Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part story on landmark preservation in Denver. For an illustration of historic designation in action, click to read part two, "Guess Which 6 of These Denver Buildings Are Officially Historic and Which 6 Aren't."
Across from Burns Park, on the northeast side of Leetsdale Drive, is a crescent-shaped block of homes on a stretch of Bellaire Street that’s been known as Shangri La Drive since the late ’30s, when movie-theater and liquor-distribution magnate Harry Huffman built his big glass-and-brick mansion on the hill. The following decades brought more residences; the obscenely large, mid-’80s Cableland estate left to the city by Bill Daniels is probably the most recognizable landmark in this secluded section of Hilltop. One of the more architecturally notable buildings in the area is 4101 East Shangri La Drive, a circular white expressionist beauty on the corner, built in 1964 for local clothing shop owners Harold and Frayde Leventhal. Frayde passed away in 2010, Harold in 2013; the house was sold in 2015 — and the city approved the mid-century-modern home’s demolition just last month.
All requests to raze existing properties in the city, no matter their age or architectural pedigree, must go through a demolition approval process overseen by the staff of the Landmark Preservation Commission, which works under the Denver Department of Community Planning and Development.
In the case of a property like the Leventhals’ Shangri La house — and any other structure deemed by the Landmark Preservation staff to have potential historic status — the public must be given 21 days’ notice prior to demolition. This three-week span allows time for anyone interested in saving the structure to send in a designation application or submit intent to do so, which can hold off any demolition request for another seven days. If no one applies to submit the property for historic designation, it can be razed. And if the Landmark Preservation staff determines that a property does not have the potential to meet the city’s basic landmark criteria, there is no public notice required for its potential demolition.
“A good, overarching way to think about historic preservation in Denver: It is community-driven,” says Andrea Burns, communications director for Community Planning and Development. “The city itself doesn’t go around landmarking buildings and districts. We look to the community to bring forward the things that are of the most value.”
Anyone who is a resident of Denver or owns property here can request the review of a structure for possible landmark designation. “It can be the owner, it can be the manager of our department, it can be a member of city council and it can also be a non-owner — they don’t have to be neighbors or even people who live nearby,” explains Burns. For anyone who doesn’t own the property in question, there’s an $875 fee to submit an application for review; that ensures that the interested party has some “skin in the game,” Burns says. The fee is reduced to $250 if the property owner is pursuing designation. And there’s no fee at all if a member of Denver City Council or the director of Community Planning and Development submits the request.
In addition to the fee, a designation request requires a hefty amount of research. In order to be designated a historic landmark in Denver, a property must fulfill two of three criteria: It must be of architectural, geographical and/or historical note. (Although there have been a few exceptions, there’s also a fourth, unofficial tenet: The majority of landmarked properties are all more than thirty years old.) And once the application is filed, applicants have more work to do: They must go before the Landmark Preservation Commission, a group of volunteers appointed by the mayor, to state their case, and then repeat the process before Denver City Council if the commission recommends the application.
If the current owner of the property opposes the historic-designation request — if it’s considered a “hostile designation” — applicants are also encouraged to initiate dialogue with the owner about why the property might be worth saving.
Late last year, a group of preservationists and neighbors pushed for the hostile designation of a home in Jefferson Park — and lost when Denver City Council decided by a vote of seven to four that the home was not worth saving.
In some cases, though, the dialogue between concerned neighbors and a property owner has a positive outcome, and a historic-designation application is withdrawn — or never even filed. After Kitty’s South at 119 South Broadway was purchased last fall, the owner applied for a certificate of non-historic status; if approved by the city, the certificate will allow the property to be demolished within the next five years.
Although Landmark Preservation staffers determined that the Kitty’s building could fit the criteria for historic designation, neighbors decided not to file an application after they met with the property’s owners, who said they planned to keep and renovate the building rather than raze it.
If an initial review by the Landmark Preservation staff determines that a property does not fit any of the standards for preservation, citizens who want to save it can still work directly with the owners. Last year, the Uptown Tavern building at 538 East 17th Avenue, which was built in 1900 as a grocery store, was purchased by the Southern Land Company and threatened with demolition. After a petition to save the structure found overwhelming community support, the new owners went back to the drawing board to see if they could incorporate the structure into their project.
