He was born in Pennsylvania in 1855, but after contracting tuberculosis there, in 1878 he moved to Denver. Following a short stint as a clerk in the Daniels and Fisher store he entered city government, first as Denver City Clerk in 1884, then as postmaster, then in 1891 as President of the Denver Fire and Police Board where by assigning patronage jobs he built a strong political base, as well as collecting graft from the Red Light district on Market Street, and after hours saloons. In 1901 he became head of the Board of Public Works, the city’s largest agency.
At that time Denver was part of Arapahoe County, but there was a strong movement for “Home Rule”. In 1902 Denver and some surrounding municipalities were merged into The City and County of Denver, and in 1904 Robert Speer became the first Mayor in a disputed election. He immediately set out to change Denver from a dusty western town into what he envisioned as “the City Beautiful”.
He more than doubled the city’s park space to 1200 acres, and ordered that there be no “Keep off the Grass’ signs in any city park, a policy which is still followed today. He had 150 miles of Denver streets paved. He expanded the City Zoo, replacing many cages with moated enclosures. In 1908 he had the Auditorium Theatre built (now the Ellie Caulkins Theatre) just in time to host the 1908 Democratic National Convention. Every year he donated young maple and elm trees to any citizen who promised to care for them, and many of these trees now shade the older residential sections of the city. Cherry Creek had become an eyesore, the original cherry trees had long been cut down and it was used as an open sewer. He ordered the Creek to be cleaned up, retaining walls to be built and trees and shrubs to be planted. In 1910 his supporters changed the name of the street that he had built along the creek from Cherry Creek Drive to Speer Boulevard. He began plans for the civic center, and began clearing the area west of the Capitol building.
By 1912 many people were tired of “Boss” Speer’s authoritarian rule, including the newspapers which charged that his administration was rife with ”cronyism, corruption and crime”. The reformers suggested a commission form of city government. Speer said that would never work, but seeing the mood of the citizens he decided not to run for re-election, but ran for the Senate instead, a race which he lost.
Speer’s prediction turned out to be true, the commission did nothing to beautify the city, although they did shut down the Red Light district in 1913. The mood of the city changed, and when Speer ran again for mayor in 1916 he won in a landslide. He immediately picked up where he had left off, including planning for Civic Center Park, and a large City and County Building.
Unfortunately he never saw these plans come to fruition. In 1918 he came down with a cold which developed into pneumonia, and he died on May 14th. Over 10,000 people attended his funeral, held at the Auditorium Theater, and he is buried in Block 24 at Fairmount Cemetery. His vision of Civic Center Park was completed by succeeding mayors, and his wife Kate donated the bell and the clock on the City and County Building in his memory.
By Tom Morton