Pearl Street Mall history

By Jim Harrington

Boulder’s heart and soul lie in its parks with majestic Flatiron views and four blocks on a street called Pearl.

From the Best Western Plus Boulder Inn you are only a little more than a mile away from both mountain parks and the downtown city park of the Pearl Street Mall . Stroll along this popular four block pedestrian mall with a central historic courthouse and enjoy a great selection of restaurants, bookstores, boutiques and sidewalk cafes. Enjoy the seasonal arta h shows, craft fairs, musical presentations and street performers who entertain enthusiastic crowds with their antics. You can also take a walk back in time reading plaques and learning the history of Pearl Street and the unique success of its pedestrian mall.

Pearl Street was created in 1859. In camp about 200 men and 17 women knew that winter was coming. They could not continue mining nor farming until spring thawed the ground. Not wanting to be idle these founding settlers began to lay out and build the western town of Boulder, Colorado.

The settlers made the first street by putting a stick in the ground at what is now Broadway and Pearl Street and to make it straight they sighted the street to Valmont Butte out onto the eastern horizon and to Boulder Canyon and the red rocks to the west. No one knows why the town founders chose the name of Pearl Street. Was it to honor a wife? a mother? a daughter? a sister? or lover? no one is really sure. It remains a mystery in history for whom Pearl Street is named. We just have to let our imaginations flourish with thoughts of who she was. She may never have even come to Boulder but her name is forever a gem in the City.

In later years there would be efforts to change “Pearl Street” to be conventionally named as “Main Street” like in other towns. But the people of Boulder are different and they love their “Pearl Street”, whoever she was, and voted down changing to plain old “Main Street”. “Pearl Street” has a sparkle of imagination and a unique Boulder flair that inspires residents to celebrate and dream.

Pearl Street was not the only place in Boulder County to have sparkle and glitter. When silver and a little gold was discovered on the western edge of Boulder County (near the old town site of Caribou and other places) road builders carved out a one lane wagon road from Boulder’s Pearl Street to the town of Nederland and to particular mine operations. Starting in 1870 convoys of horse and mule drawn freight wagons jockeyed into position on Pearl Street to see who would go up first the narrow winding canyon. What sparkle and glitter was found up the canyons was also providing more glitter to the supply stores along Pearl Street. McClure, now the Peppercorn at 1235 Pearl St, was the largest dry goods store in town. Valentines Hardware Company provided miners with dynamite for years and was located near Pearl and Broadway where Lindsay’s Deli Hagan Daz Ice Cream at 1148 Pearl St is today.

Over time stagecoaches made way to trains, bikes and automobiles. Boulder glittered not only as a supply town to miners and farmers but but was also being called the Athens of the West for its cultural enrichment, university, Chautauqua  events, spectacular views and healthy climate. In a summer parade on Pearl Street one float boasted. “You don’t need to follow the rainbow for that pot of gold, It is right here in Boulder County.” Indeed it was right here on Pearl Street.

Pearl Street had many saloons and very few gun fights in its early days but in 1907 prohibitionists won city elections and cleaned up the town and they were all shut down. No beer, wine or liquor was legally sold in Boulder City limits. That may be why the town did not grow for a number of years so people could easily get to the edge of town to find a bar. Colorado Prohibition began in 1916 and national prohibition in 1920. Bootlegging flourished until national prohibition was repealed in 1933. The city of Boulder then allowed the sale of 3.2 beer but maintained its ban on regular beer, wine and liquor until 1967. Walt and Hanks Tavern was one of the 3.2 beer bars it is became America’s first Old Chicago’s Restaurant that was at 1102 Pearl St and serves 100’s of beers from all around the world.

Over the historic Courthouse entrance on the Pearl Street Mall is an art deco design showing a miner and farmer. These two occupations remained at the forefront of the city’s economic engine up to the early 1940’s. Pearl Street was the place for many community parades to celebrate the 4th of July or the return Scott Carpenter in 1962 a Boulder native from his orbital space flights. Christmas lights were put on the courthouse and a lit star on Flagstaff Mountain and have remained holiday traditions today.

