Henry Roth House, Postscript

– by M. Thornton

We met Dianne Roth and her father Milton last year, when they stopped by our house at 5 South Fox Street, the bungalow and compound that Henry Roth had built. Dianne, Henry’s granddaughter, sent this news article that was published soon after the house was built. (Denver wanted to tax Henry Roth more than he had paid in materials for the house.)

She included some family photographs:
• Rusty, her dad’s dog, in front of the house, in the early 1930s
• A wedding picture of Henry and Mary Roth
• Henry Roth the granddad
• Mary Roth and Henry’s sister Mabel
• Henry and his granddaughter Dianne
• Three generations of Roths: Henry, Dianne, and Milton
• Milton Roth in the bathroom, which doesn’t look that much different from today.

It’s nice to get to know the builder and paterfamilias, through his family. We expect to see more of the family this summer or next, for a planned reunion.

The Roth Family in the 1930's

Henry and Mary Roth, 1908
Henry and Mary Roth Wedding Photo, 1908
Henry Roth in the Denver Post during the 1930's

B50 note: Henry Roth built the bungalow style houses in the Baker Neighborhood by hand in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The house is on the national historic register. M Thornton added this as a postscript to his original post, The Henry Roth Houses on Fox Street.

The Jonas Brothers (Real and Retro)

— by M Thornton

Buckfifty has become my biography, the story of Denver before I arrived, the story of Denver that I live, and the story that gives credence to the Denver of the future. Here’s one more tidbit, and I hope it connects me to you, to the place, to the community that is built on the stories, the gospel of its residents, because the stories are forever changing, thanks to the chroniclers and listeners.

The Jonas Brothers of Denver

Back in 1974, after a fleeting separation from a girlfriend in Chicago, the college girl I could have fun with, like hitchhiking downtown from college, before missing our post-college marriage, I moved back to Denver, and found a job near my apartment in Capitol Hill, at Jonas Brothers. I became a taxidermist apprentice, for six months, and told the students whom I teach now about that experience, and they all agreed that this was a story that would endure me to people everywhere — that’s probably because they have not dealt with wild animals in their lives, and neither had I. (I typically use this experience to shock high schoolers into imagining that at one time, in this far outpost of civilization, game trophies mattered.)

Jonas Brothers hired me because I responded to an ad in the paper, I passed a polygraph, and I was interested. The fur salon on the first floor of the building at 10th and Broadway featured a standing polar bear, one of the last to be legally hunted and stuffed. (This polar bear looked so much better than the shaggy ones I grew up seeing at the Denver Zoo.) It no longer could claw or kill, but the magnificence of this creature suggested a wild habitat, where people could nonetheless safely purchase real fur coats. This was my introduction to taxidermy.

Once I started working around these people who devoted their lives to capturing the animal instinct, the bizarre nature of this old world craft never bothered me. The professional taxidermists who worked on the upper floors sculpted trophies made to mimic the wild haunts of the animals whose hides arrived through the alley door. Crates were unloaded, with hides that needed stretching, and skulls that required stripping in cauldrons of chlorine.

I would unpack an elephant foot, and over days of spraying it with water and tamping sand into it with a compactor, the foot would eventually regain its posture. We would add a circular plywood form to the inside, and top off the foot with a padded seat. An elephant foot stool. We would place the skulls of antelopes into a gigantic vat of bleach, where the final remnants of life would be stripped away, issuing ivory skulls a month later, to which we added missing teeth before we mounted them on a wood plaque. I learned about mixing epoxy glue to cement the dentures in skulls. I searched for missing incisors from drawers of teeth, catalogued by animal. My days were interesting indeed.

The taxidermists that worked at Jonas Brothers were the best of a dying breed, as they worked to make animals look as wild as possible, in their natural habitats. But safaris were on their way out, as wild game faced extinction, and so these craftsmen toiled as artists, scarcely making a living wage, without doing side work.

Did you know that fish lose their color once out of water? Fish trophies are painted to enact the real catch. Once while I was there, a hippo or rhino — they are both big game — died in one of the American zoos, and these artisans joyfully welcomed a new cast of the animal, that would better reflect how the beast would stand in nature. They would clothe it in hides from the next big game hunter. The taxidermists that I knew only watched PBS programming, Wild Kingdom at that time, constantly studying animals in their habitats, to better capture the life-like motions for their real-life resurrections.

