More than fifty years after she saved one of the oldest blocks in Denver and created Larimer Square, her first adventure in historic preservation, 85-year-old Dana Crawford is staking claims in two mining towns: Trinidad and Idaho Springs.
After five decades in the development business, Crawford was initially reluctant to take on projects that are so far away — but the allure of making another mark on Colorado history proved too strong. In Trinidad, she’s purchased a handful of buildings downtown and is working as a consultant on the redevelopment of about forty acres at the town’s front door. In Idaho Springs, she and several partners purchased the old Argo Mine and Mill — a Superfund site that comes with all sorts of challenges.
Difficult projects are Crawford’s specialty. Over the years, she’s been told her ideas are crazy or impossible. Yet she always seems to deliver her vision for a special place that makes a difference in the community.
“As a preservationist, I have to be optimistic and look on the bright side of everything,” Crawford says.
But Crawford’s success in the preservation realm goes far beyond looking on the bright side. Her determination, tenacity and refusal to take no for an answer have really propelled her projects forward.
“Dana has little patience for bureaucracy,” says Jeff Shoemaker, executive director of the Greenway Foundation, who has worked with Crawford over the years. “She sees opportunities that others don’t and finds a way to bring a team together to create that vision.”
From the day Crawford arrived in Denver in 1954, she began searching for a place where people could gather for socializing, dining and shopping. While living in Boston, where she earned a degree in business administration from Radcliffe College (now part of Harvard University), she’d fallen in love with the city’s vast inventory of historic buildings, and she hoped to find something similar, if smaller, in Denver. While raising four boys with her late husband, John, she explored the city — and in 1963 she discovered the perfect spot, on Larimer Street between 14th and 15th streets, the heart of what was then Denver’s skid row.
That block of Larimer already had a storied past. It had been home to Denver’s first bank, as well as its first bookstore, dry goods store and photographer. The original City Hall had stood on the grassy corner of 14th and Larimer (it was torn down in the 1940s).
“This is where Denver started,” says Crawford, a native of Salina, Kansas, who’d attended Monticello College in Alton, Illinois, and the University of Kansas before moving on to Radcliffe. “There was an enormous amount of inventory here that reminded me of the buildings in Boston. I became obsessed and possessed with the idea of saving it.”
Crawford lamented the fact that Denver had already lost so many historic buildings, especially the circa 1889 Denver Club Building at the southwest corner of 17th and Glenarm streets. In 1954, the building had been demolished and replaced by the new Denver Club Building — a skyscraper.
“What was built in its place kind of tells a big story,” Crawford says. “It was kind of the beginning of the Texas overtake.”
Dana Crawford often sees potential in places where others do not. Trinidad, for example, the old mining town just thirteen miles north of the New Mexico border.
Founded in 1862 after coal was discovered in the region, Trinidad was home to a number of well-known people, including the famous Western lawman and gunfighter Bat Masterson, who briefly served as the town’s marshal. In its heyday, Trinidad boasted 30,000 residents. It had a theater and a brewery, and a wealth of buildings designed by Isaac Rapp of Carbondale, Illinois, who’s famous for creating the Santa Fe style of architecture. But over the past century, the population has dwindled down to just over 9,000 people, and many of those historic structures stand empty.
A couple of years ago, Colorado Springs automobile dealer Jay Cimino, a native of Trinidad, tried to persuade Crawford to work with him on La Puerta de Colorado, or The Gateway to Colorado, a mixed-use project on about forty acres just off Interstate 25 outside of his birthplace. Crawford was reluctant, telling Cimino that for her, Trinidad had a bad case of the “too”s.
“I’m too old and it’s too far away,” she explains. “I had to get over the ‘too’s.”
But Crawford is a sucker for old buildings, and Trinidad has plenty of them. When she made the 190-mile trip there by bus with History Colorado, she found herself impressed with the town’s original brick streets, art galleries and topography, and ultimately relented.
Already on the National Register of Historic Places, Trinidad’s downtown area had recently been designated as El Corazon de Trinidad National Historic District of the Santa Fe Trail, with 6.5 miles of winding brick streets among ornate, 100-year-old buildings close to Trinidad’s famous Purgatoire River and the city-sponsored River Walk. “I was struck by the beauty of the land and the collection of the fabulous historic buildings,” Crawford says. “There’s a big historic district there, which is quite walkable and quite important.”