Denver’s 1967 Landmark Preservation Ordinance created the initial processes for designating Denver’s landmarks and historic districts. The idea was not only to put protections in place for older buildings, but to conserve and enhance areas of town that had made significant contributions to the ongoing creation and growth of the city. Municipal landmark designations — unlike most state and national historic-register designations — are unique in that designated structures are protected not just from demolition, but also from serious alteration. Most state and national designations can’t stop an owner from making major exterior changes to a building without a review — but property owners can also benefit from state and national designations, since the buildings may be eligible for special tax credits and funding opportunities.
The 1967 ordinance also established the three criteria for potential designation: architecture, geography and history. Architecture is the most obvious point of reference: A historic property should have the aesthetically distinguishing characteristics of a specific era. The geography component involves determining whether the building is in a prominent location or is a familiar orienting structure or commonly known way-marker along a well-traveled passageway. For example, Union Station easily qualified for historic status based in part on its geography and its distinct position in downtown Denver, Burns points out. The Gates rubber factory on South Broadway, the focus of a hostile-designation effort a few years ago, might have qualified as historic because of its role as a visual place-marker on the Broadway strip. But because of environmental hazards, the buildings were demolished in 2014. The fight over the property left a legacy, though: While it was going on, the fee for a hostile-designation application was raised to discourage frivolous filings.
The historical importance of a site can seem subjective: A structure is required to have some direct connection to the historical development of the city, state or nation; be the site of a historically significant event; or have a clear association with a person or group that’s had an influence on society. The Adolph Zang Mansion and Molly Brown House Museum are both Mile High City structures preserved in part because of the importance of the people who once resided in them.
In fact, an imminent threat to the Capitol Hill house where Margaret Brown had lived was what gave rise to Historic Denver, a nonprofit founded in 1970. The organization saved the building from demolition and went on to become a strong voice in the city. Historic Denver helped preserve the Ninth Street Historic Park on the Auraria Campus and has aided in the establishment of historic districts across Denver: Today there are 51 historic districts (including approximately 6,600 buildings) in the city and 334 individually landmarked properties. (Historic Denver was also a key player in the Uptown Tavern discussion).
“We are not a governmental agency. When it comes to activities in the city relating to historic designation, we’re providing education and information, helping people understand the process,” says Annie Levinsky, executive director of Historic Denver. “We also act as advocates for the designation of a neighborhood or a property.” The educational component of Historic Denver’s work is never finished; Levinsky says there are many misconceptions about landmark designation and what it means to own a property in a historic district.
“People often make the assumption that if you’re a designated historic district, it means that you’re being asked to freeze the property in time,” she says. “But when you look at the reality of what is happening to houses that are in historic districts, they are changing and evolving all the time. People are doing additions, creating components and doing big interior remodels. Lots of things are happening, and that’s normal — buildings evolve. But the point of the historic district is to maintain what is most essential about the character of that building and the character of that place.” Though historic districts are less protective of individual structures, most property changes on a building within a district are subject to review by the Landmark Preservation Commission. It doesn’t mean that a home or commercial space contributing to what is called a neighborhood’s “period of significance” can never change; those changes just require some oversight.
“It’s always an educational challenge to help people understand the value of preservation,” says Burns. “I think people have fears and concerns about being in a historic district or becoming a historic district or designating their property because they feel like it limits development and future potential. But what we know is that on the whole, our landmark districts have higher property values and generally maintain their value better than other parts of the city.”
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Discussions about preservation often begin with the posting of a demolition request or an application for non-historic designation, but both Burns and Levinsky would like to push such discussions ahead of the curve through community education. “Preservation is often a long conversation,” says Levinsky. “The successes are more quiet, and unfortunately, the losses are not as quiet, and that’s what people tend to remember.”
In 2012 there were 203 demolition requests in Denver, and in 2015 a projected 635 requests (the city is still finalizing the data). As Denver grows, its built environment is changing rapidly — and concerns over those changes are growing. “I do think there is a relevant conversation happening in the city right now that growth is great and it’s really important and exciting — but how do we make sure that we aren’t losing the things that we love about our communities as we grow?” asks Levinsky. “How do we carefully and thoughtfully plan and think about character and identity? These things are really important to the health of a city.”
Last year, the City and County of Denver joined forces with Historic Denver and History Colorado to launch Discover Denver, a survey that focuses on the history of every structure in the city. Using anecdotes and tips from the public along with academic research and records, Discover Denver hopes to create an online database of Denver’s built environment — past, present and future. When completed, this database could be used to more quickly and accurately review a structure’s potential historic value in the face of demolition. But more than that, Discover Denver is about creating a fuller picture of the city by combining recorded and oral history with the preservation of culturally significant places and the promotion of community.
Because what is Denver's future without a solid foundation of structures from its past?