One time I brought my older sister through the gallery of animals to be shipped out. I thought that she would enjoy petting a tiger, but I’m not sure that she thought that I was anything but weird. I broke my ankle wrestling with a friend after a night of drinking, and another worker at Jonas fixed me up with a deer hide cover for my cast, that lasted the length of my working there. I didn’t see my future there, but those taxidermists impressed me no end for their love of animals, and their devotion to capturing beasts at their best.

I finally got a job on the Colorado and Southern railroad, as a gandy dancer on the track gang, yet another step back in time, another step back into a Denver that too often is ignored. The Jonas Brothers’ building still stands at 10th and Broadway, and members of the family still stuff game animals in Louisville, in a business that has been around since 1908. I suppose that “stuff” is not the proper word — maybe recreate and celebrate; and so we compose our legends of Denver.

B50 Note: According to this article published in People Magazine on April 19, 1976, Jonas Brothers was then “the largest taxidermy business in the world.” The article goes on to explain that once a year, at the “Hunter’s Dinner”, Jack Jonas would serve his guests a delicious and diverse menu, including a combination of gnu, elephant, warthog, hippopotamus, python, and other exotic delicacies.

North Denver and Me

— by Michael Thornton

North Denver was settled later than other parts of the city of Denver. A river called the Platte – or “flat” is what I knew the translation to be – divided most of the city, Denver proper and Auraria, and the town across the river where the poor people migrated. There wasn’t a bridge across the confluence creeks till late in the 1800s, and then the Irish, Italian, and Scottish made their homes there. The climb out of the riverbed was steep, so this land was less than desirable, at least for successful Denverites, who flocked to Curtis Park, Capitol Hill, and parts south and east. My mother and her three girls did not arrive until the late 1940s, when the neighborhoods on the north side had long established themselves as the enclaves of recent immigrants. There was Mount Carmel church, where the Italians worshipped; St. Patrick’s where the Irish attended services; and the streets around 32nd and Zuni – Argyle, Caithness, and Dunkeld Place – where the Scots lived. This was good ground, above the flood plain, where the immigrants of the late 19th century found a home.

I grew up in North Denver. On a corner populated by the Pergolas, Pontarellis, and Zarlengos. We were at the edge of the new Italian population that was on its exodus, from the Lower Highlands immediately above the river to more suburban properties to the north and west. The Italians were moving to Harkness Heights and Berkeley Park, and further west to Lakewood. It was in the Lower Highlands that my mother found a house, an older house with a piece of land surrounding it. It was one of those original mansion properties that now developers glom on – a corner lot, a house built in 1886. She had three young daughters to take care of, no husband, but hopes for a decent life.

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The Henry Roth Houses on Fox Street

by Michael Thornton

This is a statement submitted in an application for a house in the Baker neighborhood to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. As a result of this successful application a new term for the architecture was coined: “Hobo Craftsman”.

Narrative Statement of Significance

Three houses on South Fox Street at Ellsworth Avenue, in the Baker neighborhood, were hand-built by Henry Roth in the Bungalow or Craftsman style of architecture. He made ingenious use of cobblestones from the South Platte River, metal barrel-lids from canisters of railroad spikes, and other found and recycled materials. He built the houses from 1927 to 1941, during the time of the Great Depression with its transient populace. Located only a few blocks from the railroad line, many people looking for work wandered the neighborhood. Mrs. Roth handed out sandwiches at her back door. This was also the time when tourist camps and motor courts spread throughout America. These cobblestone houses not only reflect the Craftsman style of building, but their orientation in conjunction with the sheds on the property represent the typical grouping of cabins in a motor court. Henry Roth’s occupation as a cooper aided him in making use of salvaged metal barrel-lids to construct the sheds, which served as sleeping quarters during the 1930s. The landscaping is reminiscent of tourist camps located near rivers, where fast growing trees like elms and honey locusts are prevalent. Common lilacs provided a sense of hospitality. The buildings and grounds have been preserved, and represent a historical period in America when people were struggling to make ends meet. Henry Roth built the houses for his family, and built the sheds for income. He used materials that other people overlooked or dumped. These houses stand in marked contrast to the neighboring Baker Historic District in Denver, where Victorian houses built at the turn of the twentieth century are the norm.

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