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Bonnie Brae: A Denver treasure

A classic Bonnie Brae home, l, and a decorate alleyway in the neighborhood..THE growth of suburbs and suburban flight has been a factor in the deterioration of many large US cities. This is not the case in Denver.

Despite an array of attractive, well-run suburbs in the counties surrounding Denver, some of the highest property values and stable neighborhoods are found within Denver city limits. This was true before urban living became “chic” among young adults and empty nesters.

The attraction of the city for many homeowners is due to Denver’s collection of distinctive neighborhoods.

One of Denver’s most alluring neighborhoods — Bonnie Brae — actually started out as a suburban alternative to what was then the core city more than 80 years ago. With urban sprawl, Bonnie Brae is now part of the core city but retains that suburban neighborhood feel with is distinctive homes, timeless landscaping and a curvilinear street layout.

Located east of S. University Blvd. to Steele St., between Mississippi and Exposition Avenues, Bonnie Brae was developed in the 1920s on land that had been granted to the Kansas Pacific Railroad in 1870.

The railroad eventually sold the land to farmers, and later it became part of the town of South Denver, one of the many small communities annexed by Denver.

George W. Olinger, one of the city’s most active businessmen in the 1920s, began accumulating property in the area for his land development company, the Associated Industries Co.

Olinger had been impressed by a subdivision he saw in Kansas City that was named Bonnie Brae, meaning “pleasant hill” in Gaelic. Borrowing the name, he strived to recreate the aura of a peaceful Scottish village in Denver.

In 1923, the company hired the noted landscape architect Saco DeBoer to design the street system for the new neighborhood in a fashion similar to the Kansas City subdivision. DeBoer departed from the grid system that characterized most of Denver’s streets and focused on the land’s topography and natural beauty. The first homes were constructed in 1923 and 1924.

To demonstrate pride in the neighborhood, Olinger erected stone pillars at the entrances on Tennessee and Kentucky streets, which remain today.

Subdivision filings were completed in April, 1925, the same year Olinger sold his share of the Associated Industries Co. Three years later, the company declared bankruptcy, and most of Bonnie Brae fell into the city’s hands for tax debt. Further development in the area slowed as the depression gripped the country in the 1930s.

THE delay in development of Bonnie Brae proved to be beneficial in the long run. The 1920s and ‘30s were exciting eras in the field of architectural design. In Europe, architects and designers were experimenting with bold new styles that later became known as art moderne and the international style.

Traditional notions of symmetry and decorative ornamentation exemplified by neoclassic and Victorian designs were rejected, while new materials and technological advances enabled innovations in architectural compositions. The international materials and technological advances enabled innovations in architectural compositions.

The international style, as expressed by architects of the Bauhaus School in Germany, focused primarily on a building’s function with the idea that “less is more.”

Art moderne structures used classic elements in new ways, emphasizing horizontal lines and softening angles with curved corners.

By the end of the Depression, when Denver development resumed, many of the homes in Bonnie Brae were constructed in these revolutionary styles.

The turning point in the neighborhood’s development came in 1936 when Ellipse Park, the centerpiece of Saco DeBoer’s plan, was constructed. Homes built up around the park. Winding streets surrounding an elliptical-shaped park turned Bonnie Brae into a serene residential enclave in the midst of the city.

A decade later, when WW II ended, housing construction boomed and most of the homes east of the park were constructed in an era of post-war prosperity.

As Bonnie Brae grew, businesses opened along the 700 block of S. University Boulevard. Carl and Sue Dire opened the Bonnie Brae Tavern in June, 1934, seven months after the repeal of Prohibition, and it continues as a neighborhood gathering spot.

NEARLY 80 years after the Great Depression, which temporarily derailed the development of Bonnie Brae, the recent “Great Recession,” which has had devastating effects in many areas of the economy and the real estate industry, was relatively kind to Bonnie Brae.

“A few neighborhoods in Denver have weathered the recession pretty well. Bonnie Brae is one of them,” says Coldwell Banker Devonshire real estate broker Mandy Nadler.

Nadler offers some statistics to illustrate her assertion. Bonnie Brae is a relatively small subdivision with approximately 700 homes. As of May 15, 2012, there were:

• 13 active listings — about three months of inventory;

• 11 homes under contract, and

• 54 homes sold in the past year. That averages out to 4.5 sales per month

Total homes sales in 2011 amounted to $22.9 million. The lowest priced home sold was $279,000, a Tudor style bungalow with 1,166 square feet above ground, selling in one day and closing in July, 2011.

The most expensive home sold went for $1,200,000, and was a newer build, Mediterranean style with 3,846 square feet above ground. This home sold in a short sale, closing in January, 2011, after 109 days on the market.

Homes in Bonnie Brae sold on average at 94.9% of final listed price.

Current house prices in Bonnie Brae range from the upper $300,000-400,000s up to $2.8 million, according to Nadler.

Bonnie Brae these days is a mix of original, smaller homes, scrapes, pop-tops and remodels. In the years before the recession, late 1990s to mid 2000s, developers and private homebuyers purchased properties in Bonnie Brae for their location, razing them and building new homes. In this way, the face of the neighborhood has changed a bit, but most developers and homeowners have been cognizant of the architectural integrity of the subdivision, and have created a mix of compatible styles.

“Bonnie Brae has a lot of appeal for families,” says Nadler, citing the park-like landscaping and its proximity to high performing Denver Public Schools, Cory Elementary, Merrill Middle and South High Schools.

Nadler’s homebuyers like Bonnie Brae for its “nice feel — the winding streets and the homes’ curb appeal. It harkens back the era of 1930s and ‘40s charm.”

Many of them, Nadler says, are attracted to the art moderne exteriors but desire updated interiors — modern kitchens, open concept floor plans featuring great rooms, rather than traditional separate living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens. “Most buyers want all the charm with all the updates.”

Bonnie Brae has an active neighborhood association, but this is no stodgy, dictatorial HOA, but a group of out-of-the-box thinkers who simply love their neighborhood.

One creative project is Bonnie Brae Alley Art, which has taken the generally hated and much maligned art of graffiti and raised it to a new and acceptable level. Residents have created mosaic tile murals on their back fences facing the alleyways of Bonnie Brae. The pieces are handmade and original, and the effect is surprising.

Wendy Lesko started the trend, and the first project was completed in April, 2008. Today, more than 20 mosaic tile murals adorn the alleys. Visit Bonnie Brae Alley Art for a self-guided tour.

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Larry Hankin

IJN Associate Editor |

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