Denver’s women play key roles in historic preservation efforts. In Denver, historic preservation has become fashionable in recent years: What’s old is new again. Old is funky, and funky is cool. Gritty, crumbling urban landscapes, once barren and unimaginable as high-end residential and commercial property, are now desirable addresses. Today’s local historic preservation movement actually began three decades ago, with the renovation of the Molly Brown House. It was the debut project for a fledgling group, Historic Denver, and the result is one of Denver’s best-known landmark locations and a favorite tourist stop. In more recent years, high-profile initiatives like the renewal of the Lower Downtown District and the city’s Central Business District are the kinds of success stories that turn casual interest into passion for preserving significant parts of Denver’s past with an eye toward future use. Historic preservation has also become a career niche, attracting professionals from diverse backgrounds such as architecture, art history, museum and library sciences, archaeology and paleontology, to name a few.
Here, you’ll meet four women who are intimately connected to preserving the treasures that define Denver and surrounding areas.
President and CEO, Colorado Historical Society
There’s more to preserving the state’s historical integrity than renovating homes and buildings. “Preserving what we have is tied to our identity,” says Georgianna ‘Georgie’ Contiguglia. As the president and CEO of the Colorado Historical Society, she has Denver clearly in focus within her statewide scope while keeping an eye on the bigger picture. “The danger of ignoring the need for historic preservation is that we become homogenized,” she says, pointing to the number of look-alike national chains and architects who bid on projects in cities across America. “The point is not to prevent national chains, but we need to hang on to what’s unique to our communities. It’s not just our cities, it’s our entire cultural landscape.” The unique characteristics of Colorado are important for a lot of reasons, but Contiguglia points out an important one: Tourism. “People want to see something that’s different from where they live,” she explains. Contiguglia has made a career of historic preservation; with a background in decorative arts and historic interiors and a master’s degree in art history, she spent years in curator roles in historical houses and museums. She’s been with the state’s historical society since 1980. One of her primary roles, as she sees it, is facilitating the balance between old and new. An example is the Life Safety Project in the state capitol building. “The capitol was built in the 1890s and it’s the keystone of historic buildings in our state. But there were no fire detection systems, no sprinklers, not enough exits. The dome would act as a chimney in a fire,” she explains. The six-year, $30 million project will update the structure and ensure that it meets current building codes.
The organization produced Explore Colorado, a series of heritage tourism segments, in conjunction with the National Trust and local television station KUSA, which has been airing the segments for the past several months. The society also works to educate Coloradoans about the economic effects of historic preservation. In 2005, it published a study, Economic Benefits of Historic Preservation in Colorado. Contiguglia points out a key finding in the study: “Every dollar invested in preservation leverages another six dollars in the community,” she explains. “People get jobs, materials are purchased, and money gets circulated. That’s a huge benefit to us all.” Contiguglia looks west with mixed feelings. “The communities out west on I-70 are very aware of their history,” she says. “Historic Georgetown and Idaho Springs know what they have in their communities, and they have active preservation ordinances. Theyexamples of success stories, so I guess I don’t worry about them too much.” The Colorado Historical Society owns and operates Georgetown’s loop railroad operation, a big tourism generator for the area. As I-70 west of the city suffers more traffic jams, though, the need for roadway enhancements is clear, and along with that is the potential risk to nearby towns. “We’re working with the Department of Transportation to make sure the changes to the Interstate improve traffic without compromising the nearby communities,” she says.
To Contiguglia, much of her job is about keeping things in perspective. “We’re not opposed to change; life is about change. Communities shouldn’t remain static. We walk a fine line, and I hope we maintain a good equilibrium between old and new,” she says.
Dana Crawford Chair
Urban Neighborhoods, Inc.
