INGATHER’s Denver facility occupies one of the most interesting and historic lower downtown (LoDo) landmark structures, the Rock Island Building. Made primarily of raw brick and heavy wood, much of the original construction materials are visible to its occupants.
Built in 1890 and located at 1614 15th Street it was originally home to the Studebaker Carriage & Wagon Company. Studebaker’s painted brand name still peeks through the brick to this day on the building’s exterior that faces the adjoining alley. It is thought to be the first or one of the earliest signs of its kind. One will also find many other late 19th and early 20th century business names on brick exteriors throughout Denver’s LoDo area. During the mid-20th century much of Denver’s lower downtown fell into disrepair, ultimately becoming the heart of skid row.
Old warehouses surrounding the train tracks of multiple railroad lines lay empty, former cable car tracks were overlaid with asphalt and Denver’s Union Station had become a dusty edifice of its former glory. The station was built twice, once in the late 1800s and again in the early 1900s after the original burned to the ground due to faulty electrical wiring in the women’s restroom. Interior commercial electricity was still a relatively new and sometimes a dangerous modern convenience.
By the mid-1880s, several competing railroad systems serviced Denver, all with their own terminals. Being spread out from each other made transferring from one station to another quite difficult and cumbersome for passengers desiring to catch the last train to Clarksville. To overcome this challenge, the railroad companies, including the Rock Island Line, agreed to build a united train-line station – Union Station.
One hundred years later, in the mid-1980s, developers began a concerted effort to gentrify Denver’s down and out LoDo district. Dana Crawford, Denver’s visionary developer successfully turned the 1400 block of Larimer Street into a classy shopping and tourist district, Larimer Square. Her success blazed the trail for others to follow. The upscale Crawford Hotel at the newly refurbished Union Station is named in her honor. As real estate developers moved into LoDo, along with them came architectural firms, legal offices, trendy boutiques and unique restaurants. Out went the vagrants, taxi dancers, and the sketchy pool hall/bars that wouldn’t even qualify as “dives”. One of the first new businesses to set up shop was a cutting edge nightclub. It was so trendy it had no signage to identify it from its surroundings. Those “in the know” knew about it via word of mouth. The club’s name: Rock Island. With front windows painted black prohibiting outsiders to see what was going on inside and no sign, patrons wandered into a sophisticated, somewhat grungy yet incredibly fun nightclub. The first floor was a dance hall and bar. The basement contained more music, a bar and “The House of Toast,” where patrons could grab snacks after walking around, and congregate on a small blue swimming pool painted on the concrete floor. Trendy bands frequently appeared at the club, attracting their followers and adding to the eclectic mix of patrons.
Four years ago, Christine Cook, INGATHER’s owner and visionary, leased the former Rock Island nightclub space. Having been the creative inspiration of INGATHER’s Reality House, Christine saw the potential to create the most exciting market research facility West of the Mississippi and just blocks from the newly remodeled Union Station. With her sense of the building’s history and a shared whimsy of the former club owners’ style, she turned the space into a fun and exciting experiential facility for qualitative and sensory Marketing Research In-Context™. Keeping with the intent of the House of Toast, that space is occupied by our commercial kitchen. And, as in (mirroring) the early days, a fully equipped bar anchors where there once was the pool, though the blue paint is gone. It’s been replaced by a flexible sensory study room capable of being converted into any configuration our client requires.
While I spend a great deal of my time at our downtown facility I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the history of the building. Familiarity promotes impaired vision. An illustration by Karl Christian Krumpholtz appeared in a recent edition of Denver’s Westword, a free weekly newspaper. It caught my attention. It got me thinking about the Rock Island Building and informed me of all sorts of cool stuff I didn’t know or had long forgotten. With Karl’s permission we’re reprinting his piece in this issue of our blog. I invite you to also check out Karl’s website. It’s filled with lots of fun cartoons, stories and info on his favorite subject – bars. Thanks for kicking me in gear, Karl. You’re the best!