I had two destinations in mind when I added Denver, Colorado to my route. Both are historically important examples of early amusement parks. One has been completely relocated, and the other, sadly, appears to be in a state of some decline.
Lakeside Amusement Park has been a Denver attraction since 1908. It’s what was known in the United States as a trolley park, or an outdoor amusement area that was the 19th century precursor to the more 20th century amusement park. Located in close proximity to streetcar lines in major cities, such parks were often financed and constructed by the companies which operated the lines themselves, to bolster weekend ridership when residents were not commuting for work; here this line was the Denver Tramway.
A “White City” for Denver
Lakeside is notable for being the only remaining park in the United States which employs proto-theming based on the designs of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and its “White City.” There were dozens of White Cities built during the first couple decades of the twentieth century, and the term became synonymous in the public mind with trolley parks and amusement parks, just as Coney Islands sprouted up far from New York as that name served as shorthand for “seaside amusement boardwalk.”
Local brewing magnate Adolph Zang—whose additional success in insurance, investments, and mining made him one of Denver’s richest men (think Mr. Burns on The Simpsons)—opened his “White City” on May 20, 1908. The park was the brainchild of Zang and Denver mayor Robert Speer. Some fifty thousand people attended that first day, and the park glistened at night under the pale glow of one hundred thousand electric light bulbs (the “white” for which it and parks like it were named).
Denver’s “White City” not only included several expected amusement park rides popular at the time such as a Shoot the Chute, but also an indoor swimming pool (quite a luxury in the early twentieth century) called the Natatorium, a skating rink, the El Patio Ballroom, a narrow-gauge railroad, even a casino—all bordering along the edge of thirty-seven-acre Lake Sylvan, used for fishing and boat rides. The park advertised 41 attractions at opening.
Zang even managed to get the property and its environs incorporated as the town of Lakeside, making the serving of alcohol legal in his German basement beer hall (presumably serving his own label).
As this postcard and the one below show, the names “Lakeside” and “White City” appear to have been used interchangeably in the park’s early years (though some sources today claim that “White City” was never more than a nickname). Since at least the late 1930s the property has been known exclusively as Lakeside, after the Lakeside Realty and Amusement Company (which was basically just a syndicate of Zang and his brewer friends) as well as the city he lobbied to create in its name.
All of the original buildings at White City / Lakeside were designed in the Beaux Arts style, just like much of the Chicago World’s Fair. This meant lots of white plaster forming neoclassical buildings, Greco-Roman columns and decorations, and every manner of excessive ersatz Rococo flourish. All aglow with thousands and thousands of the aforementioned electric light bulbs.
Another element ported over from the Chicago fair was plenty of pools with fountains. As pictured above, all was illuminated at night. I can only imagine what their monthly electric bill was in those early days.
Today only a dozen or so Beaux-Arts structures remain. The grandest of these by far is the Tower of Jewels which serves as the park’s main entrance at the intersection of Sheridan Boulevard and West 46th Avenue. I parked in the dirt lot further down the road and then walked back to admire it.
The building at the tower’s base originally housed Lakeside’s casino and theatre; today the park’s administrative offices are inside, including a manual telephone switchboard which reportedly still works.
At 150 feet, the Tower of Jewels was the tallest structure in all of Denver in 1908. Although it’s not in the best shape today, the details on the tower, especially its intricate light bulb patterns, are impressive. There are an estimated 10,000 of them on the tower.
This lovely hand-painted sign looks more 1950s or 60s than early twentieth century.
Lakeside’s major wooden roller coaster, the Cyclone, was added in 1940. This marquee advertisement, complete with dimensional letters, probably dates to a couple decades later.
Back where I parked my truck, I spied this nifty hand-painted sign a few feet away. Based on this rendering of the PEPSI logo—which was in use from 1973 to 1987—this sign hadn’t been used in at least three decades when I came across it.
What exactly was the Lakeside Speedway? I didn’t find out during my visit, but I later discovered that a one-fifth-mile oval stock car race track at Lakeside opened in the late 1930s. Unfortunately, a tragedy in the summer of 1988 in which a driver lost control and killed a spectator (also injuring several others) closed it for good. The speedway has sat pretty much undisturbed in the some thirty years since.
The Phantom Ticket Booths
As I walked from the parking lot towards the secondary gate of Lakeside, I realized that the speedway PEPSI sign was just the beginning. This was going to be a typographic bonanza. Best of all, I pretty much had the park to myself!
Lakeside’s hours vary widely, even during the summer. On the Wednesday in July that I visited, gates were not scheduled to open until 6pm, with rides coming on an hour later. This was only late afternoon. However the staff member at the gate kindly let me in anyway (without paying a dime!) when I explained that I was a design professor and just wanted to take some photos.
This sign caught my eye shortly after I entered Lakeside. The script looked familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
The sky was cloudy and it was drizzling on and off. Combined with the park being virtually empty except for some maintenance workers, there was an eerie, abandoned, post-apocalyptic vibe in the air.