Before there was historic preservation in Denver, there was Dana Crawford. Crawford moved to Denver in the 1950s, and one of her earliest observations was that a lot of older, historic buildings in the city were neglected and crumbling. Fast-forward several years. Denver’s city government had planned an aggressive urban renewal undertaking that called for the razing of those crumbled buildings, as well as the demolition of the aging core of Denver’s downtown area. Those plans moved Crawford to challenge the city’s Urban Renewal Authority — a decision that changed the future of Denver’s inner city, ironically, by preserving the past. Crawford’s name will forever be attached to the revitalization of some of Denver’s most historic — and best loved — homes and districts: As a founding member of Historic Denver, she worked to save and restore the Molly Brown House. She rallied support for Larimer Square, which later became Denver’s first historic district. In the 1990s, Crawford led the campaign to revitalize the Lower Downtown District — LoDo. Today, Crawford heads up Urban Neighborhoods, Inc., a company with a focus on redevelopment of properties in urban areas, many of them historic structures. Projects such as the Flour Mill lofts, Prospect Place and Jack Kerouac lofts all bear Crawford’s mark. She is fascinated by how distinct periods and styles can be successfully juxtaposed to create a memorable skyline. “Look at the variety of styles around the Civic Center, and how well they work together,” she says. “The key is that new structures have to be simpatico with their predecessors,” she explains. CA
“People’s opinion of a city is based on its downtown,” Crawford says. “Architecture shows the evolution of a city. Downtown Denver reflects the people who live here.” It’s a philosophy that has helped make Denver a benchmark city for historic preservation and redevelopment — a remarkable distinction, considering Denver is relatively new to the game. “People in the preservation industry are visiting Denver to find out what we did and how we did it,” Crawford says. With such a large portfolio of accomplishments, Crawford still counts some of her earliest undertakings as enduring favorites. “Larimer Square and the Oxford Hotel are still very special to me,” she says. She’s reluctant to talk about the awards she’s received over the years: The Louise DuPont Crowninshield Award from the National Trust is the nation’s highest honor for historic preservation. She’s a member of the Colorado Business Hall of Fame and the recipient of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Award. The Dana Crawford Awards, sponsored by Colorado Preservation, Inc., honor contributors to historic preservation initiatives.
She says that instead of dwelling on the recognition of past efforts, she’d rather think about the future: “Tangible preservation of buildings, neighborhoods and parks is a group effort. I hope it continues with future generations, but they come from a different experience than my generation. If people start developing a blas8E attitude, we’ll lose what we’ve accomplished. It takes constant vigilance.”
Kathleen Brooker President
Historic Denver, Inc.
When Kathleen Brooker moved to Denver from Boston in 1992, the big project on everyone’s minds was the first draft of the plan for a new baseball facility in Lower Downtown. She immediately understood that the initial concept was not compatible with the vision of the entire area as a historic district. Three days into her new job as president of Historic Denver, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Denver’s unique architectural legacy and cultural landscapes, she was at the drawing board with the ballpark’s designers to guide the look and feel toward the “brickhouse” style of ballpark that’s part of baseball’s early heritage. The result, of course, is Coors Field, which blends effortlessly into the surrounding LoDo district. Historic Denver got its start with the preservation of the Molly Brown House in the early 1970s. “That project became the blueprint for social change here,” Brooker says. She describes Denver as a bit of a newcomer on the preservation block, compared to older East Coast cities like her native Boston, but, as with every city, Denver’s history offers rich contributions. “Denver is a great place to live,” she says. “The natural attractions and the active lifestyles are tremendous, but the best-kept secrets in our city are the neighborhoods.” Brooker sees the individual neighborhoods as ground zero for active preservation efforts. “This is a very grassroots-oriented community,” she says. “People want to plug in and be a part of their neighborhoods.” She points to the more than 100 established neighborhood organizations in Denver Metro, all with a similar mission of maintaining and preserving their individual style and integrity. “People really want a say in how their neighborhoods function,” she says.
