[Paper] The Urban Renaissance of Larimer Square

By Pearl Wang

Location: Denver, Colorado, USA

Larimer Square is Denver's first commercial district in the 1400 block of Larimer Street, which was built between 1862 and 1892. The block itself consisted of 18 Victorian style buildings constructed in the nineteenth century, remaining as an example of the lifestyle of the western pioneer in Denver's heyday. Between 1860s and 1960s, Larimer Square had experienced a mysterious prosperity and a horrible decline. Now, one hundred and thirty years later, Larimer Square is also a unique place for both Denverites and visitors to spend a day shopping, because an impressive collection of exclusive retail shops, fine restaurants, and specialty stores gathers here. While shopping and eating, people also can read about the distinctive past from historic buildings. The historical preservation action changed the characteristics of Larimer Square into a specialty shopping area which had been compared to Ghirardelli square in San Francisco, Gaslight in St. Louis, Old Town in Chicago, and Shadyside in Pittsburgh.

Larimer activity

Brief history of Larimer Square

The gold rush brought people to gather around the confluence of Cherry Creek and South Platte River, where Denver began its colorful, fascinating history in America. Larimer Street in Denver was the most famous street in West. The restaurants and hotels of its heyday were world-renowned. A lot of stories that happened here became unforgettable in our memory.

Larimer Street was named after Denver's founder, General William E. Larimer, who created the Denver City Town Company on November 22, 1858. The street, which was expected to become the main street, played an important role in the city's political and commercial history, and the 1400 block of Larimer Street was the original site that General Larimer began his town-promoting business. Larimer and his son constructed the earliest building, a 16 by 20 square foot cabin on the spot which now houses the Granite Hotel at 15th and Larimer Streets. Other settlers soon erected twenty cabins near the dominant building, expanding into a downtown center of Denver.

At the very beginning, those false fronted stores, including saloons and hotels, sprang up in 1859 to meet the needs of mountain and plainsmen and most particularly those of the gold seekers. By 1860 Denver City had one hundred and fifty homes clustered around Larimer Square area; houses began to have neat frame structures, some painted with plank floors and glass windows. The main street was crowded with freight wagons, ox teams and business house.

In 1860s, the first brick building, Graham's new drug store, set the trend in architecture. The frame and log structures in this block began to be replaced with the fine Victorian-style brick buildings which now line the block. The fire of 1863 swept Market and Blake Streets, and the Cherry Creek flood of 1864 carried away the temporary buildings. Those disasters hastened the erection of a great deal of new buildings in 1866.

In 1870s and 1880s, the 1400 block experienced a superb prosperity with the establishment of the first "Art Emporium", Fink's Shoe Store, the first book manufacturer, Tambien Saloon and especially the new City Hall.

Around 1900, mines closed, and fortunes were lost. Denver became somewhat self-conscious about its past and turned into a typical community. After World War II, Denver expanded tremendously but not around Larimer Street. It had become Denver's Skid Row; several blocks above Larimer Square were occupied by unemployed miners. The 1400 block of Larimer Street seemed to be waiting for another day. Then, new hope arrived in 1960 when a restaurant opened at 14th and Larimer Street, named Laffite, which enjoyed a great success.

In May of 1965, a privately financed plan for preserving 1400 block of Larimer Street recalled its historic meaning, and won a national reputation on preservation. Larimer Square was designated as Denver's first Landmark Preservation District in 1971, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Historic Preservation of Larimer Square

Impulse of Skyline Urban Renewal Project

As J. Robert Cameron, ex-director of Denver Urban Renewal Authority which had been created in 1985, said "If you deal with historic preservation, you should understand the background thoroughly." In 1900s, downtown lost both shoppers and stores to the new suburban shopping centers which emerged after World War II. Especially in Larimer Street, whenever stores closed, Skid Row moved in. The majority of construction deteriorated and became less useful and more expensive to maintain, not only to the people who live in there, but also to the government. Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) began to work on the redevelopment of Larimer Street - the Skyline Urban Renewal Project which would demolish 250 old structures along and around Larimer Street. Before the DURA started to carry out the project, a special committee was established to review buildings which might have some architectural and historic value. However, the actions, which tore town those dilapidated buildings and removed the worst slum with its horrible condition, were done after public hearing and a city-wide vote by the people of Denver. (Interview of Robert Cameron, 1991)

While the Skyline Urban Renewal Project was in process, people began to think about the alternatives to demolition. The concept of restoration of Larimer Square came out at that time, and was undertaken by a for-profit corporation, Larimer Square Associates, led by Mrs. Dana Crawford, wife of John W. R. Crawford, Denver oil tycoon.

