The Azure Dragon: Study of a Chinatown Joss House in Denver

Updated: Dec 14, 2018

The following study began as a final paper for a Colorado History course in the Spring of 2017. Titled 'The Green Dragon Stirs' it was thorough in content but limited in scope due to time constraints. With the added material allowed from extended research, it could now be considered to be a comparative study to other Joss Houses found in Australia and particularly, the Bendigo Joss House. These Joss Houses demonstrate the spiritual method of siting the temple building as well as the three hall layout common to southern Chinese village temples. Some of these temples that were built in the mid to late 1800's are still in use. Though smaller in scale and a continent away, they provide a tantalizing glimpse into the beauty and majesty that once graced Lower Downtown. (Note: upcoming 'Dragon Vein' update will modify the "Black Tortoise" portion of the exhibit. Also, exciting new material will be added to other portions, painting an even clearer picture of this awesome structure)

Hoodlums After the Chinese

A crowd of young hoodlums amused themselves last evening by heaving a few boulders through the windows of Gus Waa’s “washee” house on Fifteenth Street, between Arapahoe and Curtis. One of the missiles struck a young Chinaman on the cheek, producing a wound that bled copiously. The young scalawags took to their heels, and were not seen afterwards in the neighborhood. Later in the evening some older hoodlums dropped a brick through the window of a Chinese mansion on Wazee Street.

Rocky Mountain News, August 5, 1875

Chinatown/Lower Downtown Denver 1880
View of the building on the North West corner of Fifteenth and Wazee in Lower Downtown Denver. Photograph by William Henry Jackson taken from the Union Depot during construction in 1880.

A stranger visiting Lower Downtown Denver today might find it hard to recognize that the area was once the original business and community center for early Asian pioneers. While many have heard of the infamous “Hop Alley” which was first located in the alley stretching from 15th and 16th between Blake and Wazee, Much less famous is a major religious institution and cultural center that was nearby at the corner of 15th and Wazee. Situated on the North West corner of the intersection, the building in its entirety dominated half of the block, from Wazee to the alleyway. Since it’s time when it served as a temple,m or “Joss house” as buildings of this type were referred to as by English speaking pioneers, it has been modified extensively and is now divided into three addresses; 1600, 1610, and 1614 all Fifteenth Street. Morin restaurant (formally The Wazee Supper Club) occupies the space at 1600 Fifteenth Street while 1614 houses both a public relations company and a marketing research company. Between the two, the lower floors of 1610 are used by the restaurant with unknown occupants in the upper floors.

Morin Chinatown Joss House LoDo Denver
A modern photograph of the building in 2017. 1600 15th Street is on the left with Wazee written on the windows, 1610 is the middle section with the cars parked in front, and 1614 is the tall building, partially visible on the far right

When Asian pioneers built their houses of worship, they, just like their European counterparts, built them with different areas serving different functions. Regardless of temple location, these sections would always be flanking the main temple on both sides. Looking at this diagram of a typical “Joss House” one can see that if facing the entrance, the “caretaker residence” is located in the section to the West, an “Ancestral Room” in the section to the East, a small chamber is located directly inside the entrance, and the main area of worship is located further back.

Joss House floor plan
Floor plan of the Bendigo Joss House in Australia. Opened in 1871.

Geographic positioning of the entire temple itself conformed to spiritual beliefs of geomancy that take into account nearby land features and the four cardinal directions. This combination of spiritual beliefs with the immediate environment is an integral feature and key in the identification of the building, First a comparison of the three sections in the Joss house diagram with a current overhead view of the Wazee building taken from google maps, then some examinations of the individual sections through photographs. In the comparison, using the northern direction as a guide, the 1600 address area which currently houses Morin restaurant is outlined in blue and corresponds to the Ancestral Room in the Joss house diagram. The 1614 address is outlined in orange and would have housed the Caretaker Residence while the space between them was occupied by the main temple and is now 1610 Fifteenth Street.

The 1614 address is the only section of the building to retain its original shape and size, although it did not escape alteration. When viewed along side a picture of today, the painted signage is gone and the windows appear very different. Their placement is slightly different but more striking are the decorative lintels above each one, in the 1880 photo, all have pronounce decorations on their load bearing ends and keystones are visible. The overhang, or cornice, on the roof appears to be untouched as the big corbels on each end are the same shape and size; also the four slightly smaller corbels under the cornice are also visible in the old photograph. The lower level is obscured in the 1880 photo, but an overhang can be seen to the lower left of the building.