Well in 1935 Lakeside got a new owner—Ben Krasner, who had started as a concessionaire at the park in 1917, and by the thirties had worked his way up to head of all concessions. Krasner wanted to update the look and feel of Lakeside, so he brought in architect Richard Crowther who introduced many Art Deco and Streamline Moderne structures popular at the time, including some very memorable ticket booths.
I’ve never observed original ticket booths in these styles at an amusement park anywhere. Though paint schemes in recent years seem to have gotten more extreme, these were so cool to see.
Crowther also added neon lighting all over the park. The once “white” twinkling of the original thousands of light bulbs was pretty much relegated to the Tower of Jewels in favor of a garish, multicolor extravaganza. The ticket booth here appears to be of a later vintage, perhaps the 1940s or 50s.
Beaux-Arts touches remain around the grounds, albeit repainted with brighter hues.
There is also a mixture of Spanish Colonial style ceramic tile roofs on some of the carnival games buildings.
The park’s Lakeshore Railway is a narrow-gauge railroad which circles Lake Rhoda (Krasner renamed it after his daughter). The train cars were originally pulled by two steam engines built for the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, Puffing Billy and Whistling Tom. The ride still runs today, pulled by diesel engines.
Hand-lettered typography around every corner! This probably dates to the 1960s.
What appears newest (and brightest) at Lakeside is the paint jobs, but some of the signage could use some work; witness the missing “a” above. Many of these marquees feature bizarre typeface pairings—”Labyrnithe” is a mid-century script, but “Crystal Palace” is a distinctly early twentieth century display face.
What a find! This script neon is delicious, and you so rarely find actual vintage samples at amusement parks in the wild—they’re usually more recent retro-style additions.
Lovely modern type, probably from the 1940s. I do have to commend the staff of Lakeside; despite many structures in various states of disrepair, maintenance were on the grounds that day specifically fixing up neon signage.
This appears to be a condensed cut of Futura, very popular at mid-century.
Sixties pop in full effect! I can almost hear The Monkees playing in the background.
And seventies Mexicana! This is the omnipresent Davida designed in 1965 by Louis Minott, and it’s been gracing Mexican food packaging ever since (as well as, oddly, products from Café du Monde in New Orleans). The typeface is a classic example of the 1960s Victorian revival in phototype and all its exuberance.
More sixties wackiness. I really like the bouncy-on-the-baseline treatment and playful sans serif faces which were very popular at the time.
So much dimensional script. This might be earlier, 1950s perhaps. I will admit it does bother me that neither the “t” at the end of Tilt nor the “l” at the end of Whirl terminate through the stem.
Thirties or forties moderne type, but with sixties-style baseline bounce!
I don’t even know what to make of this one. The lettering reminds me of the more wild fifties and sixties display scripts by French designer Roger Excoffon, but run through an early 80s New Wave pop blender.
The only shame is that I wasn’t able to stay until Lakeside opened for the evening, so I couldn’t see any of this fantastic stuff lit up in full glory after sundown.
Riding Up a Storm
In 1940, Ben Krasner stepped up to the big leagues and added a wooden roller coaster—the calling card for any twentieth century American amusement park. The coaster station and marquee was constructed in the Streamline Moderne style so popular at the time.
The lift hill tops out at 85 feet (which was quite high for that era) and then drops guests onto a more than four thousand feet of track in a simple out and back layout. There are only a handful of coasters built before World War II like the Cyclone left; in 2003 American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) added it to their list of Landmark Coasters. This is one I really wish I had been able to stay until 7pm to ride. But it was not to be.
Lakeside is still owned and operated by one Rhoda Krasner, the daughter for whom Ben renamed the lake. Krasner the elder passed away in 1965, and Rhoda—then just out of college—took over management. She and her own daughter, Brenda Fishman, are reluctant to sell the park to this day, and offers of investing or otherwise modernizing the property to increase revenue fall on deaf ears.
None of the park’s structures (not even the Tower of Jewels) are on the National Register of Historic Places, and Rhoda (who’s quite shy about press and publicity) doesn’t seem interested at all. For one thing, Adolph Zang’s political maneuvering so many years ago which incorporated Lakeside so he could sell beer means that today the park is actually its own municipality, and Denver’s smallest, with only eight residents. Just like a miniature Walt Disney World, Lakeside maintains its own police force and firefighters. So any preservation efforts (especially at the federal level) might thus disrupt the autonomy which the Krasner family no doubt enjoys.
Lakeside still has a special place in the hearts of long-time Denver residents, although for me it was strictly a typographic odyssey through a mostly vacant property. Local author David Forsyth published Denver's Lakeside Amusement Park: From the White City Beautiful to a Century of Fun in 2016, and amassed a wealth of knowledge from old timers, some of which was not substantiated enough to include.
When I visited in August 2017, Lakeside was already having a rough year; in March, a car slammed into a parking structure and it collapsed, in May a hailstorm pummelled the Tower of Jewels and caused some damage. Although it could use more than just a couple coats of new paint, I’m glad Lakeside is still with us, and that it’s still family-owned and fiercely independent in this era of the Disneys, the Universals, and the Cedar Fairs.