Park Theater Mall Property: A Brief History
On October 19, 2009, the historic Park Theatre Mall, located at 116 East Elkhorn Avenue, caught fire and burned to the ground, bringing to an end a building whose origins and evolution were deeply rooted in the history of early Estes Park. Its story begins in December 1907, two years after the future town was platted. It was then that steam-car pioneer Freelan Oscar Stanley, anticipating the completion of his big new hotel, and the need to provide future guests with transportation, purchased three lots on Elkhorn Avenue from Dr. Homer James for $1,000 to serve as garage and office headquarters for his Estes Park Transportation Company. The following summer, Mr. Stanley’s company began transporting visitors to and from railheads at Longmont and Lyons to Estes Park over the recently reconstructed North St. Vrain road.
Those first facilities were relatively simple ones. They consisted of a small baggage and ticket office directly on Elkhorn Avenue, a sizable garage at the rear of the property backing onto Fall River, and, in between, sufficient room to park and service Stanley’s fleet of steam automobiles, including his nine and twelve-passenger Mountain Wagons—the famous gleaming red and yellow vehicles that revolutionized mountain travel in the Estes Park region. The separate buildings were then combined into one. Between April and May 1915, Stanley brought the façade of the building on Fall River forward to Elkhorn Avenue, incorporating the original ticket and baggage office, to create the large barn-like structure that appears in many 1920s and 1930s photographs of the Town of Estes Park.
After Stanley sold his transportation company in May of 1916 to Roe Emery, another Colorado automobile pioneer, the building was enlarged once again. Its rear was extended back across Fall River, significantly enlarging its size, this time to provide space to house the drivers of vehicles of Emery’s region-wide Rocky Mountain Parks Transportation Company. Making use of an exclusive franchise agreement with the National Park Service, Emery used these expanded facilities to anchor his famous “Circle Tours,” sight-seeing trips, beginning and ending in Denver, which brought people to Estes Park and then into Rocky Mountain National Park. After the completion of Fall River Road in 1920, Emery’s tours were extended across the Continental Divide to Grand Lake. “All I did,” Emery once modestly remarked, “was to give people a chance to look.” And millions did, making Estes Park a favorite vacation destination and adjacent Rocky Mountain National Park one of the most popular and visited in the nation.
Following World War II, thanks to the ever-wider ownership of family cars, regional transportation needs changed dramatically. A large fleet of dedicated tour buses housed in Estes Park was no longer necessary or profitable. By 1956, after some forty years of use, Emory vacated the building in favor of new, and significantly smaller, quarters a short distance away on Moraine Avenue. For a time the building lay empty. It was then put to use once again, this time as the factory and showroom of the Rocky Mountain Pottery Company, whose signature pieces made use of distinctive aromatic resins to give them the smell of trees of the mountain region where they were manufactured. Today, pots bearing the company logo are increasingly regarded as collector’s items.
In the early 1970s, after the Pottery Company vacated the premises, the building was reconfigured once again, this time into a mall of individual shops connected to the adjacent Park Theatre, an Estes Park landmark since 1913. Though named Park Center Mall when it officially opened on June 5, 1971, the building was later, and more appropriately, renamed the Park Theatre Mall, honoring its historic neighbor. The fire of 2009, an event that made news throughout Colorado and saddened the entire town, thus climaxed and brought to an end a full century of Estes Park history. The past, however, is but prologue. This includes cherished local historic landmarks that live on in the collective memory of their communities. The spaces they once occupied await rebirth so that they may serve the needs of the future as they have served the past. So too with the Park Theatre Mall.
—James H. Pickering