More Than a Campus Center: The Tivoli Student Union Serves as the Heart of CU Denver

February 21, 2023

In the winter, one of the Auraria campus’ oldest buildings resembles a snow-dusted castle, with tall arched windows and an original spire reaching toward the sky. In the spring and summer, people flock to the building’s spacious lawn and German-style beer garden for studying, eating, and socializing. And on a fall day, its red brick and iconic tiered shape stands out among a canopy of red and orange trees against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. There’s no doubt: No matter the season, the Tivoli Student Union remains the heart of CU Denver and the Auraria campus.  

“Students remember coming to the Tivoli, and we’ve actually had alumni get married in the Tivoli,” said Rob Byers,  the Auraria Higher Education Center’s Chief of Campus Programs. “I think it serves them while they’re in school, but after they’ve left school, it still serves as a nostalgic touchpoint.” 

Today, the 141-year-old structure is home to academic and campus resources for students, faculty, and staff from three higher education institutions. It also includes restaurants, spaces for community members to host celebrations, and one of Denver’s beloved breweries, the Tivoli Brewing Company. The building’s rich and complex history includes several owners, some hardships, a shopping mall era, lots of brewing, and a series of renovations that have preserved its iconic look. To honor its place in CU Denver’s history (and future!), we asked historians, current employees, and students what makes this building such an important part of the university.  

Beer, a Flood, and a Shopping Mall 

If you’ve been to the Tivoli, you know the design is anything but ordinary. Hallways where thousands of barrels of beer once rolled through are now occupied by students traveling between grab-and-go restaurants and study nooks. Every sharp turn leads to something different, whether it’s the atrium style, three-story food hall or the giant Turnhalle equipped with high ceilings and a stage, or the College of Arts & Media’s recording studios in the basement. “[The Tivoli] wasn’t purposefully designed to do what its job is now,” Byers said. “We’ve always known it’s a difficult building to navigate, and I think that this has encouraged a change in the designs of other buildings on campus.”  

View on Instagram: Touring Tivoli with Student Ambassador Veronika D.

That unique design is, in part, a result of its rich history, which includes a thriving brewery that was a staple of the Denver community—even through Prohibition. German immigrant Moritz Sigi constructed the original building to brew his “Buck Beer” for gold miners. When Sigi suddenly passed away, the building was sold to Max Melsheimer, another German immigrant, who renamed it the Milwaukee Brewing Company. During his ownership, he acquired and improved the tower building, today known as the Turnhalle, and two adjoining buildings on the corner of Tenth and Larimer streets. 

When Melsheimer faced hardships and was no longer able to maintain the company, Denver businessman John Good took ownership and in 1901 renamed it the Tivoli Brewing Company (after a famous amusement park in Copenhagen, Denmark). Good’s son, the president of the company, manufactured a non-alcoholic cereal beer called “Dash” to keep the company alive during Prohibition. Tivoli beer grew in popularity and was sold across the west for several decades until the disastrous and destructive South Platte River flood in 1965. As a result, the building was forced to close its doors in 1969.   

In 1973, the Tivoli was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which protected its buildings and brewing equipment. That same year, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, an urban planning department that helps revitalize city projects, used federal funds to purchase the Tivoli and transferred ownership to the Auraria Higher Education Center. Due to increasing renovation costs, AHEC leased the building to a private development, which in 1980 revamped the Tivoli’s buildings and used them for commercial use, including retail shops, a bar, restaurants, and even an AMC movie theater. 

In 1991, Auraria students voted to buy back the lease and use the building for educational purposes. After a two-year renovation, the Tivoli reopened and has since added more facilities for students, including a campus bookstore, spaces for events and activities, and a food court. It also houses offices dedicated to CU Denver’s academic units, including the Office of Veteran & Military Student Services (VMSS).  

In 2005, Byers said the original red brick covering the building was restored—an indication of the campus’ dedication to the building. And in 2015, after nearly 50 years, the beloved Tivoli Brewing Co. reopened in a permanent location in the building, along with a beer garden that looks over the campus and city skyline. “I think that it’s important for all of us to realize that it is a historical and architectural landmark,” Tom Noel, who taught history at CU Denver for 50 years, said. “It is the best-known building on campus.” 

Big and Small Celebrations for All  

Over the years, the Tivoli has hosted big and small—and some once-in-a-lifetime—moments for the campus and the community. From Colorado Avalanche playoff watch parties, to food and wine festivals, and intimate weddings. Many of the Tivoli’s annual events also carry deep meaning for the campus community. Each spring, hundreds of families fill the Quad to watch their loves ones get their diplomas at CU Denver’s commencement. The Cultural Diversity Festival, hosted by CU Denver’s Student Government Association (SGA) in the Turnhalle, celebrates the diverse backgrounds of the students on campus. And the first-generation student dinner brings families together over a shared pride of attending college. 

No matter the occasion, the Tivoli serves as campus’ go-to place for unity and celebration. “We consider it a hub, where everybody across campus can meet,” said Jazmin Teran Balbuena, former Student Government Association (SGA) event planner. “Being able to plan and bring together students to experience different cultures was very cool and important to me.” 

And, Byers noted, the Tivoli is committed to including students in the decision-making process. “They help determine what happens next [for the Tivoli],” Byers said. “They have an opportunity to work with the people who administrate the building to make sure we provide things that students will value.”  

That commitment can be seen in the Tivoli’s food court, which has an assortment of quick, reasonably priced favorites, including Subway, Infinitus Denver (also known as iPIE), the Snack Shack, and Starbucks. The intentionality of the Tivoli’s services and resources is a large part of its charm.  

A Constant in a Changing City 

For more than a century, the Tivoli has witnessed the development of what is now a thriving city and campus. Like its surroundings, it has changed and developed, but its deep-rooted history continues to connect the Auraria campus to its past. “The Tivoli, being as old as it is, has historical aspects we are careful to preserve, because they provide a sense of identity,” Byers said. 

That sense of identity can be seen throughout the campus. The Tivoli’s rust-red brick exterior is believed to have inspired the design of some of campus’ later buildings, including CU Denver’s North Classroom and City Heights Residence Hall and Learning Commons. And its impact is just as evident. Whether it’s an event that celebrates diversity, or a party with thousands of community members, or simply the view of its iconic shape on the Auraria campus, the Tivoli is part of the fabric of the Denver community, and the heart of campus. “It is an example of a really unique and unusual building that has a great history,” Byers said. 

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Editor’s note: The building’s age and construction date were listed incorrectly in the original story. This information has been updated.

Diddiery Santana, student writer, contributed to this story.