June 19, 2015

Celebrate 50 Years of Preservation In Denver's Larimer Square

  • By: Katherine Flynn

Larimer Square was the site of Denver’s very first building, constructed in 1858.
Larimer Square was the site of Denver’s very first building, constructed in 1858.

Not every major city can point to the exact spot where it began, but Denver can.

That spot is Larimer Square, where settler and developer William Larimer and his son first built a 16-by-20-foot log cabin in 1858. After aggressively selling tracts of land to miners and other migrants to the Rocky Mountains, Larimer eventually saw the city of Denver incorporate in 1860.

Although the original cabin was torn down in 1861, the square still stands today as a testament to its namesake’s tenacity and pioneer spirit. There was a time in the 1960s, however, when the future of Larimer Square was threatened by Denver's Urban Renewal Authority, which was attempting to "modernize" the city's skyline. In 1963, preservationist and developer Dana Crawford stepped in to form the Larimer Square Association, eventually succeeding in saving the block-long row of buildings from demolition in 1965 and ensuring their survival into the 21st century.

“The primary type of tenant was a used restaurant supply,” says Crawford of Larimer Square at the time the association was formed. “That would be restaurant supplies that had been used three or four times previously. It was very down and out.”

In the early 1960s, many of the buildings in Larimer Square were empty or in disrepair.

Fast-forward to 2015. Larimer Square’s buildings are now host to a chic collection of restaurants, retailers, and office spaces, and it’s consistently a big hit with tourists and those visiting the Mile High City for the first time. The square is celebrating its 50th anniversary of historic preservation this year, and the planned commemorations include a “Stories from the Square” speaker series, as well as an official celebration on Saturday, August 15.

Crawford, who served on the board of trustees of the National Trust for nine years, has left her mark all over Denver through the preservation and redevelopment of the Oxford Hotel, the Flour Mill Lofts and, most recently, Denver’s refurbished Union Station. The recently opened Crawford Hotel, which adjoins the train station, was even named after her.

“Larimer Square got started as an idea when I moved to Denver in the mid-50s,” she says. “I had spent the previous year in graduate school in and near Boston, and quite fell in love with that city and I wanted some of Boston’s spirit to come to Denver.”

“I didn’t get inspired,” she says of her involvement with the project. “I got obsessed.”

Local preservationist and developer Dana Crawford was instrumental in preserving Larimer Square and turning it into a thriving business district.

You can download directions for an official walking tour of Larimer Square online, but we wanted to get Crawford’s personal recommendations on places to go and things to do, both in Larimer Square and in downtown Denver.

“One of my favorite restaurants is the Bistro Vendome,” Crawford says. Located in the historic Sussex Building, which dates from 1880, the full-service bar includes more than 65 selections of French wine , as well as Vendome Royales (champagne cocktails) and Gueles de Bois (hangover drinks.)

“The oldest shop, one of the very first to open, is Gusterman Silversmiths, all handcrafted silver. The whole idea in Larimer Square is that it’s not changed -- it’s Colorado-based businesses and restaurants.”

Crawford owned the Market at Larimer Square from 1978 through 1983 as part of the Larimer Square Associates, subsequently selling it to two brothers from New Jersey. Mark and Gary Greenberg transformed it into a deli and espresso bar, while remaining true to the original character of the market and the surrounding building.

Crawford also recommends a visit to Denver’s historic Clock Tower, which, at a height of 393 feet, was the tallest building west of the Mississippi when it was constructed in 1911. History tours are offered for $10 every Saturday, and it’s a popular venue for weddings and other special events.

As far as lodging is concerned, Crawford urges visitors to check into the Oxford Hotel, the first hotel in the city to open its doors in 1891. It originally had its own power plant, providing steam heating, electricity, and gas lighting to the building. (Fun fact: It’s also home to the Cruise Room, the city’s oldest bar, previously covered in our Historic Bars series.)

The Brown Palace Hotel was built for the remarkable sum of $1.6 million in 1892. Today, guests can enjoy easy access to downtown attractions and the hotel’s state-of-the-art spa.

“There’s just tons of stuff available at the Denver Union Station and the Crawford Hotel,” Crawford says. The restored train station, dating from 1914, re-opened about a year ago and features shopping, dining, and state-of-the-art spaces for meetings and events.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


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