The story behind Union Station, LoDo, Molly Brown House and more
28th September 2020

Historic Denver wasn’t always Historic Denver.

The nonprofit dedicated to preserving the Mile High City’s physical history didn’t have a name when concerned neighbors banded together in 1970 to save Capitol Hill’s Molly Brown House from demolition.

But over the decades, it’s notched major victories that have helped transform the city from cowtown to millennial haven — including the redevelopment of Lower Downtown into a spot for nightlife and a residential district, which helped spur the city’s revival at large in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“Historic preservation has been really intimately tied to Denver’s growth and success by introducing identity and cohesion to neighborhoods,” said Annie Robb Levinsky, Historic Denver’s executive director. “The landmarks and neighborhoods that weave together and connect our city are our historic fabric.”

This week, Historic Denver is touting its list of top projects by decade, which were voted on by the public and released Sept. 23 (the overall fan favorite was Union Station, which reopened to the public in 2014). Historic Denver also held small watch parties at relevant sites across the city with virtual entertainment from Wesley Schultz of The Lumineers and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance to raise funds.

We asked executive director Levinsky to pick five projects that illustrate Historic Denver’s success — and prove what it’s capable of as we head into this already-uncertain decade for nonprofit civic projects. Visit historicdenver.org for more information on these and hundreds of other preservation projects.

The Molly Brown House

Built in 1887
1340 Pennsylvania St.

“It’s Historic Denver’s original property and our flagship that we’ve gone on to own and operate ourselves,” Levinsky said. “It’s important because it shows us walking the talk and investing (including a $2 million restoration completed in 2018). But it’s also the story of Margaret Brown as a Western woman, and one of the most visited women’s history sites in the country. Her story, which most people know from the Titanic, has so many threads into what Denver became. It’s an anchor on Capitol Hill that we’re very proud of, because in a normal year, the visitors (about 60,000) support surrounding businesses. But ultimately, it’s what launched our movement.”

Ninth Street Historic Park

Structures dating from the 1870s
Auraria Campus

“A lot of people don’t know this, but where Auraria is today used to be one of Denver’s oldest neighborhoods. Our early board members really pushed and connected with state and urban-renewal authorities to save one representative block from that neighborhood — and we were only allowed to save it if we raised all the money for the restoration of the homes and one community building. We raised more than $1 million in the early ’70s and trained a lot of students to be masons and carpenters. We then turned the whole block over to the state, and now it’s offices and a student center used on campus. Some of the buildings are from the 1870s, and some show Denver’s Mexican-American and Chicano identity. The Casa Mayan House, at 1020 9th St., is a great example.”

Paramount Theatre

Built in 1930
1621 Glenarm Place

“Historic Denver actually owned the Paramount in the early 1980s, because it was the only way to save it from demolition,” Levinsky said. “We sunk every penny we had into it and put up a lot of protective easements. A lot of historic theaters along those streets had been demolished in the 1970s. But because we weren’t equipped to operate it as a venue, we gave it to the Historic Paramount Foundation, which had it for about 25 years, and then Kroenke Sports & Entertainment has owned it since 2002. And it just celebrated its 90th year!

“There’s more work to do on things like the tapestries inside, because it’s one of the only historic downtown theaters left. We took for granted that these buildings were going to stick around, but the Paramount was one of dozens of grand old theaters, and the rest have been demolished.”

Justina Ford House and Black American West Museum

Built in 1890
3091 California St.

“This was about to be torn down and we literally paid to have the building put up on wheels and moved a couple of blocks out of the path of the wrecking ball. We entered into an agreement that the Black American West Museum would be the owner so it would have a permanent home. Dr. Justina Ford was one of the city’s first Black women doctors, and she wasn’t given any admitting privileges at area hospitals. Still, she delivered thousands of kids at houses around Denver and practiced out of her home. The (museum has) worked so hard to maintain it and keep the doors open so it can tell those stories. Without that place, that history could be lost — especially with the way Five Points has changed over the last decade.”

Lower Downtown Denver

Various buildings from the late 19th century
25 square blocks in downtown Denver

“This was our crowning achievement when the Lower Downtown Historic District designation was passed in 1988. It’s the largest collection of early 20th century warehouses in the West, and it really marked a significant change in the trajectory of that whole area. In the 1980s, it was not a hip place. About one-third of the buildings had been demolished, and nobody really lived downtown. There were lots of parking lots, no Central Platte Valley yet, and viaducts along 15th Street. It was politically contentious at the time, but now we take for granted that it’s there and has helped Denver become a 24-hour downtown — as opposed to just an office park. All of that took years of work convincing property owners to line up incentives to help restore buildings. (Former Denver Mayor) Federico Peña was a big leader in that and saw the value. He didn’t want to be like every other city. He wanted to invest in what makes us special. But it’s something each new generation has to choose.”

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