LarimarSquare plan

Elaboration and achievement of Larimer Square Associates

The restoration of Larimer Square, the 1400 block of Larimer Street, began in May of 1965, and completed in 1973. Dana Crawford, who came out with the concept, played an important role on saving this old place. "I first went downtown to Larimer Street looking for antiques," as she explained. "Goodwill, Salvation army, the second hand stores and pawn shops were loaded then. Looking for old furniture to restore, I could not help but notice that some of the buildings themselves were fine antiques." (Noel, 1981, p.38) She began researching and tried to make a similar project on Larimer Square as Gaslight Square in St. Louis where she traveled before.

Why did Larimer Square Association choose 1400 block as the preserving place? This can interpreted from several aspects:

1) Historic aspect: 1400 block had been the right site of General Larimer's first cabin. It was the launching place of historic Denver, and it had experienced both most prosperous and the worst periods. There were tremendous cultural and historic advantages to Larimer Square.

2) Architectural aspect: The majority of constructions in Larimer Street area were old, dilapidated, half-empty fire hazards. Larimer Square was unique for its 18 Victorian style buildings constructed in the nineteenth century, while buildings on 1400 block were more intact and less expensive to save. Above all, those architectural legacies were grand samples in architecture history.

3) Economic aspect: After being compared to several historical sites, Mrs. Crawford chose Larimer Square as a significant project that could pull people back into the core city from the suburbs. From the business view point, she also tried to create a specific place, like Gaslight in St. Louis, for both Denverites and visitors, and to bring in quality shops and restaurants that people could not find anywhere else. Larimer Square was the right site, because of its easy accessibility, and its distinctive characteristic in Skyline Urban Renewal Project.

4) Urban Design aspect: Larimer Square's sturdy brick structures with archways, corbelling and cornices could provide an appropriate break from high-rise buildings and concrete tower of downtown area. It also could be a people place, on a human scale with refreshment for downtown workers.

Larimer Square was a privately financed project, which cost $4.5 million for the historic restoration. Among which $2 million was a two-phase loan from the New York Life Insurance Company in 1973. "Larimer Square Associates believed that this 20-year loan was a national first in the provision of new money for an officially designated historic district on the basis of one ownership and a successful operating record." (Interview of Mrs. Dana Crawford, 1991)

After Larimer Square Associates had spent a lot of time on investigating those historic buildings and figured out what went wrong, the restoration plan began in May of 1965. It included most of the buildings on the both sides of the 1400 block of Larimer Street and an alley from 15th to 14th streets between Larimer and Lawrence Streets.

"Initially, buildings had to be stripped of signs, fire escapes, modernization and layers of grime and paint. Underneath, workmen found solid stone foundations and sturdy brick walls. They gutted all but the shells of the buildings and then installed new wiring, plumbing, heating and interiors. Architect Langdon E. Morris, Jr. designed courtyards, walkways and arcades to attract people, sunlight and fresh air. Brick and stone surfaces were cleared and pointed. Old cornices and sandstone trim were restored. Gaslights, flower baskets, locust trees and an old rain barrel further enhanced the rejuvenated streetscape. When other buildings in downtown Denver were razed, bits and pieces of them were salvaged and restored to prominence in Larimer Square." (Noel, 1981, p.38-39)

This project was finished in 1973.

Larimer elevation

Larimer Square Associates really did make Larimer Square a successful retail, office and entertainment center, which was evidenced by the fact that Larimer Square was not only one on the most popular tourist spots in Colorado, but also an important part of life for residents. Up until today, a lot of activities such as Oktoberfest, the Christmas Walk and the Pub Crawl, happened on Larimer Square and represented a life style of western heyday. It has been called one of the 80 most popular historic sites in the nation by Dr. Edward F. Alexander of Williamsburg, Va. Larimer Square was the first historic district in Denver in 1971, proclaimed by Denver Landmark Preservation Commission; it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Larimer Square has demonstrated a successful story on adopting historic preservation into urban shopping centers. As Mrs. Crawford has always said "Larimer Square is a place in search of a neighborhood." For residents living in near high-rise buildings, Larimer Square was a neighborhood center, but for citizens of Denver, it was a unique spot in downtown.

Transition of the Hahn Corporation after 1986

In 1986, the Hahn Co., which is a San Diego-based subsidiary of Trizec Properties, purchased Larimer Square for $13.5 million. Larimer Square Associates bought the block for less than $2 million, and redeveloped it into a specialty shopping center.

