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Denver's Living Room: A Half-Century of Larimer Square

Larimer Square in the mid-1900s.

Preservation remains a focus, but the future includes activated alleys and other improvements.

In 1965, Dana Crawford announced there was a movement to save the historic block.

Larimer Square has kept up with the times -- while also staying the same.

Larimer Square in the 1960s.

Dana Crawford has helped preserve more than 800,000 square feet of historic buildings.

Larimer Street's old mail office in its early years.

Larimer Square in the 1960s.

There are national chains like The Capital Grille alongside local eateries.

Larimer Square was a bit worse for wear before Crawford and her team entered the picture.

Larimer Square is a national model for preservation and placemaking.

The Crawford Building in Larimer Square was dedicated on Nov. 19, 2013.

Larimer Square's storefronts date back to the late 1800s, but it's been 50 years since they dodged a wrecking ball and the block became the iconic place it is today. Preservation remains front and center, and the future includes activated alleyways and other improvements.
After spending several years quietly buying property in the one-block area on Larimer Street between 14th and 15th streets, Dana Crawford and a group of investors called a press conference to announce the creation of Larimer Square.

That was 50 years ago. And even though the iconic Denver destination is celebrating its 50th anniversary, Crawford and current owner Jeff Hermanson say the historic block will never be finished.

"It's always evolving and that's how it maintains its charm," Hermanson says. "We're in a constant state of improving, tweaking, retooling and making it an even better destination."

But it was a fight to save the block, which was slated for demolition under the city's Skyline Urban Renewal Project that flattened most of Denver's historic center for new buildings.

Where Denver startedLarimer Square in the mid-1900s.

When Crawford moved to Denver, she went on the hunt for an area that evoked the same feeling as the buildings in Boston, where she had lived previously.

"I fell madly in love with Boston," says Crawford, a Kansas native. "There was an enormous amount of inventory here that reminded me of the buildings in Boston. I looked and looked for the right place and finally found the 1400 block of Larimer."

Crawford went to the library to do some research on the street, where Gen. William Larimer Jr. built a cabin -- with doors made of coffin lids -- on the corner of 15th and Larimer. The cabin was demolished in 1861 and a one-story false-front store took its place until the Granite building was built in 1882.

Larimer Square housed Denver's first bank, bookstore, photographer and dry goods store. It also was the site of Denver's first post office, as well as its first theater. The City and County building stood on the grassy corner of 14th and Larimer but was torn down in the 1940s.

"This is where Denver started," Crawford says. "I became obsessed and possessed with the idea of saving it. The moment of truth had arrived because it was slated to be torn away and nobody seemed to give a damn. I knew an important part of the city's future was to maintain its past."

On a Saturday in the spring of 1965, Crawford, her team and Denver Mayor Tom Currigan called a press conference to announce that there was a movement afoot to save the historic block from the wrecking ball. The team still needed to acquire a few buildings, but had secured enough of the real estate that they felt comfortable announcing it.

"We didn't want to announce the project until we were ready to renovate four buildings," Crawford says. "We had no mortgages on them. We just bought them. And we had some tenants lined up. We started renovating that Monday."

Crawford populated the block with national tenants like Ann Taylor, Talbots, Laura Ashley and Williams-Sonoma. "The original philosophy was to have local tenants," Crawford says. "But we had to grow up and get some triple A tenants to make it work financially."

Crawford also started a variety of events such as Oktoberfest and an oyster-eating contest. While the events have changed, programming the street to attract people is a tradition that continues today with things like an annual chile cook-off and the Denver Chalk Art Festival.

"One of the important aspects of the survival and growth of Larimer Square was a continuous line of events in the street," Crawford says.

In 1986, Crawford sold the property to TrizecHahn, a real estate investment trust that owned the Tivoli building on the Auraria Campus and thought the two properties would work together. While the plan never bore much fruit, the company invested heavily in Larimer Square and improved its streetscape.

"Corporately, they were only geared to open gigantic shopping centers," Hermanson says. "They owned 50 regional malls, and these properties were the only anomaly in their portfolio."

Preservation remains a focus, but the future includes activated alleys and other improvements.Curating tenants and alley activation

By the time Hermanson purchased the property in 1993, Crawford's vision of local tenants had become reality. Sure, there are national restaurant chains like The Capital Grille, Ocean Prime and Ted's Montana Grill, but those establishments only put one restaurant in each market.

"At the time the real estate became available, I owned the Mexicali Cafe, Cadillac Ranch, Champion Brewing Co. and Josephina's -- all on the block," Hermanson says. "When the property became available, I was the largest tenant, so I scrambled to make that deal."

It was also around that time that indoor-outdoor "lifestyle centers" became popular and attracted many of the same tenants Crawford first lured to Larimer Square, and the process of finding new tenants began.

"When Dana attracted those national retailers, they all started out with one per market," Hermanson says. "But with the proliferation of lifestyle malls, all of a sudden Larimer Square was not unique. We've retooled the property and curated a tenant mix that is locally or regionally exclusive. It's taken quite a while to do it, and it continues on."

Hermanson isn't finished yet. Larimer Associates is planning a major investment to transform the alleys into safer, more active spaces.

"Our goal is to start out by making the alleys safer and to activate them to where there's actually commerce in them," Hermanson says. "That requires investment to solve drainage, trash, storefronts, tenants, art and lighting."

Crawford and Hermanson agree that taking a multigenerational approach to the preservation of the historic block is the key to its success.

"During our tenures we have considered ourselves stewards of this valuable property," Hermanson says. "The horizon is multigenerational, so decisions aren't made for the short term."

Read more articles by Margaret Jackson.

Margaret is a veteran Denver real estate reporter and can be contacted here.
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