The 1610 address is the most inconspicuous of the three but has suffered the most extensive alterations. The building was physically split into two with the eastern half being raised four to five feet to match the 1600 address in height. Half of the lower level is visible in 1880 and pillars can clearly be seen which results in the façade of this level being exposed to the street. The lintels appear to be untouched but a seventh window located in the center of the second level is no longer visible today. An outline of the missing window can be seen today in the pattern of the brick to the right of the split. Also, compare the size of the cars to the cornice and corbels running along the roof.

The cornice of this section contains two types of corbels. The bigger corbels protrude at both sides as well as from the ends that were split. These corbels bear a design of four short rounded “petals” extending out from a circular hub with a shallow hole in the center. The smaller corbels, or brackets, are found incrementally below the span of the cornice. They are painted a golden brown and have small red knobs below their serpentine structure. One of these smaller brackets is found underneath each of the four bigger corbels found on this section as well. The underside of the cornice displays rectangular panels painted green and gold.

Lower Downtown Denver Joss House
Views of the cornice and corbels along the roof of the 1610 address. Top row from left to right: corbel where 1600 meets 1610, the split as seen from far away, four point design on the corbels, cornice of the lower half of the building. Bottom row: view of the split from underneath with the following three pictures being a progressive magnification of one of the brackets to show detail of it and surrounding panels.

Although the 1600 address retained the majority of its design for its upper and lower floors, it suffered the most obvious destruction. On the first floor, full length windows are visible in both photographs. Also in both photographs are the flat lintels above the windows on the second floor. What is not in both photographs is the large structure on top of the roof that wraps around the building from fifteenth, along Wazee, and to the other side of the structure, meeting the 1610 address on the opposite side. When compared in size with the floor below it, it can be seen that it adds more than half a story to the building. As it rounds the building from fifteenth to Wazee it can be seen that it seems to sweep down, then up, and stretches out over the walkway immediately in front of the building. This sweeping feature stretches the visible length of the structure and presumably along the entire distance around the structure.

Visible today are the lattice type corbels that run along the under side of the cornice of this structure. Along with these corbels are two much larger lattice type corbels partially composed of interlocking slats of wood. One overlooks Fifteenth Street at the point where the 1600 address meets the raised portion of the 1610 address. The second one overlooks Wazee Street where the 1600 address meets the modern day structure not seen in 1880. This lattice corbel lacks a triangular feature on top that is present on the one facing fifteenth.

Dougong Morin Denver Chinese architecture
Top row clockwise from left: Upward view of small corbel, upward view of the cornice running along the Wazee side of 1600, side view of small corbel, facade of 1600 facing Wazee street; note the three brick structures protruding from the roof are also seen in the 1880 photo. Bottom row left to right: left view of giant corbel facing fifteenth, right view of same corbel,left view of the giant corbel facing Wazee street, front view of same corbel.

Roofing in Asian temple architecture varies from basic form like a straight inclined to the more decorative multi inclined hip roofs. The most ornate and dramatic are the swept roofs used mainly for temples and palaces. Swept roofs have the functionality of aiding in rainwater drainage, but equally, are spiritual in intent and purpose. Swept roofs were prevalent in southern China, from where the Diaspora of the mid 1800s originated.

The 1600 roof among other examples of swept roofing

Regardless of northern or southern, hipped or swept, the architecture of these roofs, and traditional Chinese architecture in general, necessitated another structural element to help support it. Interlocking wood brackets called dougong could range from simple to complex depending on location and need. When used in the support of roofs they were highly visible and would appear to be incredibly convoluted and intricately detailed.

Dougong Lower Downtown Denver Morin
Top row: Schematic drawings of a basic dougong with the last one at the right being a slightly more convoluted example. Lower row: Photographs of the large corbel facing fifteenth street matched to the schematic examples in top row. The far right photo is a super closeup of the bracketing formation of the upper portion.

Dougong Downtown Denver
Upper and lower pictures to the left are colorful examples of multiple dougong, the remaining three pictures are of the large corbel facing Wazee street.

