styles. Castle Marne’s exterior is constructed from rusticated lava stone, quarried from nearby Castle Rock, and inside, you’ll find unique details, such as hand-carved fireplace mantels. Unfortunately, many of Capitol Hill’s distinctive Victorian mansions were torn down during the early 1900s, as the neighborhood underwent demographic and economic changes. Castle Marne survived, but the building was partitioned into apartments, then offices. During most of the 1980s, the castle stood empty and was repeatedly ransacked and vandalized. In 1988, the building was purchased by the Peiker family, who lovingly restored and renovated it, opening Castle Marne Bed and Breakfast on the 100th anniversary of the construction of the house.
Photo op: Guests or event attendees (the castle is a popular wedding and meeting venue) can snap a pic in front of the circular “peacock” stained-glass window, designed specifically for the house by local Impressionist artist M. Watkins.
Extra credit: For more of Lang’s signature style, head to the Molly Brown House Museum (1887), just a few blocks southwest from Castle Marne, and pose with the friendly lion statues that guard the building.
Colorado State Capitol
Built in 1894
Designed by Elijah E. Myers and completed in 1894, the Colorado State Capitol was meant to mirror the look of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. But the building is also an ode to all things Colorado. The glittering, exterior dome is gilded with gold from a Colorado mine, commemorating the Colorado Gold Rush that originally brought settlers to the area. The wainscoting and column plinths inside the building were made from what is believed to be the entire supply of Colorado Rose Onyx, a rare, rose-colored marble from Beulah, Color. White Yule Marble, the state rock of Colorado, was used throughout the building for the floors.
Photo op: Walk up to the fifteenth step, which is engraved with the words “One Mile Above Sea Level,” for the ultimate Mile High City photo op.
Extra credit: Politicos will also want to check out Denver’s Neoclassical City and County Building (1932), just across Civic Center Park from the capitol.
Daniels & Fisher Tower
Built in 1911
Did you know that Denver was once home to the tallest structure west of the Mississippi? Built in 1911 by architect F. G. Sterner, the Daniels & Fisher Tower reaches 393 feet into the sky as part of the Daniels and Fisher Department Store. The store itself was demolished in the 1970s, but the Italian Renaissance-style clock tower, constructed from brick, stone and terracotta, remains. Over the years, the tower, located on the popular 16th Street Mall, has become a Denver landmark and has earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s now home to office space, an event venue on the top floors and the Clocktower Cabaret in the basement.
Photo op: Stroll by in the evening for Night Lights Denver, a year-round art installation projected on the clock tower’s exterior.
Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
Built in 1911
This gorgeous French Gothic-style house of worship was designed by Leon Coquard of Detroit and completed by Denver architects Aaron Gove and Thomas Walsh in 1911. This style of architecture incorporates ornate elements such as gargoyles; decorated flying buttresses; high, pointed arches; and vaulted ceilings. Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is laid out in the shape of a Latin cross, with a foundation made from Gunnison granite. Much of the interior marble is from Marble, Colo., though Carrara marble from Italy was used for the altars, pedestals, statues, pulpit, bishop’s throne and communion rail. The east spire has 15 bells, four of which are rung for all Sunday Masses and on special occasions. The church also contains 75 stained-glass windows — more than any other church in America — originally crafted at the Royal Bavarian Art Institute in Munich, Germany. At the time of construction, the total cost of the 75 windows was $34,000. Today, just one window would cost more than $500,000.
Photo op: It’s definitely worth a peek inside, but out of respect for worshippers (the cathedral offers three daily and six Sunday Masses as well as other sacraments), we recommend snapping a photo of the building’s exterior, with its spires, statuary, brass doors and rose window.
Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory: Denver Botanic Gardens
Built in 1966
When you think “impressive architecture,” you probably think of soaring skyscrapers, awe-inspiring cathedrals and imposing mansions. One more building to add to your list: greenhouses. The Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory, constructed in 1966 and designed by Victor Hornbein and Edward White Jr., is considered an architectural marvel. It was registered as an official historical landmark just seven years after its construction. It’s both a sculptural work of art and a functional greenhouse, allowing visitors to Denver Botanic Gardens to enjoy tropical greenery, even in the dead of winter. The modern building includes geometric skylights made from plexiglass and utilizes cast-in-place concrete — the only conservatory in the country to do so.
Photo op: Inside the conservatory is a fabricated, two-story banyan tree that affords visitors an aerial view of the indoor tropical forest and the interior of the greenhouse.
‘CASH REGISTER BUILDING’
Built in 1983
The Wells Fargo Center — better known as the “Cash Register Building” — is a unique silhouette along the Denver skyline. With its red granite-and-glass façade and double-curved roof, the building is a classic example of postmodern architecture, shaped like the item it’s supposed to represent: an antique cash register. The iconic building was completed in 1983 and designed by architect Philip Johnson, who also designed New York’s Seagram Building. At 698 feet, it’s the city’s third-tallest building, but it looks like the tallest because it’s on a hill. A recent renovation earned the building LEED Gold certification, and in 2016, ESI Design, a Manhattan-based experiential design firm, revamped the eight-story atrium with a vibrant display of five LED panels that play an ever-changing display of images and video content, including Instagram photos, weather forecasts and nature imagery.
