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The short, happy life of Hilltop Stadium

Hilltop Stadium circa 1926. Photo courtesy of the DU Archives

Students playing tennis at DU’s Stapleton Tennis Pavilion or soccer on the fields south of Barton Stadium probably don’t know that they compete on hallowed ground.

From 1926-71, Hilltop Stadium loomed on that spot. There, the Pioneers football team did battle on fall weekends before crowds of up to 25,000 fans.

Although DU fielded its first football team in 1884, just a few scattered games were played over the first few years. For many seasons, DU football was played at Broadway Park, located at 5th and Broadway. Tired of paying rent there and seeking a venue closer to home, the Pioneers moved their games to University Park in 1909, playing ball on land at the north side of campus along what would later become Buchtel Boulevard. A grandstand there sat 10,000.

The University and the football program outgrew that modest field, and in 1924, DU alumni launched a public bond drive to fund a new stadium. The bonds would be repaid out of stadium receipts. DU selected an architect — William Fisher of Fisher and Fisher — and broke ground on Hilltop Stadium in March 1925.

Constructed of one million board-feet of lumber, 7,000 cubic feet of concrete and 295 tons of steel, the stadium cost just under $571,000. Hilltop Stadium was dedicated on Oct. 2, 1926, and DU played its first football game there that day, defeating Mines 27-7.

Over the years, Pioneers football was Hilltop’s primary draw, and the big event was the biannual Thanksgiving showdown with the University of Colorado. This tradition ended in 1948 when CU joined the Big Eight.

But, Hilltop hosted other events. The Rotary Club used it for a convention in 1926, and the next year, legendary flyer Charles Lindbergh appeared there leading a parade in his honor. In later years, the Air Force Academy used Hilltop for its football games. Even the Denver Broncos played there from time to time, including the first-ever victory of an AFL team over an NFL team: The Broncos beat the Detroit Lions on Aug. 5, 1967, in a preseason game. Many DU Commencement ceremonies were held at Hilltop, too.

In 1971, a crumbling Hilltop was slated for demolition to make way for multipurpose intramural fields. After all, the Pioneers had played their last football game in 1960, and the stadium badly needed repair.

While there was little opposition to razing the stadium itself, an extended public debate grew over what to do with the 27-foot-high sculpted figures that graced its outside walls. The male and female figures represented what The Clarion called “the spirit and significance of coeducational college athletics.” They had been designed by well-known Denver sculptor Robert Garrison, who also designed the Seal Pool fountains in Civic Center Park. The famous gargoyles at Denver’s South High School are also Garrison creations. It was determined that because the Hilltop figures were hollow and therefore quite fragile, they could not be saved. In the end they came down with the rest of the Stadium in October 1971.

Hilltop Stadium is gone, but scattered remnants remain. The stadium light towers now illuminate the field at Englewood High School. The University Archives owns a small slab of concrete with the number 50 painted onto it — the 50-yard line marker. Also in the archives is a small, square piece of wood from the stadium, issued as a commemorative piece after demolition.

The memories, however, remain with the thousands of fans who packed Hilltop’s stands.

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