Located east of University Avenue between Mississippi and Exposition Avenues, Steele Street and University Boulevard, Bonnie Brae was developed in the 1920’s on land that had been granted to the Kansas Pacific Railroad in 1870. The railroad eventually sold the land to farmers, and later it became part of the town of South Denver, one of the many small communities annexed by Denver.
George W. Olinger, one of the city’s most active businessmen in the 1920’s, began accumulating property in the area for his land development company, the Associated Industries Company. Olinger had been impressed by a subdivision he saw in Kansas City that was named Bonnie Brae, meaning “pleasant hill” in Gaelic. Borrowing the name, he strived to recreate the aura of peaceful Scottish village in Denver. In 1923, the company hired the noted landscape architect Saco DeBoer to design the street system for the new neighborhood in a fashion similar to the Kansas City subdivision. In planning the neighborhood of Bonnie Brae, DeBoer departed from the grid system that characterized most of Denver’s streets and focused on the land’s topography and natural beauty. The first homes were constructed in 1923 and 1924.
To demonstrate pride in the neighborhood, Olinger erected stone pillars at the entrances on Tennessee and Kentucky streets which remain today. Subdivision fillings were completed in April 1925, the same year Olinger sold his share of the Associated Industries Company. Three years later, the company declared bankruptcy, and most of Bonnie Brae fell into the city’s hands for tax debt. Further development in the area slowed as the depression gripped the country in the 1930’s.
The delay in development of Bonnie Brae proved to be beneficial in the long run. The 1920’s and 1930’s were exciting eras in the field of architectural design. In Europe, architects and designers were experimenting with bold new styles that later became known as Art Moderne and the International Style. Traditional notions of symmetry and decorative ornament exemplified by Neoclassic and Victorian designs were rejected, while new materials and technological advances enabled innovations in architectural compositions. The International materials and technological advances enabled innovations in architectural compositions. The International Style, as expressed by architects of the Bauhaus School in Germany, focused primarily on a building’s function with the idea that “less is more.” Art Moderne structures used classic elements in new ways, emphasizing horizontal lines and softening angles with curved corners. By the end of the Depression, when Denver development resumed, many of the homes in Bonnie Brae were being constructed in these revolutionary styles.
The turning point in the neighborhood’s development came in 1936 when Ellipse Park, the centerpiece of Saco DeBoer’s plan, was constructed. Homes built up around the park. Winding streets surrounding and elliptical-shaped park turned Bonnie Brae a serene residential enclave in the midst of the city. A decade later, when World War II ended, housing construction boomed and most of the homes east of the park were constructed in an era of post war prosperity.
As Bonnie Brae grew, businesses opened along the 700 block of University Boulevard. Carl and Sue Dire opened the Bonnie Brae Tavern in June 1934, seven months after the repeal of Prohibition, and it continues as a neighborhood gathering spot. The Bonnie Brae Tavern and other businesses form a thriving commercial area between Exposition and Ohio streets that still function as the “Main Street” of one of Denver’s most charming neighborhoods.