The first section of a Boulder suburban indoor mall called Crossroads was completed to the east of town in 1963 it would later be renamed to be today’s 29th Street Mall. In the same year Pearl Street was briefly closed from 11th St. to 14th St. to test a new idea of an outdoor mall to maintain downtown economic viability. During the initial test of an outdoor pedestrian mall temporary planter with small trees, flowers and shrubs were put on Pearl St. The test did not last but it did spark an idea whose day would come over ten years later.

The test of a new downtown Pearl Street led to a number of planning groups being formed. This civic involvement in the planning of Boulder would be an ongoing tradition that continues on today. Some groups proposed very elaborate plans including the redevelopment of the entire downtown with several outdoor malls, a new traffic loop around Broadway which would be closed for the creation of a lake and numerous spoked greenway walking trails. These most elaborate plans never materialized. But they were the basis upon which architect Carl Worthington  designed the four block pedestrian mall concept which would become the Pearl Street Pedestrian Mall.

In June 1968 Boulder City planner’s goals were to provide a better living environment in town including an increase in foot traffic, bicycling and a redesign of street signs away from the attention grabbing billboards and neon lights of the time. In 1970 Colorado Governor John Love signed the “Public Mall Act” which allowed Colorado cities to close streets to construct pedestrian malls. A permanent Pearl Street Mall was now possible.

In 1974 Boulder City Council voted to establish the “Downtown Boulder Mall”. Later peoples love for a street called Pearl would change the official name of the mall in 1997 to the “Pearl Street Mall”. The section of Pearl Street between 11th and 15th street was closed to car traffic on June 12th 1976 when the last official car to travel on these streets was celebrated with a huge block party.

Some distractors termed the following days as the “Pearl Street Maul” once construction began to dig up the streets. Not everyone loves construction and some downtown merchants were also divided about cars only being allowed on the side streets even if more parking structures were to be built. Today some of those same businesses think if the “Pearl Street Mall” had not been built there would not now be a downtown Boulder at all.

Great effort was given to ensure the historic character of downtown was maintained. Old western character is preserved even as a new sophisticated metropolitan living develops. Pearl Street Mall is not a tourist façade but a true city downtown core where locals also work, shop, play, debate and eat. The “Pearl Street Maul” as distractors termed the construction period ended and the “Pearl Street Mall” opened in August 1977 and was designated as a new city park.

People started to walk on the streets again as they had in pre 1900 and use Pearl Street Mall as a modern park. So in Sept 1977 City Council banned dogs, bicycling, skateboarding and tossing Frisbees in response to increasing concerns that the mall which was intended for pedestrians was becoming more of an obstacle course than a place to take a pleasant stroll. A later survey in town, which by the way has over a 100 miles of open space trails, determined the four blocks of the Pearl Street Mall is the best place to walk in Boulder.

Exceptions were made for an extraterrestrial “Mork from the planet Ork”  who was allowed to roller skate through the pedestrian mall. In October 1980 Robin Williams  who portrayed Mork shot a scene on the Pearl Street Mall for the popular “Mork and Mindy” television show. The show was so popular many visitors would ask,” where does Mork live?” The exterior of the Victorian house shown in the sitcom comedy is just a couple blocks off Pearl St but all the interior shots were done in Hollywood. The New York Delicatessen at 1117 Pearl St, where Mork liked to eat, was also in the show and is now Hapa Sushi Grill  and Sake Bar. We are told all their cuisine is from Earth but you might want to ask to be sure. Scenes from the movie “Catch and Release” , starring Jennifer Garner and Timothy Olyphant were filmed on the Pearl Street Mall in July 2005. And in 2014 the feature film “Christmastime”, directed by Michael Landon Jr. and staring Ernie Hudson of “Ghostbusters” was shot on the Pearl Street Mall as well.

At first buskers were not allowed to perform on the mall but then it was realized they are a good way to draw people together for live entertainment. Busker shows have included Johnny Fox a sword swallowing entertainer, Bango the balloon Man making numerous animal creations out of his colorful supply of balloons, Air Jazz juggler Peter Davidson, comedy juggler Jimmy Crisco, Evan from Heaven, David the Zip Code man who can tell you where you live, Ibashi the unusually flexible contortionist fold his body into a small box and many more street performers.