Photo op: Stand back! The distinctive shape of the roof is mirrored in the shape of the glass atrium at the bottom of the building. Head across the street to try and get all 52 floors in your shot.
DENVER INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Built in 1995
You’ve heard that old adage: “It’s the journey, not the destination.” That’s especially true for the nearly 70 million travelers who pass through Denver International Airport (DEN) each year. Fentress Architects reportedly had only three weeks to create the terminal’s conceptual design, but they still managed to produce one of the world’s most innovative, efficient and visually stunning airports. Built in 1995, DEN boasts the largest structurally integrated tensile-membrane roof in the world, with white peaks that rise 130 to 150 feet into the air, meant to mimic the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains. To achieve this canopy-like structure, the architects relocated the building’s mechanical infrastructure from the roof to underground, inverting traditional building design and eliminating the need for thousands of pounds of structural steel and building materials. The airport also features nearly 40 site-specific works of art, including sculptures, murals and other installations. The pieces are displayed on the grounds outside, inside Jeppesen Terminal, on concourses, in the train tunnels and on the trains themselves.
Photo op: While there’s much to admire inside, you’ll get the full picture by snapping a photo from your car, shuttle or the University of Colorado A Line as it whisks you toward Denver Union Station.
Extra credit: The Westin Denver International Airport Hotel, added in 2015 and designed by Gensler, stretches 14 stories high and offers guests unparalleled panoramic views of the Front Range. The sleek form resembles a bird in flight — a fitting tribute to aviation.
Built in 2002
Denver’s architectural feats aren’t limited to buildings. The Millennium Bridge, completed in 2002 (hence the name), crosses above the railroad tracks, just southwest of Denver Union Station. Architect Steve Chucovich worked with international engineering firm Ove Arup to plan and execute the innovative support system that holds up the bridge’s deck, designed so that the cables all fan out from a single-canted mast, giving it the look of a ship. Wide staircases rise to the pedestrian bridge’s deck — about three stories high. Glass-enclosed elevator towers on either side make the bridge accessible to all.
Photo op: For the best view of the bridge itself, stand at the bottom of the steps on either end. For the best of view everything else, climb to the top of the bridge and point your camera in nearly any direction for shots of Lower Downtown (LoDo), Commons Park and Lower Highland (LoHi).
Extra credit: Before you head north over the bridge, stop by MCA Denver (2007). The Museum of Contemporary Art was designed by London-based architect David Adjaye. The building is covered in striking black glass, and the entrance is a semi-enclosed ramp with a monumental sliding door at the top. The door is notorious for confusing visitors — but it’s all part of the fun for a building that houses some of the region’s most compelling and confounding contemporary art.
FREDERIC C. HAMILTON BUILDING: DENVER ART MUSEUM
Built in 2006
Denver Art Museum’s angular and asymmetrical Frederic C. Hamilton Building in the Golden Triangle Creative District is a postmodern, deconstructivist work of art in and of itself. Architect Daniel Libeskind designed the building with 9,000 titanium panels covering its exterior, explaining that he was “inspired by the light and the geology of the Rockies, but most of all by the wide-open faces of the people of Denver.” The Hamilton Building was Libeskind’s first completed building in the United States, but he went on to oversee the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site in New York City.
Photo op: The angles of the Hamilton Building are impressive from, well, any angle. The grounds outside host some large-scale outdoor sculptures, such as “Big Sweep” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen (a giant broom and dustpan) and Beverly Pepper’s “Denver Monoliths.” Circle the building to get a photo with your favorite piece.
Extra credit: Visitors get an architectural two-for-one at Denver Art Museum! The Martin Building (previously called the North Building and currently undergoing renovation) was designed by famed Italian architect Gio Ponti in 1971. This towering building looks like a medieval fortress and is connected to the Hamilton building by a glass pedestrian bridge.
KIRKLAND MUSEUM OF FINE & DECORATIVE ART
Built in 2018
The Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, built in 2018, houses paintings by artist Vance Kirkland, fine and decorative art by Colorado and regional artists and international decorative art. The new building, which is decked out in yellow terra cotta bars and golden glass panels, is about four times larger than the museum’s original location at 13th and Pearl. Seattle architect Jim Olson, who designed both the interior and exterior, calls it “the jewel box” — a golden museum for the Golden Triangle Creative District. But one of the most creative architectural features isn’t new at all. In fact, it dates back to 1910. When the museum decided to relocate, they brought Vance Kirkland’s original red brick Arts & Crafts-style studio along for the ride, incorporating the 1,384-square-foot building into the design of the new 38,500-square-foot museum.
Photo op: The bright yellow tiles that cover the exterior of the building make for a sunny selfie backdrop. Or, for a look at the outside of Vance Kirkland’s original studio, head to the northeast corner of the museum block.
While many of these facilities offer tours, please check with each one individually before you venture out for the latest COVID-19-related policy updates and hours of operation.