Preservation means livelier, more livable cities

“Preservation” doesn’t sound sexy.  But preservation is important because it helps shape the kind of city and urban landscape you’ll inherit should you choose to stay around after graduation.

Lots of Denver’s historic and architectural legacy has already been lost forever. But preservationists continue working to assure that past mistakes are not repeated, and that worthwhile pieces of the past are saved and possibly re-used.

The Auraria campus’ Tivoli building, whose oldest parts date to the 1870s, are one example. So is Larimer Square, with buildings nearly as old. In recent years, any number of turn-of-last-century structures in Denver’s Lower Downtown have been saved and converted by the “adaptive re-use” process for historic buildings that preservationist Dana Crawford brought to Larimer Square in the late 1960s. At the time, she got no support from the local banks and lending institutions.

Today, the future of the past is in good hands through the ongoing efforts of groups like Colorado Preservation Inc., whose  16th annual “Saving Places” conference recently drew more than 600 preservationists, architects, students, community activists and exhibitor/vendors from 20 different states to the Denver Convention Center.

The wide-ranging array of more than 50 sessions over three days included presentations from several UCD architecture students working with Abigail Christman of UCD’s Center for Preservation Research. Presentations by UCD masters candidates Diana Krogmeier and Joe Coleman dealt with the range of 20th century housing in Colorado and preservation challenges.

Terry Richey of the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation suggested  “de-mystifying” preservation with less esoteric language such as “Save the Past. Enrich the future.” That would appeal to what he said were 15 million Americans who take part in some form of local preservation activity, but would never call themselves “preservationists.”

Although U.S. cities like New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina, had historical societies in  the 1930s, the nationwide “Preservation” movement as we now it dates to the mid-1960s when Manhattan’s Penn Station was torn down.

Built in 1910 as a Beaux Arts monument expected to last for ages, Penn Station’s interiors were modeled on the Baths of Caracalla in ancient Rome, with soaring marble arches and heroic-scale details. But magnificence for the ages counted for nothing when the financially-strapped Pennsylvania Railroad destroyed its landmark in 1964 and ’65 as part of a real estate deal that placed a Madison Square Garden sports complex atop a new and sterile station. The old station’s Greek columns, capitals and carved eagles were trucked away and dumped in the New Jersey swamps known as the Meadowlands.

At age 22, I saw Penn Station’s death by demolition. I knew nothing about architecture, but did know a crime was being committed. So did the critics, writers and activists who would become the core of a nationwide preservation initiative. In short order, “preservation” became a mainstream movement that notched several important victories against senseless destruction in the years that followed.

In Denver, organized  preservation arrived  in the early ‘70s. After the Moffat Mansion in Capitol Hill was demolished and the Molly Brown house was threatened with the same fate, activists formed Historic Denver Inc. Colorado Preservation Inc. was launched in 1984 and has since saved 32 of 91 statewide sites listed as “endangered.”

Preservation’s value is evident on campus, where the Tivoli complex is solid while modern structures – built on the cheap after 1975 – already look dated and are falling apart. So preservation, that may sound musty, isn’t limited to the past but is relevant to your present. And future.

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J. Sebastian Sinisi


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