No. 2 Pencil Smokestack in Denver, Colorado

This week I take you to downtown Denver for an interesting tidbit and a tad of trivia. Whilst perusing the Roadside America website once again, I found reference to a smokestack on a building downtown that has been painted like a No. 2 pencil. With that and a couple of other items in mind, I set off to Denver last week on the train in order to explore this. Here’s what I found:

Yup, there it was, in all its glory. And only a block off the main tourist pedestrian zone on 16th Street, aptly known as the 16th Street Mall. The reason I hadn’t seen the pencil heretofore is because I’m usually on the tourist bus. Said bus travels between the Union Station (main train station) and the Capitol building. Seeing anything anywhere else would require me to actually walk somewhere. Pffft!!

But this time I had to walk. I used the bus for a couple of blocks, but I disembarked at Larimer Street. I’ll have a whole ‘nother blog post about Larimer Square in the future (foodie mecca). But that day I ended up walking down 15th Street, parallel to that glorious, free bus that has air-conditioning. Yes, I braved 90-degree heat to bring you these photos!

But enough of my martyrdom. Four blocks down, I spotted the “pencil”. As you can see above, it does, indeed, look like a pencil! But, of course, that wasn’t enough for me. Now I had to do some research regarding the how’s and why’s of it all. The story is this:

The smokestack isn’t used anymore and hasn’t been for quite some time. It was formerly used to vent coal smoke from the building’s heating system, and is therefore also known as the Coal Stack. It was too expensive to remove, so they just left it. It was a gray color for years. In 2014 (I believe) they painted it to resemble the pencil. That year, the new paint garnered a Mayor’s Design Award for the Distinctive Denver category.

A pencil design is appropriate because the building is known as the University Building. It actually faces 16th Street, though you can’t see the smokestack from that side. The building itself is historical, dating from 1910. Originally known as the A.C. Foster Building, named for a Denver real-estate tycoon and banker who was responsible for having it built. At the time it was constructed, this 12-story beauty was one of, if not THE, tallest skyscrapers in Denver. At a cost of about $800,000, it was of steel, concrete and brick and was completely fireproof. Perhaps that’s why it’s still standing today.

In 1921 it was donated to Denver University, who used the proceeds from leasing building space to found a Chair of Research. The University sold the building in 1980. After some economic-downturn-related shenanigans, the building is now in the hands of its current owners.

If you want more particulars, there’s a detailed history on the building’s website. You can lease office space there even today. After reading the history, I’m now curious to see the inside of it. I’ll drop in next time I’m on that bus!

So I was crushed to learn that the current owners, a group called 910 Associates, have conspired with some developers to add six stories to the building. That didn’t crush me, but what did was that they possibly would remove the smokestack in order to build the new levels. They also want to demolish the little building next to it that currently houses a popcorn shop and a marijuana dispensary in order to build a hotel. The Denver Landmark Preservation Commission has approved their application. However, the developers say that they may keep the ‘stack. They only included the option to take it down if it is deemed cost-worthy to do so. Personally, I hope they don’t. Time will tell. And then I’ll tell you!

Photo for No Apparent Reason:

  1. Paula

    Looks exactly like a pencil! I have so much catching up to do!

    I hope you guys are doing well. I miss you!

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