Disappearing Denver: Looking Back at Buildings We've Lost
Denver was barely a century old in the go-go ’60s, when eager developers began wiping this city’s past off the map, demolishing old buildings downtown and replacing them with surface parking lots, all in the name of urban renewal.
But much of that stopped when Denver City Council approved the Denver Landmark Preservation Ordinance in March 1967, a year after the National Historic Preservation Act was enacted and two years after Dana Crawford began creating Larimer Square.
“Denver was right at the forefront,” says Annie Levinsky, executive director of Historic Denver Inc., which was founded three years after the ordinance was adopted. “We are tremendously fortunate that Denver’s leaders had the foresight to create the ordinance and the Landmark Preservation Commission. It protected and recognized a ton of buildings, places that would be lost — or we’d be losing right now.”
Especially now, as developers snap up every piece of property they can get their hands on, building up and out to the limits of the city’s zoning codes...and sometimes beyond.
The commission has gained power over the past fifty years; in the beginning, it couldn’t designate a building as a landmark, just issue a one-year stay of demolition. But its role has evolved, and today Denver has 52 historic districts and 335 individual landmarks — “about 4 percent of the city,” Levinsky estimates — with about 6,600 structures saved over the past five decades.
“When you look at it, we saved a lot,” says Crawford. “But we have to be really, really careful. We’re going to have a lot more growth, and a demand for more density. People are going to have to get used to the idea of more density.” And fewer surface parking lots.
Historic Denver got its start with a victorious push to save the Molly Brown House, after Capitol Hill’s grand Moffat Mansion fell to the wrecking ball, and then it kept on pushing to protect historic structures, taking the campaign not just to the landmark commission, but also to the public: People needed to see what was at stake.
Still, not all of its efforts were successful. “We were still using a lot of buildings in downtown Denver well into the 1990s,” Levinsky says, citing Central Bank and the Zeckendorf Plaza. And the danger isn’t over yet.
“How do we hold on to the fabric of our city as we charge through this growth spurt?” she asks. “The Landmark Preservation Commission still has very viable tools, working tools, now paired with incentives at the state and federal level. We also recognize that we need to expand that toolbox, empower neighborhoods.”
And also to train people to recognize that some of the structures worth saving might not seem obvious at first. Buildings are most at risk when they are in their thirties or forties, she explains: “It’s a risky moment, before people can appreciate it as historic.”
Doors Open Denver, the annual celebration of this city’s notable structures, runs April 29 and April 30 this year; it’s an ideal time to get out and appreciate Denver’s architecture while you can. Historic Denver and Colorado Preservation Inc. will just build on the momentum in May, to coincide with National Historic Preservation Month: Historic Denver will resume its popular walking tours on May 1 and hold a cultural preservation forum on May 16; May 18 marks the 28th annual Dana Crawford and State Honor Awards Celebration. Find a complete list of events on the History Colorado website.
Historic Denver is also launching Assignment 2017, a contest that calls on photographers, amateur or not, to capture a favorite historic place, landmarked or not; get the details at historicdenver.org.
In the meantime, keep reading to see some of Denver’s legendary buildings and cultural icons that are no longer around to photograph, and four more that are still here, but very changed in purpose.
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