Rebooting Denver History to Connect Auraria and Downtown

Auraria  -- that's Latin for gold -- sits next to the site of the original gold strike in 1858 that brought settlers to Denver. The modern neighborhood is a college campus that still attracts scores of newcomers, but Auraria has a different set of challenges today.
What began as a gold rush boomtown on Cherry Creek has morphed into a booming college campus -- the largest in Colorado, with approximately 45,000 students.

Nearly 40 years have passed since the Auraria neighborhood became a campus, but integrating the area and its three resident institutions of higher education with the adjacent downtown remains a challenge, one that's currently being faced head-on.

But before the schools set up shop, the neighborhood, the city and the state were much different places. While private colleges cropped up at the turn of the century, the Front Range was notable for its lack of public higher education. In fact, in the early 1960s, few Denver high school grads were enrolled in college, according to fourth generation Coloradan Rosemary Fetter's booklet, A Brief History of Auraria.

In 1962, a legislative task force recommended establishing a state-supported, four-year degree-granting college: Metropolitan State College (now Metropolitan State University of Denver).

The school opened in rented buildings in 1965 with 1,189 students. Five years later, the Community College of Denver (CCD) was holding classes in a former Lincoln-Mercury Motor showroom at 11th Avenue and Acoma Street. This was around the time the University of Colorado's Denver Extension Division -- originally run by a single faculty member out of an eight-story office tower and car barn built in 1911 -- was renamed the Denver Campus of the University of Colorado, better known today as CU Denver.

Some, writes Fetter, credit Frank Abbott, then executive director of the newly-formed Colorado Commission on Higher Education (CCHE), with the idea for a tri-institutional campus that would be capable of offering students cost-effective education through shared resources like a library, police force, parking, mail services, early learning center and fitness centers and, most crucial, facilities management -- the latter overseen by the Auraria Higher Education Center (AHEC), a fourth entity that "manages anything that makes us efficient," explains its CEO, Barbara Weiske.

A vision like that requires some serious space. In 1969, Denver City Council designated the 143-acre Auraria area an urban renewal site, and the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) secured $12.6 million in Model Cities funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for site acquisition and relocation costs. Remaining funds were raised, and "They built an entire campus on limited resources and a very tight, $40 million budget," or more than $160 million in 2015 dollars, says Weiske.

That budget, which covered 11 new structures and rehabilitation of several existing structures, was $8 million less than what the CCHE has requested. Still, wrote Fetter, the project was the largest capital construction appropriation in Colorado history.

When the Auraria Center debuted in 1976, the plan was to accommodate 13,000 full-time equivalent day students with a maximum of 25,000 people by 1980. "We were a very cohesive group, like a small family," recalls CCD faculty member Helen Kleysteuber. "Everybody was in the same building -- even the president. I remember the windows were upside down in the South Classroom. I think they still are."

Ghosts of the pastSt. Cajetan's is a Catholic church and Denver landmark.

Affordable education wasn't exactly cheap. The urban renewal project unfolded on the site of Denver's oldest settlement, and members of the Hispanic community that had formed around St. Cajetan's church -- 55 families, 70 individuals and 237 businesses -- were displaced when the government condemned 169 acres.

Homeowners were paid up to $15,000 over market value for their properties, and residents, renters included, were given funds for relocation, with tenants were eligible for up to $4,000 in rent supplements. "For some, like Denver author John Dunning, this provided an unforseen [sic] opportunity to purchase a first house. For others it meant leaving a neighborhood that had been home for generations," wrote Fetter. Some businesses -- like Frank Karsh's printing house on Larimer -- never recovered.

In the '80s former residents founded the Displaced Aurarians organization, and they occasionally hold neighborhood reunions on campus. In addition, scholarships to all three schools are still available for descendants of former residents.

"Most businesses went away, and the government ended up scraping many buildings," says Weiske. "Fortunately, though, they had the wherewithal to maintain some structures," Weiske continues, pointing to a block of 13 restored Victorian cottages built between 1872 and 1906 and known collectively as Ninth Street Historic Park.

"That's the oldest neighborhood in Denver," Weiske says. The buildings were repurposed as institutional offices, and some, like Quaker dentist William Smedley's green-and-white framed house (formerly Casa Mayan, one of Denver's most popular Mexican restaurants), offer a glimpse into the past with displayed family portraits.

Another special structure, says Weiske, is St. Cajetan's, a Hispanic-Catholic church and Denver landmark designed by Robert Willison in 1925 and built largely by parishioners on donated land. "The brick and stone church is a mixture of mission-style and Spanish Colonial architecture with twin belltowers and elegant curvilinear parapets," Fetter wrote. The site -- now an event center -- included a grade school, convent and credit union, and the parish was a social hub for the community until the congregation was forced to relocate to a new church in southwest Denver in 1975.

