The Granite Building might be the most majestic structure in Larimer Square.
Built at the southeast corner of 15th and Larimer streets in 1882, the striking red and beige stone building is a four-story welcome mat for the city’s first and most celebrated historic district. It sits on the same plot where Denver founder Gen. William Larimer built his log cabin home in 1858. In 1882, it was home to a dry goods store. Today, its tenants include the Comedy Works comedy club, and, allegedly, a ghost.
At a distance, the Granite Building looks good for its age, crowned with an ornate cornice, its slender windows wreathed in stonework. Upon closer inspection though, pieces of the building are beginning to crumble under the weight of its 136 years. It’s hardly the only building on Larimer Square beginning to show its age.
Because of that wear, and how Larimer Square’s private owner is seeking to fix it, the block faces an uncertain future in 2019 despite a pair of historic preservation ordinances that have protected it for more than four decades. Unlike the front of the Granite Building, however, nothing is set in stone.
Larimer Square owner Jeff Hermanson and his partners with Urban Villages, a real estate firm he brought on to manage and redevelop pieces of the historic district, are seeking public feedback as they consider potentially landscape-changing new construction on the block.
The work, they say, is essential to shoring up the square’s financial future at a time when the oldest commercial block in Denver is facing an estimated $130 million in restoration needs. Partial demolition of some existing buildings has not been ruled out, though any new development on Larimer Square would require approval from city authorities including the landmark preservation commission, the Lower Downtown design review board and potentially the City Council before it could proceed.
Starting this month, people will have the opportunity to learn more and weigh in on potential alternations to the square. Urban Villages will open a “community center” in a vacant retail space at 1411 Larimer St. on Feb. 25 dedicated to gathering input and feedback on what the block needs or may not need. All are welcome, they say.
“We believe that the best results and the most creative ideas are going to come from a broad spectrum of input from the community,” Urban Villages chief development officer Jon Buerge told The Denver Post in January. He sees a future where redevelopment could keep Larimer Square lively 24 hours a day, with housing being part of the mix, including opportunities for low-income renters. “Diversity and inclusivity need to be part of this. We don’t think Larimer Square can tell the story of Denver if it only tells the story of select few.”
In a city that has attracted thousands of new residents from elsewhere in recent decades, many may not be familiar with the historic significance the collection of 19th- and early 20th-century brick, stone and wood structures huddled along Larimer between 14th and 15th streets.
In addition to Gen. Larimer’s cabin, the block was home to Denver’s first commercial buildings and its first seat of government, according to official state historian and University of Colorado Denver history professor Tom Noel, who co-authored the 2016 book “Denver Landmarks and Historic Districts.”
Apollo Hall, Denver’s first theater, once stood on the west side of Larimer Square where the (also historic) Congdon Building is today. It was there that the “People’s Government of Denver” was created in 1859, Noel said. In the 1890s, when the original Denver City Hall was across 14th Street in what is now Bell Park, a corner bar, Gahan’s Saloon (Ted’s Montana Grill today) was a good place to get a drink and maybe weigh in on city policy. The owner, John Gahan, was a Denver City Councilman.
“A lot of city ordinances and whatnot were probably worked out in that bar instead of at city hall,” Noel said.
Even the city’s first mortician set up shop on Larimer Square.
It’s a bit of more recent history that gets Noel most excited when discussing Larimer Square, specifically the 1971 ordinance that established the block as the city’s first historic district. That process has since been replicated 53 times in Denver, establishing the city as a national pace-setter for historic preservation.
“It’s the one block of old Denver that was rescued from the urban renewal authority that knocked almost everything else down,” he said, referring to the wave of mass redevelopment that washed across downtown Denver in the late 60s, leveling entire blocks in its path.
Time takes a toll
Almost 50 years after the ordinance was adopted, Hermanson and Urban Villages are holding up the rugged state of the Granite Building as just one example of why potentially drastic, ordinance-altering changes are needed on the square. Horizontal sandstone bands that stretch across the face of the building, previously patched with stucco in order to protect them, have been re-exposed to the atmosphere because they were quietly eroding out of sight. The patching, applied decades ago when historic preservation techniques were still being developed, is partly to blame.
“A lot of repairs were done very early on at Larimer Square before we knew how these materials would interact with each other,” said Jane Crisler, a historic preservation architect with the firm EUA who is working as a consultant to Larimer Square’s owner/developer team. “The stucco was a great color match and it looked great but the stone behind it was deteriorating because it was trapping water.”
Many other trouble spots are visible around the square. On a recent tour, Crisler pointed out a large crack running up the south side of the Sussex Building at 1430 Larimer. She highlighted sand-blasted bricks on the building now occupied by Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen. They were so heavily damaged by the process meant to clean them up, they now have to be covered with a protective coating to keep them from turning to dust. Netting has been put up over strips of sandstone lining the 1873-built Gallup Stanbury building at 1445 Larimer to ensure pieces of rock don’t fall onto unsuspecting shoppers below.
“The best way to preserve historic buildings,” Crisler said, “is to make them viable and accessible.”
Damaged masonry is just one issue that needs addressing. According to Urban Villages, the 20 historic buildings there need upgrades to their plumbing, electrical, heating and cooling and life/fire safety systems. The developer also aims to improve access for people with disabilities in buildings built a century before the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Urban Villages consulted with third-party experts and independent construction estimators to arrive at the work’s projected $130 million price tag, Buerge said. It’s a chunk of change the development team says only an infusion of cash brought on by new construction can provide.
