Looking Up, Downtown

Historic Denver puts together an unlikely alliance to save some of the city's coolest buildings.

In the waning months of 2000, history -- or in Denver's case, historic preservation -- marched down the street. The Denver City Council, with the full support of Mayor Wellington Webb, unanimously authorized the creation of a non-contiguous downtown historic district. It includes more than forty buildings that have played a role in Denver's architectural history; scattered throughout the central business area, they include some -- though not all -- of the best pre-1960s downtown buildings.

The creation of the Downtown Denver Historic District, as it is called, is a major coup for Historic Denver, the city's premier preservation group, and it is the culmination of years of work for the group's director, Kathleen Brooker. In 1998, Brooker, along with Historic Denver trustee Brad Segal and business leaders -- notably David Cohen and Evan Makovsky -- began to implement the idea of creating a historic district that would be radically different in its configuration from other such districts in Denver. The main tenet of their approach was that properties need not be adjacent to one another.

The Webb administration, laudably, threw in a tax-rebate package to entice property owners to endorse, or at least not oppose, the district. (The owners of buildings in such districts are already eligible for a variety of grants and tax set-asides from the state and federal governments.) Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth provided the political leadership to guide the district nomination through the often-treacherous city council process.

This smooth sailing indicated a complete political turnaround regarding downtown development. That's why I was so taken aback when the mayor endorsed Historic Denver's plan, and even more so when the city council's votes were counted. Even Ted Hackworth, who's been no friend of preservation, and Ed Thomas, who's been its outright enemy, voted in favor of it. In addition, many of the individuals and groups who acquiesced to its creation have worked long and hard in the past to fight preservation. (Previous attempts to create a district downtown, the first as far back as the 1970s, have always been opposed.) Most important was the Downtown Denver Partnership's endorsement of the district idea after it spent the last decade endlessly promoting demolition that eliminated Denver's established character.

All along, on the other side, there's been Historic Denver and other preservationists running around like overtaxed firemen -- racing from one 'burning' landmark to another and frantically try to quell the 'flames' of demolition before they completely consumed some important building. And usually they arrived too late.

So how did Historic Denver turn the tide this time? How did the group convince the normally recalcitrant city council and the mayor to get on board and endorse the plan? More important, how did they get the partnership to join?

The answer is that Historic Denver took advantage of the shift that's occurred over the last few years in the downtown real-estate paradigm.

In the past, the enemies of preservation have argued that history doesn't pay. Their logic has been that saving old buildings prevents their owners from getting the best return from their investments. In fact, Larry Melnick, a part owner of land beneath the Paramount Theatre, argued this very point when he opposed the creation of the new downtown historic district. Recently, though, economic reality has slapped people like Melnick right in the face.

There's no question that historic preservation has been an economic boon to central Denver; its collection of charming old buildings is one of the few advantages the city can draw on to attract companies and people from the suburbs. LoDo provides incontrovertible evidence to all but the most dim-witted that preservation means big money. Protecting the historic character of LoDo was codified in 1988, during the Federico Peña administration, with the creation of the Lower Downtown Historic District, which enforces strict preservation controls over the core of the neighborhood. Since then, the great success of the area -- which was mostly an abandoned warehouse district ten years ago -- has been a direct result of this wise preservation planning.

Consider this: If landmark-district protection had not been in place before Coors Field hit a home run, LoDo would not currently be the city's premier entertainment center or one of its swankiest residential districts. No, it would be a sea of parking lots stretching all the way to 15th Street -- maybe all the way to Speer Boulevard.

Instead, the boom in the adaptive reuse of commercial buildings that swept LoDo in the early '90s caught on in the rest of downtown in the late '90s, and a great number of buildings, mostly medium-sized structures from the early twentieth century, were rehabbed and given new uses. As a result, the big-money movers and shakers that make up the partnership, and who have long told the mayor and the city council what to do, are now more likely to be the owners of all those recently rehabbed historic buildings than to be among the handful of developers eyeing them for demolition.

So, in a brilliant stroke, Historic Denver's Brooker appealed to these newly preservation-minded owners and got their help in creating the new district. It turned out that there were quite a few of them, and they used their collective clout to get all of Historic Denver's ducks in a row and to get the Downtown Denver Partnership's invaluable approval.

