The false front commercial building type is an icon of the urban pioneer West. When movie directors or theme park designers erect a typical western town, the false front commercial building usually plays a prominent role. Unlike many myths of the West, the false front commercial building truly was a common sight in Colorado. Such buildings were constructed in mountain mining towns, plains agricultural communities and early railroad centers from the late nineteenth through the early years of the twentieth century.
Shopkeepers, hotel proprietors, and other entrepreneurs were reluctant to invest heavily to erect a place of business during Colorado’s uncertain boom and bust period of the late nineteenth century. Yet, they also wanted to project an image of stability and success to prospective customers. Particularly in the first few years of a community’s development, many stores consisted of little more than canvas tents over wood platform floors. Once the local sawmill was established or the railroad arrived, sources of wood construction materials were more plentiful. Sound business economics led commercial building owners to budget their spending for substantial façades while relegating the secondary sides of buildings to a cheaper utilitarian treatment. The result was the ubiquitous false front commercial building.
In simplest terms, a false front is a front wall that extends above the roof and the sides of a building to create a more impressive façade. The false front commercial building has four major defining design characteristics. First, the façade (main or street side) rises to form a parapet (upper wall) which hides most or nearly all of the roof. Second, the roof is almost always a front gable, though gambrel and bowed roofs are occasionally found. Third, a better grade of materials is often used on the façade than on the sides or rear of the building. And fourth, the façade exhibits greater ornamentation than do the other sides of the building.