Denver’s First African American Architect

—By Patrick Stephenson

Although I was born in Denver and have lived in the surrounding area my entire life, I didn’t actually move to within city limits until 1999; the summer I turned thirty-eight. That same summer I met my wife, Donna, and a year or two later we met our friend John Henderson, a tall, slender African American man with a glowing character. We met because Donna and I walk our dogs together on a near daily basis, frequently to City Park, a journey that takes us by John’s storefront if we take the 21st Street route.

If you happen to peer in while passing by you can see his collection of imported African arts and crafts, and on the days he’s there (Friday and Saturday), with a closer inspection you can see John sitting in his frayed office chair reading a magazine, listening to the radio or chatting with one or more of his many friends. He’ll be eighty-eight years old this summer, but has the mind, body and spirit of a much younger man.

Before John opened his store (The African and American Trading Company) at 2217 E. 21st Ave., he was Denver’s first African American architect and the first licensed in Colorado. He worked for many prominent Denver architectural firms, including his first job with Fisher Davis & Sudler in 1959 (working on the Federal Courthouse), and Gio Ponti & Sudler (on the first Denver Art Museum). He worked on the Denver Botanical Gardens and a slew of other architectural gems in Denver.

In 1961 he designed a modern home for himself and his wife Gloria, which is near his store. The home is adorned with full height panels of glass and clean lines, reflecting the style of his favorite ‘master architect’, Mies van der Rohe. At the entry John has created beautiful window weight sculptures, and at Christmas he and Gloria assemble large mobiles of ornaments you can see through the full height corner windows.

John has been retired from architecture since 1981, and lives a much less complicated life at his store selling eclectic African art for two days a week. His store has baskets, carved wooden bowls, phone wire art, jewelry, and tribal dolls. He also sells some American art, and odds and ends such as assorted teas, nuts and maple syrup from Vermont. But he has said that the main reason he has his store is for the opportunity to engage with people who pass by, and those who, like me and Donna, come by routinely just to see him. It’s rather like a barber shop environment, where you can sit and swap stories, or just take in one of his stories from his long and remarkable life.

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B50 Note: Patrick Stephenson is an architect who lives near City Park with his wife Donna and their dogs Waylon and Huck. You can find out more about his work at his website.