“We got her interest by showing her Mount Carmel,” says Cimino, who’d bought the church and created a health, wellness and community center in the heart of Trinidad. “We needed her expertise and her brand name. She helped us get the city’s support. You cannot do this without the city really supporting you. She has a lot more legitimacy with that stuff than I do. I’m a car dealer.”
Since signing on as a consultant for Cimino’s project, Crawford has herself purchased a handful of buildings in downtown Trinidad, including the theater and former Trinidad Lounge, which she’s renamed the 190 Club because it’s 190 miles from both Denver and Santa Fe. “We’re starting a club for Denver and Santa Fe people,” she explains.
The forty acres that will become La Puerta de Colorado are ideally located between I-25, the railroad tracks and Trinidad’s historic district; the area’s high visibility and easy access from the highway make it a perfect hopping-off point for the nearly 4 million travelers who drive by annually. The project will connect with Trinidad’s historic trolley service, and its cornerstone will be the adaptive reuse of five historic brick buildings, which will be transformed into an eighty-room hotel with meeting rooms, an urgent-care center and restaurants. Cimino will also open a Toyota dealership there — which was initially a point of contention with Crawford. “When people think about historic buildings, they think about everything but cars,” Cimino admits. “But there were eleven car dealerships downtown when the town was booming, and now there’s none.”
Another component of Cimino’s project is the ArtoCade museum, which will house the art cars paraded annually through Trinidad during the popular ArtoCade Festival.
Trinidad is home to a growing community of artists from around the state and beyond, attracted by its affordability — the average home price is about $140,000 — and livability. In 2013, El Corazon de Trinidad was certified an official Creative District by Colorado Creative Industries. The goal of the program is to help arty areas of the state create administrative structures, funding streams, community engagement processes, strategic plans and staff structure to provide sustainability.
“A lot of the emphasis is around the arts and the entrance into Colorado,” Crawford says. “More galleries are coming, and the Artspace people are doing a block there.”
Trinidad Artspace is a demonstration project for Space to Create, a state-led initiative to build affordable workforce housing and workspace in rural Colorado communities. The $14 million Trinidad Artspace project will transform an entire downtown block into artist live/work, gallery and flexible community space; it includes three historic structures, built between 1882 and 1903, that contribute to the downtown National Historic District.
Because of its rich stock of historic buildings and the creative people now moving into them, Crawford is confident that Trinidad’s time has come.
“We just have to get people off the road and into town,” Crawford says.
Another Crawford project that has some people shaking their heads in disbelief is the redevelopment of the Argo Mine and Mill, which the Environmental Protection Agency declared a Superfund site in 1983 because of the metal-laden mine drainage flowing out of the tunnel.
Crawford teamed up with Mary Jane and Kristian Loevlie and Bob and Janice Bowland to form Argo Holdings LLC, which purchased the property in January. They plan to clean up the five-story, red-brick-colored structure and develop the 27 surrounding acres into a 160-room high-end hotel and conference center, as well as 200 housing units, restaurants, bars and shops. “Idaho Springs is suddenly being discovered,” Crawford explains. “It’s very much a part of the metropolitan area.”
Just thirty miles west of downtown Denver, the site is now cleaned up — a treatment plant was built in the 1990s to filter heavy metals and minerals out of the draining water — and open for tours. The modest Argo Mine and Mill museum boasted more than 40,000 visitors last year, a number that could grow to as many as 150,000 with a new marketing campaign, according to a study by THK Associates Inc., a consultant on the project.
Mary Jane Loevlie calls the $60 million tunnel cleanup the “antidote to the Gold King Mine spill,” which sent millions of gallons of contaminated water into the Animas River last year.
“It’s the first EPA cleanup site that’s on a tour,” she adds. “The EPA will use this as an example of what can happen with Gold King.”
Argo Holdings bought the property from mining buff James Maxwell, who saved the Argo in 1976 after it had been abandoned for more than thirty years. With the mill came a vast collection of turn-of-the century mining equipment and tools, including sluice boxes, amalgamation tables and grinding equipment. “We will sell or donate everything that doesn’t belong here, or use it in the hotel and restaurants,” Loevlie says.
As a National Historic District with more than seventy designated sites, including the Argo Mine and Mill, Idaho Springs couldn’t be a more fitting venue for Crawford’s talents. In 1859, prospector George Jackson found placer gold at the confluence of Chicago Creek and Clear Creek, at what would become Idaho Springs. Soon more than 50,000 miners had poured into Clear Creek Canyon, staking claims from Golden west to Silver Plume and north to Central City, where gold had been discovered that same year. Many of the more successful mines were on Seaton Mountain, between Idaho Springs and Central City, and it soon became clear that a tunnel between the two towns would be needed to provide water drainage, ventilation and transportation of the gold-bearing ore.