For both Larimer Square Associates and the Hahn Co., Larimer Square was a profitable project, in addition to its historic value. Larimer Square Associates brought the block into a focal point of downtown specialty retailing, while restoring those historic buildings. Tenants of Larimer Square were glad to look forward to the future, when Hahn Co. decided to purchase it, and proposed a combination promotion with the Tivoli. There were a lot of sounds from tenants in 1986: "Things can only get better. A major corporation like that means ad dollars." "Although Larimer Square managing general partner Dana Crawford had been instrumental in bringing high-profile national retails to the center, she had been less successful in marketing Larimer Square to shoppers." "It was time for Larimer Square to transcend Dana Crawford." (Denver Post, Dec. 31, 1986)

After taking over Larimer Square, the Hahn Co. began to work on a new scheme. They widened the sidewalk and changed its concrete surface into brick, pull the front door on the first floors lining along the sidewalk, restored the decoration on some buildings, and relocated courtyard shops into the underground shops named "Avenue of Shops". However, the Hahn Co. sold the Tivoli to Auraria Higher Education Center, and gave up the former combination promotion, they still established another milestone for Larimer Square. (Interview of Susan Spencer, 1991)

Criterion of Historic District Preservation

The process of the restoration of Larimer Square was smooth and spontaneous. For those who believe that historic preservation can not be good business, Larimer Square is a good example to fight for. From this project, we can read something:

1) Powerful organization: While DURA and citizens doubted whether the restoration would succeed or not, Dana Crawford actively looked for investors to create the Larimer Square Associates. This for-profit group purchased the old buildings on both sides of Larimer Street, and fought for the future. The biggest problem in terms of neighborhood preservation, as Dana said, is the need of "people who are able to persuade elected officials and business leaders of the importance and economic viability of historic preservation."

2) Decision-making: The Skyline Urban Renewal Project, a slum clearance, was as "urban regeneration for central-city", which would always change the neighborhood patterns and life style. The decision between growth - nongrowth and change - unchange, was difficult. A lot of wonderful small towns with beautifully built environments hesitate to make the decision; however, the only problem for them is how to turn historic preservation into practical use that can improve those wonderful towns.

3) Regulation: How to keep the preservation assets from arbitrary disruption of out-look or interior is a primary consideration while working on historical preservation. Therefore, the only grantee to make preservation possible is effected through a legal process, i.e. law, that helps identify and protect buildings of historic or architectural legacies. Compensation and reward systems are important techniques to balance the impacts of historic district designation.

4) Finance: While Larimer Square was a private financed project without government dollars, tax laws were helpful in the development. Source of money used to be a big problem for Larimer Square associates.

5) Management: Besides the rich history, the key to Larimer Square's success was the quality and variety of tenants. Both Larimer Square Associates and the Hahn Co. selected tenants very carefully, and effectively managed their affairs, including administration, leasing, accounting, construction, operations, maintenance, and advertising.

The preservation of Larimer Square has strongly significant value. People came from all over the country to see if they could reproduce the success of Larimer Square back home. Larimer Square really has achieved a proper transformation in linking the past with modern-life.

Bibliography:

1. Noel, Thomas J. 1981. Denver's Larimer Street. Denver, Colo: Published by Historic Denver, Inc.

2. Dorsett, Lyle W. 1986. The Queen City: a History of Denver. Boulder, Colo: Pruett Published Company.

3. Fitch, James Marston. 1990. Historic Preservation: Curatorial Management of the Built World. Va: The University Press of Virginia.

4. Murtagh, William J. 1988. Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in American. New York, N.Y.: Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.

5. Constance Epton Beaument. 1991. American's Downtowns: Growth Politics and Preservation. Washington D.C.: The Preservation Press.

6. Silver, Christopher. "Revitalizing the Urban South: Neighborhood Preservation and Planning Since the 1920s" Journal of American Planning Associate. 57,1:69-84, winter, 1991.

7. Gale, Dennis E. "The Impacts of Historic District Designation: Planning and Policy Implications" Journal of American Planning Associate. 57,3:325-340, summer, 1991.

Interview:

1. Mr. J. Robert Cameron, the ex-director of Denver Urban Renewal Authority, 1991.
2. Mrs. Dana Crawford, the president of Larimer Square Associates, 1991.
3. Susan Spencer, the general manager of Larimer Square, 1991.

Note: This paper was written in 1992.