Much of the West University Community was incorporated in 1886 as the Town of South Denver. The boundaries were the Platte River east to Colorado Boulevard and Alameda Avenue south to Jewell Avenue (two blocks north of Evans). The town was originally formed to restrict the creation of more saloons and road houses, which were seen as a threat to the residential areas. The Town of South Denver passed numerous ordinances to cover every possible type of nuisance and misdemeanor. A liquor license cost $2,500, a huge sum in those days.
The first and only mayor of South Denver was James Fleming, an oil man from Pennsylvania who came to Colorado to try his luck in mining and real estate. The home he built on his South Denver estate in 1882 is still standing at South Grant Street and Florida Avenue in Platte Park and is now a designated Denver Landmark. His estate covered the entire block and included an orchard known as Fleming’s Grove. In 1891, he sold it all to the town and his home was converted into the town hall, jail and library.
After the Town of South Denver was annexed to the City of Denver in 1894, the Fleming mansion continued to be used as a library until the Decker Branch library at 1501 South Logan Street was built with Carnegie funds in 1913. In 1957, the city began using the building as a recreation center for dances, pool and senior citizens activities. Soon the demand for leisure time activities and classes outgrew the space available. When federal Community Development Act funds became available in 1974, a new and larger, facility, the Platt Park Senior Center, was built between the old town hall and the library. The old Fleming mansion still stands and is used as offices for several non-profit groups.
Platt Park, the 17 acre park that was the heart of the short-lived Town of South Denver, was actually named in honor of Colonel James H. Platt, founder of the Platt Paper Company and another early South Denver leader. The neighborhood itself was named in the late 1860s as “Platte Park” with an “e”. It’s not clear if the neighborhood was supposed to be named after Colonel Platt as the park was, and the neighborhood name was misspelled or whether the name for the neighborhood actually came from the South Platte River.
A sizeable Dutch community settled in the West University neighborhood and established the First Christian Reformed Church in the Platte Park neighborhood. The church was dedicated in 1908 and still stands at the corner of Colorado Avenue and Emerson Street.
The University of Denver began as the Colorado Seminary and was established by the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1863 as a non-sectarian private school under the leadership of John Evans. Evans was the second governor of the Colorado territory and had already founded Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The school, originally located at 14th and Arapahoe Streets, opened in 1864 with 30 students. Exhausted resources and accumulated debts forced its closure three years later. When the school reopened in 1880, it bore the name “University of Denver.” In the 1880s, the University decided to leave the urban noise and smoke and move outside the then city limits where there would be room for expansion. An 80 acre site was chosen and the corner- stone for University Hall (Old Main) was laid on April 3, 1890.
In the 1880’s, the Iliff School of Theology was founded at D.U. by Elizabeth Iliff Warren in honor of her late husband’s (John Wesley Iliff) strong religious convictions. Originally a part of the University, the Iliff School of Theology broke away shortly after the turn of the century. Both schools continue to exchange services but have separate boards of directors.
Since its founding, the enrollment at D.U. has varied between 200 and 12,000. Many old, beautiful, and architecturally-significant buildings are located on the campus. The oldest building on campus, the Evans Chapel, was actually moved from West 13th Avenue and Bannock Street in 1960. Built in 1878, the Evans Chapel (formerly Grace Methodist Church), is a designated Denver Landmark and is also listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. The physical plant has continued to expand over the years.
A final important aspect of the West University Community is the history of Harvard Gulch, located in the Rosedale Neighborhood at Iliff Avenue and South Logan Street. Over the years the Gulch often flooded during times of heavy rain. In late July and early August of 1956, four heavy downpours in five days caused Harvard Gulch to go out of its banks three times. Every north-south street in the area, from Broadway to University Boulevard was inundated with water. During the next eight years, flooding along the Gulch caused more property damage than it would have cost to prevent it. Finally, a special bond election financed the Harvard Gulch Flood Control Project which was completed in 1967. An open concrete-lined channel was constructed from South Colorado Boulevard to Logan Street, which closed the conduit ten feet in diameter from there to the Platte River.
Another Denver pioneer, Thomas M. Field, acquired 80 acres of land in 1871 along Harvard Gulch between Logan and Downing Streets. He built a large stone house at East Iliff and South Clarkson in 1893 which still stands. The house, known as the Field House, became the headquarters of the State Home for Dependent Children in 1902. Other large institutional buildings also were scattered on the ground near the Field House. After much effort by local residents, the neighborhood group and city agencies, 56.5 acres of land was traded in the mid-1960s from the state to the city for public recreational purposes. Most of the old State Home buildings were demolished but the neighborhood fought to save the Field House and recently it was designated as a Denver Landmark by the Landmark Commission.