At first restaurants were not allowed to put out tables on the mall for fear of obstructing foot traffic. Later it was realized people really liked to people watch on the mall and one of the best places to do so was at a table in front of your favorite restaurant or coffee shop. Now eating on a mall patio is some people’s favorite pastime.

One of the failings in the initial design for the Pearl Street Mall was planning for its success. As more and more people left their cars on the side streets and gathered on the Pearl Street Mall more toilets were needed but not planned for. This was an embarrassing oversight that was corrected but at a higher cost than if they had been planned for initially. Lessons learned for future pedestrian mall development. But overall the success of the Pearl Street Mall would surpass what were its failings

The Pearl Street Mall was part of a nationwide effort to revitalize America’s downtowns through what was called a “center city revival movement.” Over 200 pedestrian zones were created nationwide in every region of the country but only about 11% of them were successful. The Pearl Street Mall is very successful and that may be due to the unique character of Boulder. Which includes blending civic and commercial uses, being near outdoor Mountain Parks and Open Space, the Pearl Street Mall being a concentrated short distance of four blocks, creating a car free zone with good multimodal transit options with parking structures at the edges, the town having an active citizenry, good sunshine throughout the year, having a college in town and having a population around 100,000 people. It also strives to be pedestrian friendly. The traffic signal at Broadway and Pearl was the first in the U.S. to feature a visible countdown timer for pedestrians to cross the street safely. The Pearl Street Mall’s success makes it the core of city life in Boulder.

Notable landmarks on the early downtown Pearl Street Mall included;

Fred’s Steakhouse at 1308 Pearl, now Sforno Trattoria Romano  , across from the courthouse. One of Fred’s best known customers was Walter Lawry a penniless World War One veteran. Mr. Lawry’s walk to Fred’s was so slow you were sure he was standing still but like a tortoise he kept moving but you could only notice it if you came back to see him in a different spot over time. Often he just ordered a bowl of water, ketchup and crackers to eat. Encouraged to order from the menu other customers would take a collection to pay his bill. The alley south of the Pearl Street Mall is named Lawry Lane in his honor.

The alley to the north of the Pearl Street Mall is named Tom’s Way after Tom Eldridge a former city council member and longtime owner of Tom’s Tavern at 1047 Pearl Street. And Tom no matter how busy he was with his other businesses was never too busy to bus the tables during lunch rush hour. Film critic Roger Ebert  called the burgers at Tom’s Tavern the best in the world. Today the restaurant Salt Bistro  tries to keep his legacy alive with the Tom’s Tavern special burger on their menu.

From 1916 until 1956 Chester Johnson, Boulder’s Popcorn Man, with a bright red steam powered popcorn wagon was a Boulder institution on Pearl Street and 13th. In his honor a new red popcorn wagon was located near his old location now on the Pearl Street Mall. Boulder’s popcorn legacy continues.

For many years Jamaican born Paul Hester oversaw the Pearl Street malls maintenance and gardens. His unique touch was honored by the Colorado Senate which officially recognized Hester for the extraordinary beauty of the flower plantings in downtown Boulder. The City of Boulder Parks Department continues with Mr. Hester’s Legacy by going to extraordinary lengths to keep the Pearl Street Mall a beautiful park. Staff plant thousands of flowers on the Pearl Street Mall every spring and summer, importing 15,000 tulip bulbs from Holland and planting more than 6,000 annuals for a varied mix throughout the season. There are 58 ground flower beds, seven raised beds, 98 hanging pots and 52 containers.

Between its flower beds the Pearl Street Mall is home to a lot of art as well. There are numerous galleries to enjoy and public sculptures including an elk, a bearded man blowing water from his mouth, a buffalo, a frog, a beaver, a rabbit, an eagle, a bear and a cougar amongst others. There is also a statue of a woman titled “Hearts on a Swing” , near Broadway and Pearl Street, very near where the original settlers in 1859 set out to build a town and staked out Boulder’s first street. Could she be Pearl? We will never know for sure but our imaginations whisper ‘yes’. This is Pearl. This is Pearl’s Pedestrian Street Mall at the center of Town in Boulder Colorado. We will never know if she made it to town in person to see her street but we invite you to come and stay awhile, at the Best Western Plus Boulder Inn and take a walk on the Pearl Street Mall, we think you will enjoy it!