- Historic Sites
An Art Deco masterpiece struggles to survive
July/August 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 4
Just outside Denver a small family-run amusement park is clanging and sparkling its way through its eightyfourth season. It shares the raffish, plaintive charm of its counterparts across the country, but there is a good deal more to Lakeside. The little park is a superb collection of Art Deco architecture, as striking in its way as the muchheralded Moderne district in Miami Beach.
Lakeside didn’t start out that way. It began by billing itself, like many amusement parks of the era, as the White City. Its owner and promoter was Adolph Zang, a prosperous Denver brewer; on opening day—May 30, 1908—a public still awed by lavish displays of electricity turned out fifty thousand strong to cheer as Denver’s mayor pressed a button in his downtown office and illuminated the park’s hundred thousand bulbs. As the lights blazed on, Zang’s daughter Gertrude smashed a bottle of champagne against Lakeside’s showpiece, the 150-foot Tower of Jewels.
Taller than any building in Denver at the time, the tower welcomed patrons to what its promoters called a “Rocky Mountain Fairyland, filled with wonders that had never been seen out West.” There were forty-one things to do: rides with names like Dip the Dips and Shoot the Chutes, and miniature trains circling the lake pulled by two steam engines built for the 1904 world’s fair, Puffing Billy and Whistling Tom.
The Denver press exulted: “Lakeside is the place! All promises were kept. The scenic railroad stretches like a serpent, walks are graveled, fountains are playing.” Lakeside was an immediate success and prospered on into the 1920s. But the 1930s found the park in trouble; not only had the Depression come but patrons were beginning to find the operation old-fashioned. The Lakeside Amusement Company looked for a new owner and came up with one in its own back yard
Ben Krasner, a Russian immigrant, grew up in Binghamton, New York, early in the century and then moved on to Denver. In 1917 he set up shop in Lakeside as a concessionaire, and by the late 1930s his family and friends back East had done well enough to put up the cash for the park.
The new owner’s first order of business was renovation. He added new rides—the Octopus, the Loop-0-Plane, the Hurricane- and replaced the serpentine Derby coaster with the Cyclone. But more important than any single attraction was his revamping the whole look of the park. To move Lakeside from the Edwardian to the streamlined age, Krasner hired a young West Coast architect named Richard Crowther who was fresh from helping design the pastel spires of San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition. “I had come to Denver from California,” says Crowther, who is still practicing architecture in his eighties. “Out there I could do anything I wanted. Denver was much more traditional, but Mr. Krasner wanted the park to be modern. I always felt Mr. Krasner himself was very conservative, but he understood the amusement business and realized the park needed a new look. Some things, however, he didn’t want touched. I wanted to do something with the tower, but he wouldn’t let me. Said it was too much of a landmark.”
Nevertheless, Crowther had a free enough hand to turn out a remarkably uniform and pleasins sroup of Hieh Deco buildings. Using neon as his predecessors had used incandescent bulbs, he created sinuous signs and etched his buildings with the rainbow-hued tubes. In front of each ride he set a new ticket booth that might have jumped off the cover of Amazing Stories —delightful buildings, as sleek and stylized as the Bakelite radios of the era, and not so very much larger.
The new look helped business; so did the Second World War, which brought thousands of young men and women to Denver’s military facilities and turned them loose on weekends with money in their pockets. After the war a few new rides came in from Europe, but the basic transformation that Crowther had worked remained remarkably intact.
Ben Krasner died in 1965, and four years later his daughter, Rhoda, became general manager. Only a few years out of college, she found herself facing myriad problems and details. “You had a young daughter and her mother,” she recalls, “who were very conscientious about running the merry-go-round, but were pretty naive. But we learned.”