The proposal to build the tunnel was presented to Samuel Newhouse, who’d arrived in Leadville in the late 1870s and started a small freighting company that did well enough to give him the money to invest in mining properties. Newhouse agreed and formed a corporation to sell stock and raise the money needed for the project.
A crew started digging the tunnel in 1893 with hand drills and hammers; black powder was used for blasting. The 4.16-mile tunnel, which measures twelve feet in diameter for the first two and a half miles and six feet for the remainder, was completed in 1910. At the time, it was the longest tunnel in the world.
The tunnel’s success required a mill at its portal to reduce the costs of handling and transporting the ore. R.E. Shimer incorporated the Argo Reduction and Ore Purchasing Company and built one of the largest and most modern 300-ton mills in the country. “If this is not the definition of a landmark, what is?” Loevlie asks.
The redevelopment of the Argo coincides with several other initiatives that will help tie Idaho Springs more closely to metro Denver, and also make the town a more attractive stopping-off point for travelers along Interstate 70.
Idaho Springs is taking over ownership of Colorado Boulevard from the Colorado Department of Transportation, which is providing the town with $21.9 million to improve the road and help with future maintenance. The plan is to make the eastern portion of the Idaho Springs business district as walkable and charming as the western end. The project, which will be completed in phases over the next year, includes adding sidewalks, retaining walls, intersection improvements and formalized on-street parking.
“There are multiple efforts to enhance the community and residents’ experience,” Crawford says. “There are several different efforts that are coming together that will totally transform the community. The Argo is sort of setting the pace for the rest of the community.”
Plans are also in the works to extend the Clear Creek Greenway through Idaho Springs — right through the Argo Holdings property. In 2013, CDOT agreed to provide $2 million in funding to design the section of the future greenway that goes from Hidden Valley to Empire Junction. Clear Creek County is providing $500,000 in funds.
“It’s a game-changer for the county and local communities,” says Greenway Foundation director Shoemaker, whose organization is the project manager. “They can use this as an economic tourism
All of these projects are coming at a time when the town is bracing for the impact of the looming Henderson Mine closure. The molybdenum mine, near the town of Empire, is a major income source for Clear Creek County, accounting for up to 70 percent — or $14 million — of all property taxes collected last year.
“This is perfect timing for the county and the community to rebound from the silver spoon we’ve had for so many years with the Henderson Mine,” Loevlie says. “The loss of revenue from that mine is a big deal for the state, as well.”
Crawford’s projects in Trinidad and Idaho Springs may seem incredibly ambitious, but those who’ve worked with her say that she has an uncanny knack for creating vibrant and exciting places that respect the history and context of a community. Since the 1960s, Crawford has redeveloped more than 800,000 square feet of historic property in Denver. In addition to Larimer Square, she is responsible for the redevelopment of the Oxford Hotel and a number of loft projects, and was a key player in the renovation of Denver Union Station.
As Crawford traveled the country in the ’70s and ’80s as a boardmember and consultant for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, she began to notice that developers were buying up old warehouse buildings and converting them into residential “lofts.” At Larimer Square, she’d been asked many times whether there were any residential properties in the area, so she knew the loft concept could work in Denver.
She started in the early ’80s by purchasing a six-story, red-brick building at 1450 Wynkoop Street designed as a wholesale grocery warehouse by Frank Edbrooke, who also designed the Oxford. It was Crawford’s first redevelopment of a warehouse into a loft, a line of work she would continue throughout the 1990s.
But when Crawford took on an old flour mill north of 20th Street at Little Raven, people began to wonder if her string of successes was about to run out. Built in 1906, the graffiti-riddled, pigeon-infested building had been abandoned for thirty years.
At the time, the Greenway Foundation was involved in the planning and design of the City of Cuernavaca Park, which stretches from the South Platte River to what today are the Flour Mill Lofts. Shoemaker wanted to demolish the mill to make the park bigger. He argued that no one would live there: Not only was it just an abandoned concrete shell, but it also sat right on the railroad tracks. “I’m the guy who said, ‘Let’s blow this up,’” Shoemaker admits now. “But if Jeff Shoemaker’s brilliant vision would have been enacted, this building wouldn’t be here today. Thank God nobody listened to me.”