It's impossible to overstate the political importance of the partnership's endorsement. Quite simply, the district could not have gone forward without that group being on board. (It should be noted that Anne Warhover, who now runs the partnership, is a lot more enlightened on the value of historic preservation than was her predecessor, Bill Mosher, but then again, who isn't?)

However, there is one canker that gnaws. Notable buildings in what is called a "development corridor" around the Colorado Convention Center have been categorically left out of the new district. Although the Convention Center has already been a one-project demolition derby downtown, the powers that be want to leave open the option of taking down, say, the fabulous Denver Athletic Club, at 1325 Glenarm Place, or maybe the chaste Fire Station #1 nearby, at 1326 Tremont Place. (The newer landmark buildings associated with the oil boom of the 1970s and '80s have been skipped over, as well, and that's really too bad because some of these -- Republic Plaza, the US Bank Tower, the Norwest Tower -- are more significant than even the best of the older ones.)

Brooker had to be pragmatic, though, focusing on making the district happen, regardless of whatever compromises were necessary. And she was right to do it this way because an all-or-nothing approach would have left her with nothing.

The buildings that are included in the district provide an index to the city's architectural history:

The oldest is the famous Navarre, at 1725 Tremont Place, which was completed in 1880. The Italianate Victorian building, the finest of its date and type in the entire region, was designed by Frank Edbrooke. Built as a school, it later served as a bordello, and today it houses Philip Anschutz's art collection, but it is closed to the public.

Other Victorian examples include the dignified 1887 Trinity United Methodist church, at 1820 Broadway, by Robert Roeschlaub, and the marvelous 1889 Odd Fellows Hall, at 1545 Champa Street, by Emmett Anthony. These smallish 1880s buildings reveal that Denver was something like a big small town at that time.

By the 1890s, with Victorian architecture on the wane, Denver was the commercial and cultural center of the Rocky Mountain region. So our first generation of big-city-style buildings were done in several varieties of modern architecture that originated in Chicago. The Richardsonian-Romanesque style was one of the most popular, as seen in the 1890 Boston Building, by the Boston firm of Andrews and Jacques, at 828 17th Street. The 1892 Brown Palace Hotel, at 321 17th Street, is another fine example of this approach. Like the Navarre, it is the work of Edbrooke, Denver's foremost early architect.

Also popular in the 1890s and early 1900s was historic revivalism. One of the finest of this type is the modernized Italian Renaissance style used by Andrews, Jacques and Rantoul for their spectacular early high-rise -- the 1892 Equitable Building at 730 17th Street. Mayor Webb announced his endorsement of the district in the stunningly beautiful and richly detailed lobby of the Equitable.

In the early twentieth century, modern and historical styles were hybridized into a series of different architectural expressions. Chicago Commercial style is combined with neoclassicism in significant Denver buildings such as the 1911 Tramway Building by Fisher and Fisher, at 1100 14th Street, and the closely associated Foster Building, at 912 16th Street, done the same year by the same firm.

Also significant are the early-twentieth-century Sullivanesque buildings, such as the figuratively and literally luminescent 1910 Denver Gas and Electric Building, at 910 15th Street, and that creamy treat, the 1918 Rio Grande building, at 1531 Stout Street. Both were done by Harry Edbrooke, Frank's nephew, and both are clad in architectural tile made by the Denver Terra Cotta Company, as are a number of other buildings in the district. Examples include William Bowman's 1929 Telephone Building, a neo-gothic extravaganza at 931 14th Street that is also adorned with murals, as well as a pair of art-deco delights: the 1929 Buerger Brothers building, by Montana Fallis, at 1740 Champa Street, and the aforementioned 1930 Paramount Theatre, by Temple Buell.

Full-fledged modern buildings finish out the list. There's the streamlined moderne 1937 Railway Exchange, at 909 17th Street, by Fisher and Fisher; the 1954 Denver Club Building, a sleek international-style high-rise by Raymond Ervin, at 518 17th Street; and the newest building in the district, the sinuous, modernist 1959 Brown Palace West, at 1715 Tremont Place, by New York architect C.W. Tabler.

All of us in Denver owe a big debt of gratitude to Historic Denver, and in particular to Kathleen Brooker, for coming up with the idea for the district and bringing it to a happy and successful completion. Her ingenuity will help preserve for future generations the many fine buildings left to us by the generations of the past.

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