With one dougong located over Fifteenth, one over Wazee, and the swept roof stretching around the building, it is logical to assume that there was another dougong on the façade facing the Cherry Creek. As noted before, there is currently a building between the 1600 addresses and the Cherry Creek that wasn’t there in 1880. With no known picture of this side of the building its definite appearance is unknown, but reasonable extrapolations can be made after recognizing the geomantic traits of the structure. Geomancy or Feng Shui (fung-shway) literally translates to Wind-water and can be wholly simplistic or ornately complex, often at the same time. It is a spiritual belief that flowing energy forces can be harnessed to harmonize an individual or structure with the surrounding environment. This flowing energy is called Qi (chi) and can be good or bad, the purpose of Feng Shui is to collect the good Qi while repelling bad Qi. Tools that are used are the 'Bagua', which is a collection of eight trigrams composed of three broken or unbroken lines, and the 'I-Ching', or 'Book of Changes' that contains a set of sixty four hexagrams composed of variations of two vertically stacked trigrams from the Bagua. Of significant importance are the four cardinal directions which are associated with four Celestial Animals and determined with the use of a complex compass called a luopon.

Bagua LoDo Morin
Left to right: 'Later Heaven' bagua, sixty four hexagrams of the 'King Wen' I-Ching, basic luopon

Ancient geomancers observed that sites with the best Feng Shui had a flat open plain (referred to as Ming Tang or Bright Hall) with a gently flowing stream to the south, a rounded mountain to the north, a slightly lower but peaked mountain to the East, and a still lower flat topped mountain to the west. The traditional Feng Shui tenet “leaning against mountains, facing the water” dictates that the entrance to the building, most importantly temple entrances, strive to face running water situated in a southern direction.

Geomancy Denver FengShui Morin
Top left is a basic diagram of the preferred positioning ( and roughly, shape) of land forms in regard to the center, in this case a house. Lower left diagram shows the preferred positioning when landforms are represented by man-made structures, note the use of the road as a "river", this concept will be discussed in future posts. The Diagram on the right is a more detailed depiction of the preferred land formations and positions, it illustrates the "armchair" formation it creates. If one were to be seated, then they would be the Yellow Dragon of the Center, their back would rest against Black Tortoise, their arms would be resting on White Tiger and Green Dragon, and they would be facing Phoenix with the Bright hall resting in their lap.

The Celestial animal associated with the south is known as the vermillion bird. A pheasant like bird with five colored plumage and perpetually doused in flames, it is conflated in interpretation with the phoenix of western mythology. The west is associated with the celestial White tiger, a creature whose mythos talks of its tail changing to a stark white after it reaches the age of five hundred years. The North is guarded by a Black tortoise also known as 'The Warrior', this celestial animal is always pictured entangled with a serpent, often yellow. The last direction, the east, was overseen by a blue/green creature called the Azure dragon, in the west it is simply called the green dragon and on rare occasion the Avalon dragon. In this system a fifth animal is sometimes listed as being located in the middle of the four directional animals, it was known as the yellow snake or yellow dragon of the center. Feng Shui works in concentric circles so In addition to wanting the environment to reflect these animals the building itself would reflect them as well. Also if an environmental feature was absent, then ad hoc structures could be used to represent them. Finally, if confronted with the unwelcome circumstance of having to choose between having an entrance facing south or an entrance facing running water, the running water was always chosen as that is the source of vital Qi.

Feng Shui Downtown Denver
A Silver proof depicting the Celestial animals. A compass has been digitally inserted in the center to illustrate their traditional orientation.

Looking overhead at the city block overlaid with a map from 1870, it is seen that not only does the much larger Cherry Creek lie to the coveted southern direction of the 1600 addresses, but that back in 1880 when the current loft building (tagged by the dental office) wasn’t there, a flat open space in front of the flowing creek would have been present. These features show that this side was the main entrance(s) and would have been decorated as such.

Denver Map Overlay
Overlays of fifteenth and Wazee section of Lower Downtown made from Google Maps and Thayer's 1879 map of Denver. The Joss house and its three sections are color coded as before. Compass is situated in upper right hand corner for orientation.