The massive, seven-story Tivoli Brewery -- Denver's second brewery, opened by German-born Moritz Sigi and named for the world famous gardens in Copenhagen -- is another important campus landmark that housed the Turnhalle Opera House and "prospered until the 1960s, when the 1965 South Platte flood and a subsequent labor strike forced closure on April 25, 1969," Fetter wrote.

The building was slated for demolition in 1972 -- that's when the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission convinced City Council to landmark the structure. DURA acquired the Tivoli with federal funds and transferred the property to the Auraria Center, which leased it to a private developer who reopened the landmark building as a shopping mall in 1985.

In 1991, Auraria recouped the parcel; the Tivoli originally served as a community center for the area's German residents, and today it's a mixed-use student union that's about to get a lot more hopping, with the new Tivoli Brewing Co. scheduled to open by summer 2015. Brewing will happen in a 4,000-square-foot historic boiler room, and another 4,000 square feet of restaurant space will open as a taproom.

There's also Emmanuel Chapel, a Denver and National Register landmark and the city's oldest church -- a stone and stained glass structure that was a synagogue until services ceased in 1958 and the space was sold to artist Wolfgang Pogzeba. Today, the place is called Emmanuel Gallery, and it provides exhibition space for students, faculty and the community.

Beyond a handful of noteworthy buildings, most of the land was scraped, and Auraria was mainly parking lots and asphalt when it opened.

Developing the future

What began as a commuter school for 15,000 has grown to a bustling mini-city on the fringe of Denver's downtown core. "The Auraria Center has progressively added buildings, deliberately ensuring new structures are unique and interesting," says Weiske, noting that, today, Auraria boasts over 4 million built square feet.

Much of that development can be traced to the 2012 Auraria Campus Updated Master Plan. "We've built more since 2012 than we have in the last 20 years," Weiske says.

Conceptually embraced as the Expanded Neighborhood Concept, the plan creates three distinct institutional neighborhoods, maintaining cohesion on campus while simultaneously offering opportunities for the schools to brand themselves and benefit from their unique public-private community partnerships. "We are still one campus, but this has opened up wonderful economic opportunities for each institution," Weiske clarifies.

Auraria has added six new structures since 2012, and two more will break ground beginning this spring. Each institution built its own first-year administration building, and MSU Denver partnered with Marriott to build its Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center, bringing SpringHill Suites to Auraria.

"That's a great example: the school takes advantage of one of its focus areas, and the other institutions benefit now that there's a hotel for out-of-town visitors," Weiske says. MSU Denver also put the finishing touches on its Regency Athletic Complex in March.

Auraria funded an adaptable retail center with underground parking through revenue bonds, and the overarching organization is also "renovating the shared library to the tune of about $30 million," says Weiske.  

Activating the edges

One of the seven transformative visions defined in the Denver Area Plan, adopted by City Council in July 2007, is to connect the Auraria campus with downtown Denver. "The goal is to fully integrate the Auraria campus into the downtown core," says John Desmond, executive vice president for downtown environment for the Downtown Denver Partnership.

"The campus," continues Desmond, "was originally designed as if it were being built on a countryside as opposed to a major metropolitan area."

It was surrounded by parking lots, and it faced inwards, adds Weiske. Since adopting its updated master plan, Auraria has been "literally building our buildings right to the edges," she says, offering, "We are no longer facing inward and lots of the new buildings have glass, allowing the activity within to be seen and experienced by passersby."

In addition to building issues, there's also a problem with through streets -- or lack thereof. "It's difficult to navigate campus in a car," Desmond says. One goal, then, is to link the campus to surrounding streets by strengthening bike and pedestrian access.

An initial study -- the Connecting Auraria plan -- looked at improving intersections around the perimeter of campus. "That plan really didn't go far enough," Desmond says.

Hence, the next phase examines Speer Boulevard, exploring access and design with a critical examination of whether vacant, bordering parcels should be developed. "If you start to link together all of the attractions on both sides of Speer, you'll have the feeling that you can walk along the street and flow seamlessly from one interesting district to another," Desmond says.

Several CU Denver buildings have already begun to embrace a united vision. The School of Architecture and Planning and the Business School, for example, are located downtown on the east side of Speer, with buildings clustered around Lawrence Street. The benefits of downtown proximity aren't just physical -- they're social, educational and economic, too.

The Business School, for example, takes advantage of its location through expanded internship offerings. That's an opportunity Weiske wants more schools to hone in on.

"It's a two-way street," continues Weiske. Integration also benefits downtown: Auraria's collective population of students, faculty and staffers is nearly 50,000 consumers and a sizable future workforce.

The Auraria campus currently represents roughly 17 percent of the entire higher education population in the state, and it is still growing, Weiske says, explaining, "We anticipate adding another 10,000 students in the next ten years, and we know we have to keep on keepin' on."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
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Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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