From The Seedy To The Swanky, Museum Hopes To Keep Telling Colfax Avenue's Stories

Jul 19, 2019

At 26.5 miles, Colfax Avenue is the longest commercial street in the country. It began as a major thoroughfare during the Gold Rush, lined with lavish mansions of the area's elite. Later it became a haven for tourists with the mansions making way for motels and restaurants.

Over the years, Colfax Avenue lost some of its luster, becoming known more for crime, drugs and prostitution than its history.

Legend has it that Playboy Magazine once dubbed Colfax the "longest, wickedest street in America" — although, in keeping with a lot of tales from the strip, no one has ever been able to corroborate that rumor.

But for Denver musician and Colfax historian Jonny Barber, even the street's seedier stories are important. It's all part of the patchwork that makes "the 'Fax," as he calls it, the heart and soul of Denver. And Aurora, and Lakewood, and Golden...

"It's part of U.S. 40 which is a coast-to-coast highway. Atlantic City, New Jersey to San Francisco," Barber said. "But then Colfax is also part of U.S. 36 that runs from Chicago to Estes Park. And it's part of 287, which goes from Port Arthur, Texas up into Yellowstone and into Canada."

One of Colfax Avenue’s most beloved locations is Casa Bonita. The kitschy Mexican restaurant features indoor waterfalls and cliff divers.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

Barber has spent the last two decades curating Colfax — collecting everything from bar matchbook covers to the mannequin that stood outside the infamous Sid King's Crazy Horse strip club. Two years ago he opened the Colfax Museum at its first location on Denver's East Colfax in the Ed Moore Flower Shop.

When the owner sold the building, the museum moved to West Colfax in Lakewood in the former Pasternack's Pawn Shop, now Pasternack's Art Hub. From the parking lot, you can see the top of another legendary Colfax site, Casa Bonita. The Mexican restaurant is known for its indoor cliff divers and kitschy decor.

Near the museum's entrance, a recent acquisition leaned against the building. The approximately 20-foot-tall neon sign is from the former Stonewall Motel, which is now a bank parking lot.

"Look at the sign, it's like the Battleship Potemkin," Barber said as he pounded on the metal sign.

But last month, Barber announced that the Colfax Museum — along with that sign — were once again in need of a home. A big part of the reason: the current site is in a floodplain. Not exactly the safest place for a museum.

"Some of the artifacts in the museum are 150 years old," he said. "We gotta find a museum-worthy facility for everything."

Everything includes a cast of an iguanodon footprint found during the construction of U.S. 40 near Dinosaur Ridge, the B-17 scale replica made of beer cans that was suspended from the ceiling of the beloved Colfax dive, the Hangar Bar, and a sea of neon signs that were once so prevalent on the strip that the Denver City Council enacted new regulations to limit "light pollution."

The “Beer Can Bomber” from the former Hangar Bar.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

Signs and lights make up a good portion of the items still left at the site — the rest is in storage or on display at an exhibit Barber curated for Denver International Airport's Concourse A.

Another part of Barber's mission is to keep Colfax's history alive and well in its original location.

Not long after purchasing the York Street Theater sign, he was approached by the building's current owners, the DC Pie Co. Barber agreed to give them the sign as long as they promised to fix it up and prominently display it. Four months later, he said the sign was up and on display.

"(It's not just) about the nostalgia or trying to live in the past, but to have the past have relevance in life now," he said.

A light fixture from Smiley's World's Largest Laundromat.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

"This was the light fixture that hung on the Smiley's World's Largest Laundromat building on East Colfax," Barber said, pointing out a large, 1920s art deco glass globe. "It probably weighs 200 pounds. It's ridiculous. It's like Bruce Wayne manor. He would totally have this on his front porch."

The ornate fixture seems a little out of place for a laundromat, but that's just one of the many surprising things about the strip.

"A lot of people still don't realize — when they talk about Colfax — and they kind of go, 'Oh, it's always been grimey or gritty or seedy or whatever,'" Barber said.

In the 1800s, Colfax — named after the 17th U.S. vice president Schuyler Colfax — was the place to be. Rocky Mountain News founder William Byers had a mansion there. So did gambling kingpin Ed Chase. His home was torn down in 1926 to make way for the Aladdin Theater, which was demolished in 1984. Now it's a Walgreens. Barber has several pieces of the Aladdin's iconic Taj Mahal-style roof in his collection.

When Barber asks Colfax "old-timers" what they miss most on Colfax, he said the answer is always either the street cars or the Aladdin Theater.

Barber doesn't want the Colfax Museum to disappear. It's just got to find its place.

"It is just like the greatest boulevard. The history of it just goes on and on and on." - Jonny Barber, Colfax Museum

He said he's still figuring out a new location, but it might be in a different format than the last two incarnations. There are talks about a possible "Hard Rock Cafe"-style collaboration, which would house the collection within another business. Something Barber wouldn't have to staff. Manning the museum — while also working as a musician and writing a book about Colfax — has been difficult.

"When you're the guy that's cleaning the bathroom and taking out the trash and the chairman of the board and everything in between — to say that I underestimated my job — yeah, that would be a sizeable understatement," Barber said. "But the learning curve has been incredible. The amount of people that I've met — I feel more connected to the town than I ever have since I've lived here."

That's why Barber said he'd still want to host special events and lectures. He loves to talk about Colfax and even wrote a song about it.

"It is just like the greatest boulevard," he said. "The history of it just goes on and on and on. I've learned something new about it every day."

One thing is for certain, Barber added: no matter where the museum goes next, it has to be on Colfax.