Editor's Note: The nomination period for the 2020 National Preservation Awards has been extended. The new deadline is February 21.
Historic Denver was founded in 1970 on the heels of the National Historic Preservation Act, a few years after the urban renewal wrecking ball left a scar through downtown Denver and cities across the country.
Like many preservation nonprofits, Historic Denver got its start saving a historic house and converting it into a museum: the Molly Brown House Museum. We quickly grew our vision to include community-wide preservation assistance and advocacy. Right from the start, we’ve been a bit like a nickel, a famous historic house on one side and an architect/politician on the other.
Tails: The Historic House
Our famous historic house isn’t Monticello, as it is on the nickel, but the Molly Brown House Museum has become the most visited women’s history site in the Mountain West, welcoming more than 55,000 visitors each year. It’s a rare bird in the house museum world, producing enough revenue to help support a citywide preservation movement.
The Museum’s success comes from multiple sources. The never-ending fascination with the Titanic drives a certain amount of visitation and keeps Margaret “Molly” Brown’s story in the public consciousness. But increasingly, the interest in the Museum stems from Brown’s civic and philanthropic work, her compelling personal story, and the efforts of a creative staff dedicated to making Brown’s story and home relevant to each generation.
New programs at the Museum now seek to help visitors not only step back into the past, but also make connections to the present. For example, with this year’s commemoration of the 19th Amendment, our ongoing and free Salon Series includes an exploration of women of color and the suffrage movement, corsets and their relationship to body autonomy, immigration and the American Dream, and voting rights – then and now . A new walking tour will highlight Denver sites associated with women, and their connection to suffrage.
With consistent visitation and programmatic success, the Museum also required significant reinvestment. Busy years and changes in organization-wide funding streams led to deferred maintenance, meaning features that were restored in the 1970s were due for another round of work. In 2014, Historic Denver’s board launched an ambitious campaign for a local nonprofit, raising more than $2 million to rehabilitate the Museum and enhance accessibility. Three major phases of construction were completed in 2018. The Museum stayed open through it all so our visitors could witness what it takes to steward an 1889 home.
In addition, the campaign generated half a million dollars to support proactive preservation initiatives, demonstrating yet again what has always worked best for Historic Denver: using our own historic property to lead collective preservation action.
Heads: Advocacy & Leadership
Politics is local, as is preservation, so when the coin lands heads-up it’s time for advocacy. The energy created by the leaders that saved the Molly Brown House catalyzed a local movement that, for a time, propelled Historic Denver to one of the largest local preservation organizations in the nation. The early years included the ambitious rehabilitation of an entire block of Denver’s oldest homes at the 9th Street Historic Park on the city’s shared higher education campus, Auraria, as well as last-minute saves of buildings like the Dr. Justina Ford House (now the Black American West Museum), the Paramount Theatre, and the Cable Tramway Building.
Over the years, Historic Denver also provided the technical assistance needed to create 56 local historic districts. This began with our support of Dana Crawford’s efforts to save Larimer Square, which became the city’s first historic district in 1971. In 1988, Historic Denver was a driver in the formation of the Lower Downtown Historic District, which became a national case study in how historic preservation can serve as an economic development strategy. In the 2000, we worked hand-and-hand with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to create the first non-contiguous historic district of its kind, offering protection for 43 iconic downtown buildings. Numerous residential and smaller commercial districts followed, including the Five Points Cultural Historic District, Denver’s “Harlem of the West.”
Today, Historic Denver’s legacy fuels continued success. The organization is seen as a go-to resource for members of the community and elected officials seeking to save places. Often, this means solving challenging dilemmas and striking a balance that involves a fair share of compromise for a city with intense development pressure.
A 2017 effort highlights the architect/politician dynamic in our advocacy work. When a beloved but simple 19th century commercial building, known at the time as the Tavern Uptown and located in an area dominated by surface parking lots and zoned for higher intensity development, was threatened with demolition, our team was the first to pick up the phone and contact the developer. After expressing the community’s desire for preservation, wesuggested the solution that saved the small building which involved adjusting the zoning on the parking lot to allow slightly more intense development. Historic Denver now holds a long-term preservation agreement protecting the historic building.
Other recent successes include charting a path for the rehabilitation of the Emily Griffith Opportunity School, a trail-blazing adult education facility founded in 1914; advocating for a wide range of historic structures and features associated with Denver’s National Western Stock Show, a site that still celebrates Denver’s cow-town roots, and the approval of the Packard’s Hill Historic District, the first local historic district designated for its association with women in Denver history. We also recently advocated for the protection of the 1963 John Henderson House, the work and home of Colorado’s first licensed African American architect; and found a solution for an intense debate about a midcentury Googie-style diner. Perhaps, as a sign that preservation fights are always ongoing, we are serving as the leading voice for the ongoing preservation of Larimer Square as it became threatened by deferred maintenance and development pressure in 2018.
Planning for the Future
For nearly 50 years, Historic Denver has flipped the coin over and over, seeking a balance between the two aspects of our work: providing a meaningful experience with an authentic historic place and catalyzing action to save others.#NationalPreservationAwards#Denver2019#PastForward#HistoricSites
In 2019, we undertook an ends-based strategic visioning process to build on our legacy and define what we want to see happen in our community as a result of our work. We talked though Museum programming, our audience needs, community expectations, growth pressures, and increasing diversity and equity in our work in order to understand the full breadth of our city’s story.
The planning endeavor and conversations among stakeholders revealed that whether an idea, project or effort is initiated on the museum side of the coin or on the preservation advocacy side, the end value is the same: empowering people to actively experience and thoughtfully maintain our city’s cultural landmarks and historic places, today and long into the future.
Annie Levinsky is the executive director of Historic Denver, Inc.