Did you know?

Gates once had a roof top garden and conducted morning exercise breaks for its employees?

Honoring the Gates Legacy on Broadway

Driving down south Broadway these days means driving by the former Gates Rubber Plant, closed since 1991. While some of the southern portions of the former Gates site have been redeveloped in the last decade, the main factory site, bounded by Broadway on the east, the railroad on the west, Mississippi on the south, and the RTD station on the north, has remained in-tact. The buildings on the site range in date from 1918 through the 1950s, with various additions and renovations persisting until its closure.

Charles Gates, Sr. first invested in the company that would eventually become the Gates Rubber Company on October 1, 1911. While at first a small enterprise producing “durable treads” made of leather intended to extend the life of the average automobile tire, the company quickly grew and in 1914 produced its first rubber tread. The growth that followed necessitated a new facility and the site at 999 S. Broadway was selected because of its relative proximity to downtown and because it was adjacent to the streetcar line and the railroad tracks, essential for the national distribution of Gates’ products. At the time south Broadway was still a dirt road and considered “suburban.” In the following five years the company added a warehouse, machine shop and more factory space. Growth continued through nearly the rest of the century, with increasing focus on international expansion. In 1995 the era of family-ownership ended when Gates became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Tompkins PLC, a London-based firm. While manufacturing no longer takes place here, Gates continues to operate with its corporate headquarters in Lower Downtown.

As the site seeks a new future one significant question has continued: how to address the environmental contamination caused by 85 years of heavy manufacturing. Much of this contamination lies underneath the historic structures, literally spread into the soil that supports the foundations, placing a very high hurdle in front of preservation considerations. In 2001, Cherokee Denver purchased the south Broadway property and created plans for mixed-use development. Cherokee investigated whether some preservation could be accomplished, but due to the unusual circumstances of the contamination, preservation was never guaranteed or promised. Ultimately the Denver City Council-approved General Development Plan did not include preservation elements, and in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis the Cherokee deal died and Gates reacquired the site.

Now, in order to do the prep work for the environmental clean-up, during the summer of 2012 Gates secured Certificates of Non-Historic Status, which are precursors to demolition permits. However, Gates also recognized the importance of the site to the larger Denver community and has been desirous to honor the history of the manufacturing facilities on Broadway. To this end Gates, along with support from City Councilman Chris Nevitt, approached Historic Denver to discuss how to best mitigate the potential loss of the physical structures through historical interpretation, the possible retention of some features, documentation, and/or installation of public art related to the company’s history. The end goal, as one neighbor described it, is to ensure an authentic “there” there, one that references the past even as the site is transformed in a future redevelopment.

As part of this discussion both Historic Denver and Gates brought forward ideas for consideration. Further, Gates and Historic Denver representatives met with neighbors of the site. While many at the meeting were comfortable with the demolition plans, they also expressed great interest in the preservation of the Water Tower. The Tower now sits on the ground on the west side of the property, but it was once the most iconic feature of the facility, defining the city’s skyline for South Denver. As part of the conversations Gates has agreed to retain the Water Tower and keep it in a safe place on the property until plans can be made regarding its reuse, in total or in pieces, somewhere on the site or on adjacent public land, such as the RTD Light Rail Station. The incorporation of this piece would contribute significantly to maintaining an authentic sense of place at the site.

Due to the close proximity of the Light Rail Station to the former Gates site there may be additional opportunity to create a public exhibit or interpretive display, which could feature photographs and/or artifacts related to Gates’ presence in south Denver. Such an exhibit could be done in conjunction with a project involving the Water Tower.

Additionally, Gates agreed to phase the demolition of the buildings on site, so that those with the most preservation potential would be taken down last.  This leaves the door open to preservation, and Historic Denver remains hopeful that a solution may be found that addresses the environmental concerns and includes some of the historic structures.

However, if demolition does go forward Gates will document the buildings so that their design and form is remembered and accessible to researchers. This information can be archived with History Colorado and/or the Denver Public Library’s Western History Department.

 Historic Denver always laments the loss of historic resources, and the Gates site is one with tremendous history and depth in the Denver community. While the contamination concerns create a one-of-a-kind challenge, Historic Denver remains committed to honoring the Gates legacy and as long as the buildings are standing will remain hopeful that at least partial preservation occurs.

Update (August 2012) In late June 2012 an individual came forward with a designation application for three structures on the Gates site, units 10, 11 and 13.  The Denver Landmark Commission reviewed the application and hosted a public hearing.  The site certainly met the criteria for designation and is obviously significant to the history of the city, however Historic Denver did not support the application in light of the complexities caused by the environmental contamination and the desires of the neighborhoods impacted by the site and its environmental issues.  Designation was simply not the solution at that time, but this does not preclude preservation activity if solutions are found to address the environmental concerns.

Update (September 2013)
On September 11, 2013 the Denver Business Journal broke the news that Gates has secured demolition permits for the existing site.  However, Historic Denver has been assured that demolition is not yet imminent and that the agreement to wait as long as possible, and to phase demolition by removing the buildings according to their level of contamination, is in tact.