At the Denver Press Club, which has graced 1333 Glenarm Place since 1925, time is compatibly contradictory. New business strategies have positioned the club for solid growth in the 21st-century, but the past haunts each nook, cranny and caricature.
Denver editors and reporters first met as an informal club in 1867 and incorporated as the Denver Press Club in 1877, one year after Colorado earned statehood.
It was the first press club in the United States.
Enemies by day, reporters would assemble sober in the basement of the grocery store owned by Wolfe Londoner (Denver mayor, 1889-1891). They drank Taos Lightning and gambled away their wages in poker games, but took their careers quite seriously.
In the 1950s, 60s, 70s and mid-80s, the press club was packed for lunch and dinner.
When the Denver Post dropped its evening edition, staffers and their Rocky Mountain News counterparts gathered at the club and drank until the wee morning hours.
Walking into the building in 2015, it’s impossible to separate the club’s rich heritage from members’ intense commitment to its future.
Framed caricatures of Denver’s influential Fourth Estate personalities occupy an entire wall of the dining room.
The Pulitzer Prize section, adjacent to the Hall of Fame, pays tribute to the city’s brilliant wordsmiths.
The card room in the basement of the three-story building is named for the late Herndon Davis, a Colorado artist and press club regular.
Behind the card table, a 1945 mural painted by Davis depicts an allegorical Denver newsroom.
A profusion of alcoholic beverages sparkle behind the bar on the main floor.
Club manager Carmen Green, whose excellent culinary skills are responsible for the food, often fills in if the two part-time bartenders are overwhelmed.
“I wear a lot of hats,” says Green, who has worked at the DPC for 14 or 15 years.
“No, I’m not a journalist,” he grins slightly, “except in my mind.”
Bruce Goldberg, entering his ninth year as board president, rushes in, takes a seat in the dining room and asks Green for a glass of water.
A journalist all his life, Goldberg moved to Denver from the East Coast in 1994 and was an editor at Colorado Business Magazine and other publications. He now does freelance editing, proofing and book editing.
“The Denver Press Club is a private club during an era when private clubs stronger than us have perished,” he says of the challenges facing the club.
“Other press clubs across the country have closed their doors because they were no longer financially viable.”
Goldberg attributes the press club’s rebounding status “to the incredibly hard work of Carmen Green, the members, our committed board and a cadre of volunteers.
“We are committed to keeping the oldest press club open and thriving.”
Goldberg became president of the DPC board in 1996.
Cognizant that the board could not alter depressing conditions in the journalism industry, he concentrated on correcing the club’s internal problems.
The board agreed and nailed its focus to the real prize — not just survival but growth and success.
Paying daily attention to expenditures — necessary vs. superfluous — was a chief priority, as was encouraging the community to book events at the club.
The DPC is open to members for dinner on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 4:30 to “whenever.”
Served buffet style, there are no waiters.
“But we will rent out the club any day of the week for wedding receptions, rehearsal dinners, alumni association gatherings, trade fairs, company parties and many other social events,” Goldberg stresses.
“You won’t find this unique ambience anywhere else.”
The board watches “every penny that goes in and out of the club,” Goldberg says. “Raines Guinn has been an excellent treasurer, and David Milstead [of the Rocky], our former treasurer, brought badly needed discipline to the process.
“We put our foot down: ‘We’re going to run this as a business. We won’t lose the sentiment, but we’re going to run it as a business.’
‘The board took a paring knife to expenses and accelerated our community outreach to offer the club for private venues.”
Social events, membership dues and sponsorships are the club’s most important revenue streams.
Society has changed greatly, Goldberg says beneath the caricatures’ immutable gaze.
The only tenable option is being flexible enough to change along with it.
What is his advice to boards in similar situations?
“If an idea is solid, follow it. If it’s bad, stop it before it mutates.”
Even before journalism descended into its gradual downward arc due the Internet’s popularity, the Denver Press Club clearly felt the pinch.
In 1996, the DPC was on the verge of its second bankruptcy. If things didn’t change quickly, it would be forced to write its own obituary.
The organization obtained a 30-year, $280,000 loan in October, 2006. “Without that loan, the club would have probably died,” Goldberg says.
The DPC received annual sponsorships from the Rocky and the Post.
“Then the Rocky disappeared (in 2009),” Goldberg says. “All of its editorial people dispersed.” Some are still in Denver. Others have scattered to parts unknown.
“We lost members. But it was more than that. We lost the heart-and-soul feeling that the Rocky brought here.
“The Post and Rocky staffers always socialized here — when they were speaking to each other,” he smiles, referring to the fluctuating and sometimes fierce rivalry between the papers.
Today, active journalists account for 30% of the DPC’s membership.
That 30% does not include DPC members who left the media for other professions or are retired.
The DPC has enlarged its membership to include numerous fields such as public relations, advertising, marketing, education, health care, law, politics, graphic designers and government. Gov. Hickenlooper is a member.
“Thankfully we have a wide cross section of professions,” Goldberg says.
“If this club was for press only, we’d be sitting in the parking lot wondering why we were on the outside.”
A brief history of the press club provides a fascinating glimpse at journalism in Denver during its infancy, adolescence and adulthood — as well as tons of lore, legend and a few ghosts.