Brooker was instrumental in establishing Historic Denver’s urban living program, designed to help residential property owners with the types of updates and renovations that are unique to older, inner-city homes. “There are a lot of younger people, some just starting out with families, buying bungalows in under-appreciated neighborhoods,” Brooker says. “They’re these little brick houses, and they’re great starter homes for young families, but they often need a lot of work, just to bring them up to code and to make them comfortable to live in.” Brooker adds that a lot of the younger property owners are interested in working on their own houses, but may not know where to start with the peculiarities of an older home. The urban living program offers resources, workshops and other assistance to equip do-it-yourselfers with the knowledge they need to take on renovation projects in older homes. The result is typically a sensitively updated home with increased property value. The payoff for the assistance the program offers, Brooker says, is that a whole new generation is getting turned on to historic preservation. Another way young people are being exposed to Denver’s history and the need for preservation is by telling the story of Colfax Avenue. Historic Denver partnered with The History Channel’s Save Our History program, which drew in young people from schools and youth organizations — most with a physical presence near Colfax — to create 26 Miles of Colfax History, a multimedia series that chronicles the events, buildings and landmarks along the street. “Colfax Avenue is integral to Denver’s history; for years it was the gateway to the mountains, and it’s one of the most culturally diverse streets in the nation,”Brooker says.
The kids did the research and produced a podcast and a brochure that illustrates a physical and chronological timeline. The brochure was distributed to the more than 6,000 runners who participated in the inaugural Colfax Marathon earlier this year. “We were able to tie something that is integral to Denver — Colfax Avenue — with our love of being active outdoors and the history of our neighborhoods,” Brooker says.
Preservation Architect, City of Denver
When Christie Murata began studying architecture at Cornell University, she was one of six women in the program. By the end of the first year, the other five women had left. Murata prevailed and not only graduated as the only woman in her class, she also received the school’s coveted award for excellence in architectural design. It was the 1960s and the focus was on contemporary architectural style. Immersed in all that Modernist aesthetic, she had no inkling that her future would be in preserving structures from the past. After graduating, Murata traveled around the world, to places like Japan and Austria, where history and culture and the style of buildings and homes are deeply embedded in national and individual identity. The experience was transforming for Murata. “I realized how these distinct styles create a feeling of unity for people; how important that is, and how much people in other countries seem to respect that so deeply.CAI don’t feel like I grew up with that same sentiment in America,” she says. She moved to Denver in 1992 to take a job with Historic Denver. She’d never worked in preservation before, and she quickly discovered an affinity for her new job. In the late 1990s she started doing contract work for the city, which eventually became a full-time job. Today, Murata is one of two preservation architects on the Landmark Preservation Commission and the Lower Downtown Design Review Board. Her job is to stay abreast of preservation activity within the 40-plus historic districts and the more than 300 landmark structures in Denver and to facilitate the application, review and approval process that keeps those numbers changing. The complexities are, well, complex. Landmark designations are not only governed by local and state laws, municipal codes and zoning regulations, but the U.S. Department of the Interior issues many of the guidelines that all landmark preservation activity must follow. Murata operates within that framework and also interacts with the nonprofit organizations that are dedicated to historical preservation. If it seems bureaucratic, Murata handles it with ease and sees herself as a facilitator.
Many of Denver’s most visible successes have been in the oldest sections of the city. From business owners renovating old storefronts to their former glory to homebuyers who are excited about embarking on a fixer-upper journey, Murata approaches each project that comes across her desk with the anticipation she remembers feeling as a student getting a project assignment. She also sees the positive results of grassroots efforts to protect the character of neighborhoods and the original homes built there. “Arapahoe Acres is a great example,” she says, referring to the unique Englewood enclave of homes built in the early 1950s. The subdivision remains an intact example of the mid-century style of home that is currently re-emerging in popularity. “The residents got together to protect the homes and to document the special history of the neighborhood,” Murata says. She worries about other mid-century neighborhoods, though. “We don’t treasure these homes yet, and we should be thinking about the value of some of these structures.”
She’s optimistic about a new concept in zoning. “’Form-based’ zoning is getting a try-out on Colfax Avenue. The idea is that we provide a big-picture concept for the area, but we don’t micro-manage the details of how it’s executed,” she explains. “It’s good for commercial areas. We’re giving the parameters, but we’re not controlling it.”
By SUSAN SHEFFLOE SPEAR
Photography KIT WILLIAMS