COWTOWN TO CONURBATION: New exhibit showcases Aurora’s 20th century growth

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An aerial photograph of development in Aurora’s Hoffman Heights neighborhood in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of the Aurora History Museum

Most Aurora residents of 2021 likely don’t know the name Sam Hoffman, but they’ve undoubtedly seen his work. 

A Russian immigrant and plasterer by trade, Hoffman and his sons were the masterminds behind one of the first meticulously planned out subdivisions that sprung up in the area in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as thousands of military officials and their families were descending on the city with GI Bill funds in hand. The Hoffmans and their company, F&S Construction — short for “father and sons” — helped shape the look of suburbia across the west in communities from Thornton to Phoenix, according to a 2011 report on the Denver area’s post-World War II growth published by the Colorado Department of Transportation. 

Hoffman’s eponymous neighborhood just north of Aurora’s Del Mar Park started as a freestanding city known as Hoffman Town, complete with a fire station, school and park system. It was annexed and became part of Aurora in 1954, folding some 7,000 new residents into an agricultural community that was quickly becoming a bona fide burg, according to Christopher Shackelford, the exhibit curator at the Aurora History Museum. 

Flanked by Fitzsimons Army Medical Hospital to the north, Lowry Air Force Base to the west and what was then just known as the Buckley Field to the east, it was ideally situated for defense industry workers looking for a slice of the white-picket-fence life. 

Sam Hoffman, a Russian immigrant and plasterer, and his sons were the mastermind behind some of Aurora’s oldest neighborhoods, which became home to a five-fold growth spurt from 1940 through the 1950s. Photo courtesy of the Aurora History Museum

“Subdivisions such as Hoffman Heights, Del Mar Park, Morris Heights and other neighborhoods that grew during the time period really became the bedrock and the foundation of what Aurora eventually grew into,” Shackelford said.

Aurora’s transformation from cowtown to conurbation throughout the Cold War is at the center of Shackelford’s newest exhibit at the museum beside the Aurora Municipal Center. 

The exhibit showcases how the city’s population mushroomed at a time when duck-and-cover drills and nuclear explosion simulations at the nearby Rocky Mountain Arsenal were quotidian affairs.

Shakelford combed through hundreds of microfiched editions of the Aurora Advocate and the Rocky Mountain News to prepare the exhibit that is adorned with a replica 1950s kitchen and mock fallout shelter. The display is also peppered with personal anecdotes from Aurorans of the time.

“We provide local stories of Aurora residents’ experiences during the Cold War to enrich our understanding of this great period of the city’s growth while expanding on what was happening here when the nation was preparing for the threat of a potential global nuclear holocaust,” T. Scott Williams, director of the Aurora History Museum, said in a statement.

Though definitions of the length of the Cold War vary, Shackelford said he wanted to focus on the roughly 15-year span from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, when developers like Hoffman, Sam Sclavenitis, F.P. Loulakakis and Forest Ross were platting builds across the city at a break-neck pace. Using assembly-line methods to stand up his mostly brick homes, Hoffman’s workers were erecting 12 houses a day in the area just north of East Sixth Avenue by 1950. An economy frame house with a shingled roof and no garage in the neighborhood started at $9,250, and a deluxe brick model tallied about another $2,000.

Shackelford, who is 32, said he aimed to highlight the peculiar dichotomy of the booming housing market and the constant red scare paranoia that permeated the zeitgeist. 

“It’s that juxtaposition between this post-war economic boom and suburban growth and this kind of looming threat of global annihilation,” he said.

Aurora’s population grew nearly five-fold in the 1950s, clocking in around 50,000 residents by 1960, U.S. Census data show. Just 3,437 people called the city home in 1940, according to Census figures.

Much of that increase was attributed to annexation campaigns, which Aurora officials pursued aggressively throughout the 1950s.

“Aurora initiated a vigorous annexation effort in the 1950s, pulling unincorporated areas to the east, north and south east into the city,” according to the CDOT report, which used National Park Service data. “ … The city began a 1952 campaign, called the ‘city of hospitality,’ to woo corporations, builders and residents to the community. One result of this campaign was that small builders constructed new homes in older residential districts thereby deterring decline and decay in these areas.”

The strategy resulted in hundreds of new homes and thousands of new residents in areas like Boston Heights and Gateway Park, with most denizens commuting to jobs at the nearby military hubs, Stapleton Airport or Denver commercial centers. 

“Aurora thrived as an urban suburb with a modern administrative government and an economy heavily reliant upon its military installations,” according to the CDOT report. 

Shackelford said he wanted to harken back to that time, one to which many longtime residents still have ties. 

“These defense industry jobs brought a lot of people into this community and changed this community in many ways,” he said. “… I think a lot of folks have a lot of memories about their parents or their neighbors working at these places.”

Opened to the public earlier this month, the exhibit entitled “The Rise of the Aurora Suburb During the Cold War” is slated to be on display at the museum on East Alameda Parkway through next spring. The facility is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. Reservations are recommended.

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