The first press club president, Edward Keating, asked 50 journalists to lunch at the Albany Hotel in 1905 to reorganize the club. Newspapers reported that the revamped organization would “be the most elaborate satisfactory association of the kind ever attempted in an American city.”
Those words were prophetic.
Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, William Taft, Warren Harding and Woodrow Wilson visited Denver’s prestigious press club, and presidential candidate William J. Bryan was a frequent speaker.
Since then, John McCain, Bill Bradley, George McGovern and a slew of politicians and writers have paid homage to the DPC.
Francis Kirchof built the Denver Press Club on Glenarm for approximately $50,000 in 1925. The club paid the debt by selling Who’s Who in the Rockies, a self-promoting publication featuring photos and biographies of local dignitaries.
Architects Merrill H. and Burnham Hoyt designed the impressive building, designated an official historic landmark. (The club received the Society of Professional Journalists’ designation as a “significant historical place in journalism” in 2008.)
Celebrity-status authors regularly lectured from the podium. Ginger Rogers played a few rounds of poker in the basement. Celebrities of all stripes intermingled with reporters — and the smoke blew ‘round and ‘round.
During successive decades, the membership roster has encompassed Damon Runyon, Eugene Field, Gene Fowler, Frederick G. Bonfils, Palmer Hoyt, Lowell Thomas, Lee Taylor Casey, Paul Conrad, Pat Oliphant, Thomas Hornsby Ferril, Carl Akers, Starr Yelland, Stormy Rottman, Lou Kilzer, Greg Lopez, Bob Palmer, Gene Amole, Sam Lusky and Don Kinney.
Rumors of ghosts are plentiful.
“Yeah, Charlie the Ghost,” Goldberg laughs without further explanation. “Let’s just say there are those who believe they’ve seen ghosts here and those who scoff at the idea.
“Supposed ‘ghost readers’ have visited the club. How many have been seen? The estimates vary, all the way up to 30.
“But there are members who say that while they’ve been eating here a glass just flies off the table.” To illustrate, Goldberg makes a sweeping gesture and comes perilously close to knocking over his water.
The motto of the Denver Press Club is, “Where Conversations Begin.” Though conversations have circulated under this hospitable roof since 1925, the topic now focuses on growing a successful financial model to ensure they never end.
The board rolls out new enticements to attract new members and the public on a regular basis.
For example, guest bartenders invite their companies or nonprofits to the club. He or she plays bartender, co-workers have fun, and the companies receive 65% of the bar revenues. The DPC gets 35%.
Recently the press club revived its Young Professionals Group to prepare for the inevitable passing of the torch.
“The purpose is not only membership but securing future leadership of the club,” Goldberg says. “The old guard won’t be around forever.”
Book Beats and Lunch on Deadline, which are open to the public, have been DPC staples for years.
The club also hosts organizations such as the Denver Book Club and publicizes functions like the Colorado Author’s League Feb. 14 writing workshop.
And it’s very proud of Carmen Green’s quality menu fare.
The club’s annual Damon Runyon Awards Banquet, now in its 21st year, honors the best journalists on the planet.
“Runyon was from Pueblo and a member of the Denver Press Club,” Goldberg clarifies for the vaguely informed.
“He worked at the Rocky Mountain News, drank himself out of jobs, moved to New York and wrote a series of short stories that became ‘Guys and Dolls.’”
Last year’s honoree Katie Couric charmed the crowd by graciously posing for a slew of selfies.
Norm Clarke of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and writer of the Rocky Mountain News’ man about town column for 15 years will be honored April 24.
The annual Gridiron show, a hilarious evening featuring a cast of journalists, politicos and other talented folks, draws large audiences.
Today’s working journalists are often too over-burdened with deadlines to visit the club on a regular basis, but Goldberg would love to see them.
“We need more traffic by the members. There are so many people who support us just to keep the press club going, but I just wish they could come here and take full advantage of the club.”
Parking around the DPC, which is across the street from the Denver Athletic Club and in the shadow of the nearly finished Hyatt high-rise hotel, can be challenging unless you know the alternatives.
“You can park in the parking garage at the Athletic Club,” Goldberg says.
“The underground lot at the Denver Pavilions has many available spaces and is a five-minute walk to the press club.”
The DPC also has been in contact with RTD to establish direct routes.
Ushering the Denver Press Club into a new era of profitability has been a collective effort — and the historic aura permeating the press club is the jewel in the crown.
You may walk in alone, but the profound significance of Denver journalists escorts you home.
“We are still battling to overcome the fact that we went through a seismic societal disruption, that the media has shrunk, and the Rocky died — but we have successfully reinvented ourselves,” Goldberg says.
Images of hard-drinking, garrulous, competitive reporters chain-smoking and playing poker until closing time have earned their rightful place in the American cultural consciousness.
“People still think this is a smoky jungle filled with angry white men sitting at the bar and cussing out their editors,” Goldberg smiles.
“But those days are long gone.”
Even smoking is prohibited.
Denver Press Club members understand their obligation not only to this city’s burgeoning journalists of 1867, but all men and women who sustain and advance the Fourth Estate.
“Every one of us feels the legacy that went before us every time we come here,” Goldberg says.
“We stand on tall shoulders.”
Andrea Jacobs may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The IJN thanks DPC archivist Alan Kania for assistance. Corrections were made to this story on January 30, 2015.