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Restaurateurs Revitalize Historic Denver

Linger was formerly a mortuary.

The upstairs bar of Linger has a view of downtown Denver.

Root Down's building was empty for a few years before owner Justin Cucci bought it.

TAG chef Troy Guard.

The space TAG is in was built in the 1850s.

The Lowry Beer Garden space before renovation.

Lowry Beer Garden after renovation.

Denver establishments like Root DownLingerLowry Beer Garden and TAG, among others, are revitalizing old buildings into contemporary restaurants, discovering the ecological, economical, and cultural benefits of adaptive reuse.
Adaptive reuse = the process of adapting old structures for purposes other than those initially intended; a buzzword in Denver regarding restaurant and urban development.
 
Denver restaurants are taking recycling to a whole new level -- to that of their infrastructures. Those unfamiliar with the term adaptive reuse have likely seen its effects in Denver. From a former mortuary turned posh restaurant to a 1939 Air Force base turned neighborhood beer garden, much of Denver's metropolitan areas are finding ways to blend the old with the new. 
 
Establishments like Root Down, Linger, Lowry Beer Garden, TAG, and others are repurposing historic Denver real estate into chic, contemporary restaurants, discovering the many ecological, economical, and cultural benefits of this process.
 
Moving forward while acknowledging the past
 
The intersection of 14th and Larimer streets has been a cornerstone of the city since the first gold-seekers arrived in the mid-1800s, and many of Larimer Square's original buildings stand today. However, instead of merchants like buggy and collar makers that were typical of that era, the Square now houses a number of modern restaurants and retailers.
 
Larimer Associates, a local property investment and management firm, is at the core of this urban regeneration. Joe Vostrejs, the organization's COO, has been a part of the company's efforts to preserve and repurpose a number of Denver neighborhoods. He speaks passionately about its projects, which included Larimer Square, areas of LoHi, and parts of Lowry.
 
"With all of the projects we do, we spend a lot of time in the neighborhood, trying to drill down deep and understand its needs and wants," says Vostrejs regarding the firm's operations. He calls this process custom crafting, developing local businesses based on a community's needs and wants; all the while, the focus is on maintaining the city's history and charm.
 
Why adaptive reuse?
 
Vostrejs says adaptive reuse is a "sustainable approach" to urban development. "If you think about conservation as an overall principle, keeping what's there and fixing it...you get all of these interesting benefits."
 
Justin Cucci, the owner and chef of Root Down and Linger, expands on this, claiming he can't justify building a structure from scratch when one already exists—both of his restaurants are products of adaptive reuse. The imperfections and quirks are what make these historic buildings so great. "There is a charm you could never find in a new building," Cucci explains. 
 
Chef Troy Guard also believes adaptive reuse gives his restaurants that extra something. "It tells a story," he says of the 19th-century building that houses his restaurant, TAG, in Larimer Square. "The space had so much character we didn't have to do much to it. You can really build around the space." 
 
From an economic standpoint, Guard says by going into older spaces "you can get a better deal." Cucci also speaks of such advantages and adds some ecological aspects to the benefits of adaptive reuse. "It's greener," he says. "It takes less money and energy." 
 
The restaurants:
Root DownRoot Down was originally a gas station.
1600 W. 33rd Avenue
 
Originally built as a gas station in 1953, Root Down is now a trendy restaurant in the Highlands. It was empty for four or five years before Cucci purchased it. 
 
For the renovations, Cucci says it was important to "keep the main shell of the building" and maintain its character. Working with Theodore Schulz, Architect, Cucci developed his concept based around the structure as it existed -- "everything happened after the building," he says. 
 
While some things were updated, Cucci left a lot of the basic structural components as they were, including the floor and the original storefront. Only one cut was made into the building, which allowed Cucci to add 2,000 square feet.
 
With a chic, innovative menu, Cucci believes his restaurant brings unique culinary concepts to Denver and could exist successfully in any other major U.S. city. His goal is to "connect people universally" through food.
 
TAGThe space TAG is in was built in the 1850s.
1441 Larimer Street
 
"It was the perfect spot for us," Guard says of TAG's location. The space gives the restaurant an old-world feel, providing for an intriguing and inviting contrast to Guard's hip, modern food and décor. 
 
Built in the 1850s, the space had several tenants before Guard moved it -- he has speculations it was anything from a brothel to a meat packing plant. With a revolving door of occupants, extensive renovations had to be made to restore the building, including removing dry wall that was likely installed in the 1950s.
 
Throughout the restaurant, diners can glimpse elements of the original structure: big stone boulders in the downstairs bar as well as exposed brick and ceilings components that date back to the 1950s.
 

Lowry Beer GardenLowry Beer Garden after renovation.
7577 East Academy Boulevard
 
A result of the Hangar 2 redevelopment project, an effort to repurpose an Air Force base built in the 1930s, Larimer Associates and Hartman Ely Investments teamed up to conceptualize and construct the Lowry Beer Garden. According to Vostrejs, they modeled it after some of New York's popular beer gardens with the intentions to create a causal gathering place for locals. 
 
Much of the Air Force hangar's original structure remains, creating an open-air restaurant with more than 4,500 square feet of outdoor gardens and heated floors to keep the beer flowing through the winter. It can house up to 350 diners with its communal picnic tables. 
 
The menu, overseen by Guard, is typical bar fare with a healthy, Colorado twist. And, of course, the establishment has a comprehensive offering of craft beers with an emphasis on Colorado brews. "It is all about Colorado and local," says Vostrejs.
 

LingerThe upstairs bar of Linger has a view of downtown Denver.
2030 W. 30th Street
 
Built around the late 1930s or 1940s, Linger's facilities are a former funeral parlor. "I hoped people would be open to the fact we're serving food out of a mortuary," says Cucci, enjoying the juxtaposition of the building's past and present.
 
 
Much like Root Down, he utilized a "less is more" construction approach, building his restaurant around the already existing structure. He kept the original concrete, open ceiling plan, and many elements of the foundation.
 
People don't seem to mind the space's aforementioned function. In fact, the restaurant and lounge has become popular for its social scene as well as its eclectic, edgy menu and cocktails. Cucci is simply thrilled to "add to the history of the building and the neighborhood by honoring old structures."
 
And two more:
 
1526 Blake Street
 
Located in LoDo, this restaurant and bar is housed in a building that dates back to the early 1860s, shortly after Denver was founded. Originally built as a boarding house and saloon, it is said to have been a place of ill morals, catering to the city's vices of booze and promiscuity. Now, it is a renovated watering hole for locals to enjoy Colorado-inspired food and drinks.
 
2637 West 26th Avenue
 
Set in the historic William J. Dunwoody house, Sassafras is a restaurant and bakery in the Jefferson Park neighborhood serving Southern-style comfort food that is made from local, organic ingredients -- think cornbread, grits, and fried chicken with a nouveau flair. The house was built in 1886, and many of its historic nuances remain.
Stephanie Wolf

Read more articles by Stephanie Wolf.

Born and raised in Atlanta, Stephanie has spent the past 12 years living out her dreams as a professional ballet dancer. In conjunction with her performing career, she's developed a varied writing portfolio.
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