Unfortunately, without a photograph of this façade, the path that would have led to the creek from the main temple and the beautiful Ming Tang courtyard that straddled it is lost. Also lost is the appearance of the actual entrance, but by referring to Joss Houses of much smaller size constructed in late 1800s Australia, it can be reasonably suggested that the main entrance would have had an overhang over the doorway. Most likely there were pillars on the lower level of the main entrance just as on the opposite side facing Fifteenth Street, but to symbolize the Flaming Bird, they would have likely been of the Corinthian kind with the feather like roman acanthus. In addition, by referring to other buildings bearing Feng Shui architecture, it can be suggested that the upper level would have housed two bay windows. Flanking the entrance, They likely would have bore festoon type ornament comprised of palm branches, or as they are known by another name: phoenix.

Phoenix Denver
First section of photographs on the left, clockwise from top: Courtyard and entrance(s) of the Bendigo Joss House, iron acanthus and volutes, various acanthus used in Corinthian columns, row of simple iron Corinthian columns. Middle section from top to bottom: Drawing of a leaf type festoon, actual leaf festoon ornament, suggested placement and design of the bay windows above the main entrance. Last picture on right is of a woman holding a phoenix palm branch.

To the west, standing in for White Tiger, is the caretaker residence. Purposely being constructed deep into the block and bearing a level roof , the entire building acts as the embodiment of White Tiger itself, crouching or lying low, long, and flat. The lintels on the windows and their keystones would be symbolic displays of white tiger, but without a closer photograph details cannot be seen and exact descriptions cannot be made. The wall painting on the wall overlooking the 1610 address could very well conceal an ancient white tiger symbol beneath its many layers, but with years of repainting it would be almost impossibly buried. The term “caretaker residence” itself can be a little misleading, as this wasn’t the home for one man looking after a residence. Other names for these buildings (always placed to the west of the main temple) are “Chapel of Good Fortune” and “Hall of Cai Bai Xing”, one of the gods of wealth. In this context, the Caretaker function is to be interpreted in the form of financial sustainment of the entire complex. Given the size of the one downtown, it likely housed a high number of new arrivals from china as well.

White Tiger Denver Ingather research TURNER
Clockwise from upper left corner: Heavily painted area looking over the center (1610) section, example of a "White Tiger of the West" symbol, White Tiger lying on top of the 1614 section to illustrate shape and form of both, view of the inside of the Caretaker Residence in the Bendigo Joss House.

Black tortoise is the guardian of the north and a terraced two story building across the street would be a great stand in for a giant tortoise shell, but in 1880 there was no long tall building across fifteenth. This resulted in the use of three giant square black panels on top of the 1610 address to represent the protective celestial animal. Placed in a staggered formation toward the north they form a much needed, albeit an ad hoc, "mountain" for this direction. Also the four corbels on the 1610 address that bear the four petal design are actually black tortoise symbols, some have said it is the basic turtle back design found in other architectural displays, but I have also been told that it is a turtle, as seen from overhead, with its legs out and its head pulled into its shell for protection. With this latter description, the hole in the center serves as a spout from which good fortune flows. (New information coming soon in the 'Dragon Vein' Update

Black Turtle Denver Morin
(THE INFO IN THIS PORTION WILL BE ALTERED AND EXPANDED WITH 'DRAGON VEIN' UPDATE)Left half clockwise from top: View of the panels on top of the center section with a red line to highlight the staggered appearance, picture of the black square in the alley with a turtle symbol super imposed, corbel with the turtle symbol, a drawing of a turtle with its head pulled in its shell, turtle back pattern on window in Shanxi. The overhead map on the right shows the placement of panels over the center section as black lines. the four smaller turtle back patterns are the suggested original spacing of the four turtle corbels.

Concerning the lower level, pillars are representative of dragons as dragon spirits like to weave between them. With 1610 being the center of the temple and the center being symbolized by the yellow dragon, the pillar placement on the lower level here as well as the entrance makes sense. Also, with black tortoise being portrayed as perpetually entangled with a yellow serpent, it’s "good Feng Shui" that the Black tortoise and yellow dragon symbolism are so close together. Finally, the number seven implies holiness and mystery, so seven windows were preferred on the second level, this necessitated the shoehorned construction of the now missing window. The 1610 portion was two tong lau type buildings built as a whole, resulting in the vertical split in the 1880 photo that can be seen dividing the window in half. Without a closer view of this second story it’s hard to tell if there is real glass there or if the entire window is faux.

Kwan ti Temple Denver
Left picture is a close up of the center (1610) section, top right picture is of the Confucius alter in the Bendigo Joss house while the lower right is the main alter area locat