Colorado History

Save Our Sundial Is Raising Money to Rebuild a Denver Parks Gem

Once known as Inspiration Point because of its unparalleled view of the Rocky Mountains, Cranmer Park has long been a sacred green space in the middle of busy Denver. But the park is also well known as the home of a giant sundial, one that rests on a deteriorating flagstone plaza. In response to the needed restoration, Save Our Sundial was formed as an advocacy group for the park. Then, in a public/private partnership, Denver Parks and Recreation joined with The Park People nonprofit to rebuild the plaza’s foundation and repair the crumbling sundial — a roughly $1.5 million project. 

Tonight, the neighborhood group hosts the Independence Day Family Fun Festival as the park aims to raise remaining funds needed to fix the ailing structure. In advance of the event, Westword spoke with Denise Sanderson, Co-Chair of Save Our Sundial, about the history of this special place and what it's going to take to get the monument in great shape again. 

Westword: Save Our Sundial is a collaborative project by the Denver Parks and Recreation and nonprofit group, The Park People. How did this connection come about?

Denise Sanderson: There's a vast network of parks that in Denver, and many of them are aging as they approach their century of being in existence.We're ... following a national trend of more public/private partnerships. I'm a volunteer who came to the project through the Cranmer Park Civic Association. I've lived near the park for 32 years and I've been really interested in what was being done to preserve the Sundial plaza. I went to a couple meetings and got really involved and passionate about it.

Our group — the Cranmer Park Civic Association — decided to align with an independent, non-profit that the community felt comfortable with. We were steered in the direction of The Park People, which has a 46-year history of advocating for Denver's parks. They've done a number of projects across town and they're probably best known for their Denver Digs Trees program, which has added a number of free and reduced price trees across the city. They also do Capital Projects in different parks — they've done things like work to maintain the fountains outside of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. They were also very active in the Washington Park Boathouse project and are involved in the Gates Tennis Center. The work of the Park People was in perfect alignment with what we were doing with our fledgling community group. They gave us structure to work within and I'm technically now a volunteer for The Park People.
I know this project is a large undertaking — can you talk a little about the Cranmer Park Sundial, its plaza and what exactly needs saving?

Let me share a little bit of history of the park, which is fascinating. It was first known as Inspiration Point. If you think about it, where Denver was in the early 1900s — this area, Hilltop — was the suburbs and it looked down on the town of Harman, which is now known as Cherry Creek North. The Country Club was being built in the early 1900s, as was Hilltop. All of this comes back to this hill where the park is — which was just prairie land because it didn't have a source of water. When they were building the Highline Canal, they ran the city ditch through this area — a branch of the Highline Canal — to bring water to Hilltop.

The area that would become Cranmer was called Inspiration Point — as per the park plans from 1909 — because you had such a view of the mountain ranges from the park. When the land was designated as a park in 1923, it was called Mountain View Park and the name wasn't changed to Cranmer Park until the early 1950s. It was named for George Cranmer who had worked closely with Mayor Ben Stapleton on this whole concept of expanding the parks. Cranmer’s house, which sits on the park, was finished in 1918.

Then we get to the story of the Sundial and the Sundial Plaza — the Plaza was built in the 1930s as Works Progress Administration project (part of the New Deal). I should also add that Cranmer was one of the visionaries behind Red Rocks (also a WPA project), Winter Park and the whole mountain parks system. The WPA built the plaza in the '30s and if you can imagine construction and engineering at that time, they just piled up some rubble and built a flagstone platform on top of it. Meaning, the plaza lacks a firm foundation and proper drainage and the shifting soils and the natural freeze-thaw cycles of Colorado have caused the deterioration of the platform. When water doesn't drain it just sits there and pools, then it cracks the mortar. That's the majority of the work that needs to be done. There's also been some vandalism — for some reason people think it's fun to chip away at a crack. Some of the pieces of flagstone have been stolen and sometimes the sundial gets tagged. The city takes care of that kind of vandalism immediately — the city has been a great partner in this.

The other thing that really needs work is the panorama of the mountains is comprised of terrazzo. Terrazzo isn't necessarily the most long lasting for an outdoor application. Terrazzo is usually used indoors, so it's a very unique application. That brings us to where we are with the project.

If the money is raised, what are the restoration plans for the plaza, the sundial and the terrazzo mountain panorama?

We started working on this project a while ago and we've taken the cautious route. We're working with the state historical fund and right now we have a $35,000 grant from them. We want to rehabilitate this in the best way possible that meets both the community's desire for historic preservation and best practices and meets the city's department of Parks and Rec's needs for a cost-effective maintenance.

Here's what the project will end up looking like: We will deconstruct the entire plaza and build a firm foundation. Then we'll reconstruct it in a historically accurate way and using as much of the existing materials as possible — we now estimate 85% of the flagstone that is there can be reused. Other analysis that we've done with this $35,000 — that we used as a study grant — is we had a firm analyze the mortar. I believe they found some original mortar. In 1992, they did a refurbishment and replaced a lot of the mortar that was cracked and in bad repair. It was a surface finish, but didn't address the underlying problems. When we started talking about the reconstruction efforts this time around, we knew we needed to address the underlying problems; otherwise we'd be getting another twenty-year fix. That's why this project is estimated to be a million and half dollars — because we're going to the core problems and rebuilding. What that means is that we'll be doing a LIDAR Mapping — which is a digital mapping to help with an accurate rebuild. After the digital mapping, our plan is to save all of the pieces of the existing plaza so we know where they belong. Then we'll start with a good foundation that will have a built-in drainage system that will help the snow and ice shed from the plaza.

The terrazzo panorama that is there now isn't original; the design is original but the actual materials were replaced in the 1992 restoration. The plan is to replace those exactly as they were and we now know there are better solutions for sealing the terrazzo. We will have a maintenance fund set aside to ensure that it gets taken care of every year. We're really looking for future sustainability with this restoration.

As for the sundial, it will carefully be replaced in the exact same location to ensure its continued accuracy. That solar sundial is incredibly accurate given its location — nearly 17 minutes due East of the meridian, which runs along Navajo Street. The sundial is pretty incredible in and of itself. It wasn't there originally — it was added to the park in 1941. George Cranmer was in California and he saw a smaller sundial and decided to make a really large one here in Colorado. He consulted an astronomer. It was crafted locally; it is made of sandstone quarried in Lyons, so it's really a Colorado treasure.

The original 1941 Sundial was dynamited by vandals in 1965. So it was blown to bits and there are some people in the neighborhood who think they know who did it and I'm like, call that person and tell them I want a big donation for this project then! [Laughs.] Then the community came together, led by the junior chamber of commerce, and installed a slightly larger replica — made from the same materials — of the sundial in 1965 and that's the one that is there now. It's old enough to be a historic feature as well. It needs some work, too. There's a bit of chipping in the numbers 7, 8 and 9. There's also some pock marking around the outer edge and I have a feeling it was just a weaker spot in the stone.

We received through the Stapleton Family, through the Harmes C Fishback Foundation Trust, a $25,000 challenge to the community to match that amount at this weekend's event. We're well on the way to making that match and are hoping that tonight's Save the Sundial event will help us raise the remaining amount to put toward this project.

The Save Our Sundial Independence Day Family Fun Festival lights up Cranmer Park tonight at 5:30 p.m. with live music, food trucks, games and more. The party runs until 9, at which time attendees can sit back and enjoy the City of Glendale’s fireworks show. The event is free, but donations will be accepted for the park’s restoration. For more information, visit the Save Our Sundial website.

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