There was another obstacle, though: What is now called the Denver Office of Community Planning and Development wouldn’t issue a permit for the project. Determined to get her project moving, Crawford called then-mayor Wellington Webb, who instructed the department to “sign her damn permit,” Shoemaker recalls.
“She does not tolerate the word ‘no’ very kindly,” he says.
(Today, Crawford still isn’t a complete fan of Denver’s planning department; she’s concerned about the design and quality of the buildings being constructed downtown. “It’s kind of a big topic of conversation,” she says. “Everybody wishes there were some higher standards set for contemporary architecture. It may be that places like Portland, Oregon, are outshining us — maybe even Dallas and Austin.”)
Shoemaker got to know Crawford through his father, Joe Shoemaker, the state senator who founded the Greenway Foundation in 1974 to reclaim the contaminated South Platte River; Crawford was on the first committee to work on the effort. Crawford and attorney Ted Bendelow were assigned to study the two-and-a-half-mile section that included Confluence Park, which then was a tangle of railroad tracks where many of Denver’s homeless gathered.
“Dana has a direct and impactive touch on Confluence Park,” says Shoemaker, who’d worked with the foundation for years before he became its head after the death of his father in 2012.
Though Crawford has earned a reputation as a tough negotiator who is accustomed to getting her way, Shoemaker admires her softer side.
“Everybody knows of the tenacity and the driven, determined visionary aspects of Dana,” Shoemaker says.
“She’s also one of the kindest, sweetest individuals I know — and loyal. As the business world continues to evolve, the words ‘business’ and ‘loyalty’ and ‘relationships’ are becoming more and more of the exception. What’s missing is civility, and Dana has that.”
Longtime business partner Walter Isenberg describes Crawford as creative, perpetually optimistic, fun and smart. He also admires her for being tough. “Tough in a resilient way,” Isenberg says. “That’s part of her optimism. She’s always moving the ball forward.”
In 1980, Crawford had purchased an interest in the Oxford, Denver’s oldest operating hotel, and she spent $12.5 million renovating it. The hotel reopened in 1983, just as Denver was entering a recession, and the hotel struggled. That’s when Isenberg stepped in with Sage Hospitality, saying his company would bring in a net operating income of $700,000, according to Dana Crawford: 50 Years Saving the Soul of a City, written by Mike McPhee and published last year.
McPhee, a former Denver Post reporter, had approached Crawford in 2009 to propose writing the biography, but Crawford immediately declined, saying that her mother had instructed her that a proper woman was in the media only three times in her life: when she was born, when she married and when she died.
“She made a shambles of that,” McPhee says. “She’s probably the most quoted woman alive in Denver.”
After they formed their Oxford partnership in 1990, Isenberg and Crawford traveled to other cities to look at their boutique hotels, visiting San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., which had just redeveloped its historic train station.
“When we came back, we walked over to Union Station, and she said, ‘We’re going to do a hotel in here someday.’ That was twenty years ago,” Isenberg remembers.
Once Denver’s central transportation hub, Union Station lost its luster when airplanes became the preferred mode of travel. By 1980, there were just two passenger trains a day using the station — down from as many as eighty in its heyday.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
In 2001, the Regional Transportation District purchased Union Station and the surrounding 19.5 acres from the Denver Union Terminal Railway under an agreement with the City and County of Denver, CDOT and the Denver Regional Council of Governments. The partner agencies then created a master plan for the redevelopment of the site as a multi-modal transportation hub with surrounding private development — a plan that was approved by voters in 2004 as part of RTD’s FasTracks program.
The partner agencies selected Union Station Neighborhood Company as the site’s master developer in 2006, but the train station itself was still up for grabs. After a heated competition in 2011 between Union Station Neighborhood Company and Union Station Alliance — the team that includes Crawford and Isenberg as well as Joe Vostrejs, whose Larimer Associates now runs Larimer Square — Union Station Alliance was chosen to take on the $54 million renovation. The renovated station reopened in 2014 with the upper floors turned into a boutique hotel: The Crawford. Underneath are restaurants, shops and transportation facilities surrounding the Great Hall that Crawford refers to as “Denver’s living room.”
Walk into Union Station today, and you’ll inevitably find people sitting around tables with their laptops, lounging in chairs enjoying a cocktail, or just passing through the lobby from one of the rail lines into downtown — just as Crawford envisioned.
“Dana has the unique ability to see things that other people can’t see,” Isenberg says. “I always tell people: Look where Dana’s buying real estate, then come back in five years and buy everything in sight.”