The Rossonian Hotel: A Historical Icon with a Bright Future
By: Tamara Banks, 2019
Take a walk down Welton Street in Denver, Colorado’s historic Five Points neighborhood and stand in front of a building at 2650 Welton Street. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the music of such jazz greats as Billy Holiday, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. And you can almost feel the spirits of these world renown musicians touching your soul.
This isn’t just any building. This is the Rossonian Hotel, the gem of the Five Points neighborhood, nicknamed the “Harlem of the West.”
Denver, Five Points specifically, was a favorite place for African American jazz artists to perform back in the day. Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole, and other jazz icons would perform at clubs around Denver. But before desegregation they weren’t allowed to stay overnight in “white” hotels or even eat at many of the restaurants in the Mile High City. So, after phenomenal performances for white audiences, they came to the black neighborhood, Five Points, and stayed at the Rossonian Hotel. The lounge got a reputation as the best jazz club between the Kansas City and Los Angeles. In the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s the Rossonian was the place to be to see and hear the cream of the crop in jazz, up close and personal.
In the Beginning
But the Rossonian’s history doesn’t start there. It opened as the Baxter Hotel in 1912. Robert Y. Baxter owned the Baxter Cigar Company and hired architect George Louis Bettcher, a Jersey City, New Jersey architect. He came to Denver in 1895 and opened what became a successful architectural firm which designed commercial and residential buildings.
With its triangular shape and Beaux-Arts style, an architectural style which was taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris from the 1830’s to the end of the 19th century, the three-story building soon became a neighborhood landmark and was owned by whites and catered to the white community in the early part of the 20th century.
The Romanesque Revival building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. And is listed in the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties.
African Americans became the majority in Five Points in the 1920s and by 1929 about 5,500 of Denver’s 7,000 African Americans lived in the area. Five Points was a place where black businesses along Welton Street thrived. While still owned by the Baxter family, the hotel came under black management and was renamed the Rossonian in 1929 after the manager, A.W.L. Ross. Over the following decades ownership changed hands a few times. (But generally stayed within a close circle of friends and businesses connected to Ross.)
Cool Spot for Hot Jazz
The reputation of the lounge at the Rossonian grew to be known as the hot spot for jazz, so much so that white audiences began to come from all over Denver to be entertained. And by the 1950’s the clientele was mostly white as white customers could afford the cover charge.
But some positive social progress had unintended consequences on Five Points and consequently, the Rossonian. By the late ‘50’s and in to the early part of the ‘60’s, African American entertainers were no longer restricted to stay hotels in Five Points. Also, as redlining, racially restrictive housing ordinances became illegal, middle-class blacks in Five Points began to move to other parts of Denver and the suburbs. As a result, the flow of world class jazz artists vanished. And the black population diminished in the Five Points neighborhood. businesses in the area struggled to survive.
Efforts to Polish the Jewel of Five Points
Elvin Caldwell served three terms in the Colorado state Legislature. And 1955, was elected to the Denver City Council and served the city for 28 years. He had said his proudest accomplishments were helping to establish the Eastside Neighborhood and Five Points Community Centers as well as leading the fight to end discrimination in Denver city government.
In his effort to revitalize the Five Points neighborhood he and his wife Frankie bought the Rossonian in 1957 for approximately $100,000 in hopes of developing it in to a “luxurious establishment catering to Negroes between Chicago and Los Angeles.” But that dream never became a reality and in 1960 they lost the building because they couldn’t keep up with the property taxes. The Caldwells got the title back in 1965 and tried to sell the hotel and lounge and restaurant. But the building fell in to disarray and became a place where arrests for solicitation and prostitution occurred.
Still operating as a hotel, in 1967 the Caldwells leased the Rossonian, to Jerry Roseman. The next year they sold the it to Vera and Joseph Hamilton, who hoped to sell it to the city of Denver. The plan was to use it as a halfway home. But the renovations were too expensive. So, the Rossonian continued to do a little business as a hotel. In 1973, the Hamiltons sold the building to Harry Goens, Jr. At that time, the building was worth only $70,000.
Big plans to pump new life in to the Rossonian began in the 1980’s. The Mayor’s Office of Economic Development granted PSTAR ONE Properties a $378,000 loan to buy the historic building in 1986. The company used the money to buy a lot for off-street parking and create architectural drawings. But PSTAR defaulted on the loan the next year. At that point, the city of Denver took position of the building. Four years later, Tom Yates a developer and former insurance executive received a loan from the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development to try to revive the jazz vibe at the Rossonian and build a supper club.
Yates received more than $1.8 million in loans from the city for renovations which included new walls, plumbing, and electrical systems and a three-story addition on the back of the building in the early 1990’s. The Denver Housing Authority leased the top two floors for five years for about $12,000 a month. But in 1993 Yates’s American Woodmen Life Insurance company went bankrupt and he had tax troubles. Regulators placed the Rossonian under control of a nonprofit called the Rossonian Limited Partnership. In 1998 the city foreclosed on the Rossonian, and the Denver Housing Authority relocated after finishing its lease.
Recognizing Cultural Significance
As we mentioned earlier, in 1995 the Rossonian was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. By 2002 Welton Street became a Denver historic cultural district. (In 2015 the district’s name was changed to the Five Points Historic Cultural District, but it still covers only Welton Street.)
In 2005 developer Carl Bourgeois acquired the Rossonian for $800,000. His dream was to open a jazz club and restaurant, but those plans never became a reality due to troubles with financing and major infrastructure issues. Things were looking up for the Rossonian however, in the 2010’s and Redevelopment plans for the boarded-up Rossonian gained new life in the 2010s. In 2014 Civil Technology, Bourgeois’s firm, partnered with Sage Hospitality. The plan was to develop a luxury hotel and condominium complex at the Rossonian. The project has received a $150,000 grant from the Denver Office of Economic Development, raising the total amount of public funds invested in the hotel since 1986 to more than $3 million.
Now it’s Five Points Development Corporation’s turn!
There are exciting new plans underway for the Rossonian. And the renaissance of the Rossonian will just be the beginning for what’s ahead for the Five Points neighborhood.
So, take a walk down Welton Street and stand in front of 2650. Close your eyes and imagine greatness coming back to one of the most treasured buildings in Colorado!