“We’re really committed to doing this the right way and making sure these buildings continue to thrive but, in order to do that, new buildings will have to be added to Larimer Square,” Buerge said. He points out that five new buildings have been built on the block in the last 30 years.
Some of those who have already offered feedback on the proposals to change the square are skeptical just how much Hermanson and Urban Villages are listening.
Hermanson and Buerge unveiled a conceptual plan last February that called for a pair of towers to be built in the alleyways behind the square’s historic buildings, one housing a hotel and another featuring workforce housing. The proposal, if built as suggested, would have altered some of the historic buildings there and required the City Council to grant a variance to the 1974 Larimer Square design standards that cap building heights on the block at 64 feet. The proposal landed the square on National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of most endangered historic places last year, a sign of how symbolically important Larimer Square is on a national level.
Amid an avalanche of criticism, the team pulled that plan back in June and convened an advisory committee of more than 50 historic preservation advocates, neighborhood residents and city leaders to discuss the state of Larimer Square and ways to keep it vibrant and viable into the future. After six meetings, Hermanson and Urban Villages disbanded the group in December, a unilateral decision some notable committee members felt demonstrated the meetings were never meant to build consensus in the first place.
“It was interesting that it was an advisory committee that was never asked for advice,” said Dana Crawford, Larimer Square’s first owner and the person most responsible for its protected status.
Crawford, who has a building named after her on the block, said she and other advisory committee members she talked to felt like the meetings they attended were more sales pitches than input sessions. The decision that new construction had to be pursued was already made, they said.
The decorated developer, who pieced together the properties that make up the Larimer Square in the 1960s, is no stranger to changes there. Her efforts to turn the block from the dilapidated skid row it became in the first half of the 1900s into the vibrant shopping and dining area it is today resulted in the redevelopment and partial demolition of some of the 1800s buildings. In 1982, she floated a plan that would have seen a 16-story, 400-unit apartment building built on the south end of the block, extending over 14th Street to Bell Park. A 150-unit “European-style” hotel that fronted onto Market Street was also part of the proposal, according to reporting in the Rocky Mountain News.
“At that time, I was very interested in trying to get people to live downtown,” Crawford said of that ill-fated plan. “The reason we didn’t go through with it was because everybody hated it.”
Crawford sold the block in 1986. She did so, she said, to reward “extremely patient” investors who backed her work there. While she believes Hermanson and Urban Villages are after a genuine fix to real issues on the square, she hopes they see that its value is more than monetary.
“Larimer Square is something that gives the city a feeling of being different from a lot of other places,” she said. “My own perception is it’s very important for the city of Denver that Larimer Square continue as a concept.”
It’s protecting the concept of the historic districts that most worries Fabby Hillyard. Hillyard is the co-chair of LoDo District Inc. board of directors. The organization is dedicated to advocating for Denver’s Lower Downtown Historic District, located right next door to Larimer Square. Hillyard was part of the advisory committee last year. The cost of upkeep is a concern at historic properties across the country, she said. Granting variances to the codes that protect those properties on the basis of financial need alone would undermine the entire preservation movement.
“If economic hardship were to become a reason for changing a (historic preservation) ordinance there would be many developers in many places who would avail themselves of that opportunity,” she said.
Annie Levinsky, executive director of Historic Denver, has been critical of Hermanson and Urban Villages’ proposed changes since they became public. Her fears were not assuaged by participating in the advisory committee.
Levinsky believes the development team remains committed to building tall buildings on the square regardless of other options available, something Historic Denver feels is far from necessary. The nonprofit performed an analysis this summer that found room for roughly 200,000 square feet of new construction on Larimer Square that would not require a variance to the existing design standards, she said. And there are sources of funding out there beyond new development.
“We are not opposed to some evolution. We think there are a variety of ways they could update and refresh Larimer Square without putting the buildings in jeopardy or changing the context of the block,” Levinsky said. “Our take is that there is a path to success that is easy to follow and well laid out and that’s taking advantage of state and federal tax credits which are substantial. And we’re willing to help them figure out how to do this.”
Buerge said although the tax credits have not yet been employed to address the needs at Larimer Square, Urban Villages has used them as a tool on other projects across the country and is confident it can access them again. However, “tax credits and grants only cover a small percentage of the projected renovation costs,” he said in an email.
Big changes are not imminent. Buerge said the community input process is open-ended and there are not set plans in place for Larimer Square’s future. With all the talk of change, though, it’s clear many in the Mile High City — and even nationally — have their eyes trained on the block.
Few people have a better seat in the regard than Robert Zimmerman, co-owner of combination home-furnishings/fine art gallery/interior design services business Element. Element has been on Larimer Square for a decade, moving last year from one space in the Sussex Building to a bigger space next door at 1428 Larimer St.
“I have been in love with Larimer Square since I moved here in 1990,” Zimmerman said. “It’s been a dream come true to be here for the last 10 years and run a business. I love the historical nature of it.”
Being in a more than century-old building has its drawbacks. The air conditioning is on the weak side, and there has been various leaks and other challenges to contend with, he said. With talk of changes swirling, Zimmerman says he has faith in Hermanson and Urban Villages to treat the block with care.
“I can’t imagine them doing anything that is going to be unattractive,” he said. “I know that they are going to come up with the best plan possible to preserve all the aspects of Larimer Square.”
The Denver Post