Mile High City has lofty plans to preserve its architecture

While the Mile High City is trying to plan its orderly growth of both population and high-rise buildings, preservationists are fighting to hold on to what is left of the city's architectural past.

Leading the battle is an enterprising group called Historic Denver Inc., a private, nonprofit organization that is the largest locally based preservation group in America.

''While many cities have a conglomerate of genealogical, historical, and preservation societies,'' says executive director Elizabeth Schlosser, ''Denver has but one organization, Historic Denver Inc. This means we have a larger budget, more staff, more members, more fund-raising capabilities, and more clout.''

Historic Denver Inc., founded in 1970, has in 13 years gathered together 3, 200 fiercely loyal and city-proud members.

It has saved, restored, and opened to the public an ornate house at 1340 Pennslyvania Street which was built in 1889 for the colorful Molly Brown, wife of an early silver miner and heroine of the Titanic sinking.

It has raised a million dollars to restore 14 houses on Ninth Street for use as offices on the downtown Auraria College campus, and rehabilitated the entire Curtiss Park area, a historic inner-city neighborhood.

It has saved for restoration as a multi-use cultural center a downtown art deco movie house built in 1930.

It has helped manage the open-to-the-public Grant Humphreys mansion, which was built in 1902. And now, having moved its offices into the old Union Station, it is surveying the immediate neighborhood and working to have the huge 1922 structure converted into a city convention center.

Basic to many of these projects has been the initial architectural survey of 25,000 Denver buildings built before 1945, done by volunteers from Historic Denver Inc. and the Junior League of Denver.

Denver was a frontier town founded in 1858, first on gold, then on silver fortunes. Its silver millionaires were later joined by real estate, cattle-raising, and railroading tycoons. The city became a center for banking, wholesaling, and manufacturing, and more recently for shale oil and coal activities.

From the beginning, the locals of the city referred to it as the ''Queen City of the Plains.'' Its early builders made sure that during its bonanza era, from 1876 to 1893, their domes, ornate civic buildings, and gems of Tuscan and Florentine design kept them in the mainstream of American Renaissance architecture. Many of those civic buildings are still intact.

How much of Denver's original architectural stock has survived? ''We have done quite well in saving our neighborhoods and the most important of our mansion landmark buildings,'' Mrs. Schlosser replies. ''But rapid growth has meant that we have lost most of our downtown buildings. One urban renewal project alone cleared 24 blocks, demolishing much of our significant architecture, including a large opera house and all our cast-iron buildings.''

For the last 12 years, Historic Denver Inc. has been trying to hold onto the 50 percent of the city's second-class, or ''B'' buildings, that still remain.

''These are not the best of a kind, but are at least one of a kind,'' Mrs. Schlosser says. ''We realized that, if growth continued and became ever more scarce and expensive, we could lose everything, including our inner-city neighborhoods.''

That is why, for seven years, the organization has been rehabilitating about 65 properties of low- and fixed-income long-term residents in the Curtiss Park neighborhood.

''We worked with the city in administering federal funds to work on properties while residents were in place, thus keeping it an economically integrated neighborhood,'' Mrs. Schlosser explains. ''But with the dwindling of federal, state, and city funds, we are again seeking help from individuals, corporations, and foundations.''

Membership dues net the preservation group about $70,000 a year. Local corporations not only underwrite many events and projects, but corporate memberships also bring in another $50,000 a year. Local family foundations contribute about $100,000 annually. The Molly Brown house takes in $30,000 a year from admissions, gift shop sales, and rental fees.

Each year the organization sets aside $50,000 for its ''special events budget.'' This covers everything from sponsoring fund-raising parties downtown to a program of special trips and tours, arranging an annual house tour, running annual meetings, and the publication of four books on Denver architecture.

The organization also runs bus tours daily from the Brown Palace Hotel and walking tours three times a week (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays) from the Molly Brown house.

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