Denver 101: On Humboldt Island, a historic district honors a legendary polymath

Editor’s Note: How well do you know the Mile High City? Denver 101, a new University of Denver Magazine online feature, introduces you to some of the historic figures and storied sites that make DU’s backyard such a fascinating place.  

If you ever meander around central Denver, you’ve likely found yourself on Humboldt Street at least a time or two. After all, it stretches from Cherry Creek to Five Points, if not farther.

But Humboldt Island? In this landlocked mountain city? Indeed. Welcome to a magical two-block chunk of historic housing in the Queen City of the Plains.

The two dozen stately mansions on Humboldt between 10th and 12th avenues, on the west end of Cheesman Park, were built between 1895 and 1920 for some of Denver’s most influential residents.

Frederick Gilmer Bonfils lived with his family in a mansion at East 10th Avenue and Humboldt. Bonfils’ co-founder of The Denver Post, Harry Tammen, lived in a Tuscan villa at 1061 Humboldt. And Gov. William Ellery Sweet, who likely lost reelection because he loathed the then-powerful Ku Klux Klan, lived at 1075 Humboldt.

The Humboldt Street Historic District was added to the National Register on Dec. 29, 1978. Its architecture ranges from foursquare to the ornately detailed colonial, Georgian and Renaissance revival style.

But from whence the name “Humboldt”? From Alexander von Humboldt, considered by his fans to be one of the most brilliant men to ever walk the Earth, though his fame seems to have faded among Americans.

One of the most admired people in the world from the 1820s through the 1850s, Smithsonian Magazine reports, Humboldt “traveled on four continents, wrote more than 36 books and 25,000 letters to a network of correspondents around the globe. He had an infectious personality and boundless curiosity, surrounded himself with some of the leading minds of his era and never stopped talking. Charismatic, annoying, exuberant, caustic, but undeniably relevant, Humboldt straddled the enlightenment penchant for wanting to know everything about everything and the establishment of modern scientific methods designed to query that accrued knowledge.”

He theorized the spreading of the continental landmasses through plate tectonics, mapped plants on three continents, and charted how air and water move to create bands of climate at different latitudes and altitudes.

Humboldt developed a revolutionary theory that all aspects of the planet, from the outer atmosphere to the ocean floors, are connected in the “unity of nature,” Smithsonian notes, and he saw the link between deforestation and changes in local climate.

His books inspired Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and landscape painter Frederic Church, among others.

Humboldt adamantly believed in racial equality and railed against colonial rule and enslavement, the magazine notes, predicting it would be the downfall of the U.S.

Today, his name graces many a street, lake, park, flower and mountain, especially in his homeland of Germany. In the U.S., at least eight towns and three counties are named for him, as is the Humboldt River flowing through Nevada. For more on Humboldt’s life and accomplishments, read “The Invention of Nature” by Andrea Wulf.

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