Located in the heart of downtown Denver, Larimer Square refers to the 1400 block of Larimer Street, which was named for the city’s founder and served as its main street for more than three decades. By the 1890s, Sixteenth Street became the city’s top commercial address and Larimer Street began a long period of decline. In the 1960s, preservationist Dana Crawford worked to save the block between Fourteenth and Fifteenth Streets from demolition by the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, turning the late nineteenth-century buildings of Larimer Square into a model of adaptive reuse and historic preservation.
In November 1858, William H. Larimer, Jr. founded Denver City across Cherry Creek from the new town of Auraria. He created the Denver City Town Company and laid out a street grid. He named the main street after himself and the parallel streets after his associates in the company. Larimer and three others built cabins at the corners of what is now Larimer and Fifteenth Street, and by the end of the year, a small cluster of shops and shacks had taken shape there. When Auraria and Denver City merged in April 1860, the ceremony was held on the Larimer Street Bridge across Cherry Creek.
Larimer Street’s status as the city’s most important thoroughfare was solidified after it survived the devastating fire of 1863. In the 1860s, important early Denver businesses such as the Rocky Mountain News and the precursor of the Daniels & Fisher Department Store lined the street, as did civic institutions such as the post office and the county jail.
Construction along Larimer Street boomed in the 1870s. In 1871 it became home to the city’s first streetcar line. Denver grew rapidly as it was connected to national rail lines and money began to flow down to the city from Rocky Mountain mines. The city’s best specialty shops, department stores, and restaurants all had Larimer Street addresses.
Most of the surviving historic buildings in Larimer Square date to the 1870s and 1880s, when multistory brick commercial buildings were erected along the street. The oldest surviving building on the block is the Kettle Building (1873) at 1426 Larimer, which was originally home to a butcher shop run by George Kettle. Lincoln Hall (1887), the Second Empire–style building at 1413–1419 Larimer, housed a dance hall and, later, a harness shop. At the corner of Fifteenth Street, brothers George Washington and William Clayton acquired the site of William Larimer’s original cabin and in 1882 erected a four-story building that served as McNamara Dry Goods and then the Granite Hotel. At the other end of the block, Gahan’s Saloon (1889) served politicians who worked at the large city hall that Denver opened in 1883 at Larimer Street and Cherry Creek.
Larimer Street’s status as the city’s main street began to decline in the 1880s, with subtle shifts in the location of major commercial blocks and other buildings. In 1880, when Horace Tabor’s Tabor Block opened at the corner of Larimer and Sixteenth, the building’s front faced Sixteenth rather than Larimer. The next year, the Tabor Grand Opera House opened at Sixteenth and Curtis. Tabor and his associates began to buy and develop property along Sixteenth Street, transforming it over the course of the 1880s into a major shopping and entertainment street. Meanwhile, a similar transformation remade Seventeenth Street into a center for banking and hotels.
Despite these changes to Denver’s urban geography, Larimer Street remained preeminent until the early 1890s. After the Panic of 1893, however, its status quickly collapsed. When the city recovered from the economic crisis, all its growth was happening elsewhere. No new buildings went up on Larimer Street for decades. By 1900 it already had a reputation as Denver’s skid row.
Larimer Street continued its decline over the first six decades of the twentieth century. In the early 1900s, the street’s central location and low rent attracted many small businesses. In 1926 business owners tried to change the street’s name to Main Street, which had a more wholesome connotation, but the proposed change went nowhere. Instead, the street continued to lose its remaining respectable institutions; the city government moved to the new City and County Building at Civic Center in the early 1930s. By 1950, the dozen blocks on Larimer from Eleventh to Twenty-Third Street contained forty-six bars and liquor stores, fifty-seven flophouses, seventeen pawn shops, twenty-two secondhand stores, and ten missions.
Preservation and Revival
In 1958 the newly commissioned Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) planned the Skyline Urban Renewal Project, a massive downtown redevelopment that called for the demolition of roughly thirty blocks, from Speer Avenue to Twentieth Street between Curtis Street and Larimer Street. The idea was to tear down old, dilapidated buildings in rundown areas like Larimer Street to make way for new ones that would attract offices, hotels, shops, and other businesses. Voters rejected the project when it was first placed on the ballot in 1964, but they approved it in 1967, after DURA obtained federal funds to cover the costs.
Meanwhile, Dana Crawford had discovered the cluster of historic buildings along Larimer Street between Fourteenth and Fifteenth Streets. As Crawford has often said, she went there looking for antiques and realized that the buildings themselves were antiques. After researching the area’s history and reading about Gaslight Square in St. Louis, she decided in 1963 to create a similar entertainment district on Larimer Street.
Crawford formed Larimer Square Associates to rescue the 1400 block of Larimer Street from DURA’s demolition plans and remake the historic buildings into offices, restaurants, and boutiques. To transform the deteriorating block, the buildings were gutted and stripped of all the modernizations they had accrued over the previous seven decades. New wiring, plumbing, and heating were installed, along with completely new interiors. Stonemasons, glassworkers, and other craftsmen were hired to help restore the buildings, while architect Langdon Morris Jr. designed courtyards and arcades to help give the block a more open feel.
In 1969 DURA began demolition for the Skyline Urban Renewal Project. In the entire project area, the only major historic structures to survive were the Daniels & Fisher Tower and the buildings of Larimer Square. In the 1970s, DURA started a similar demolition on the southwest side of Cherry Creek to make way for the Auraria Higher Education Center, leaving Larimer Square and the Tivoli Brewery on the Auraria campus as the only historic remnants along Denver’s original main street.
Larimer Square is the best-preserved block of nineteenth-century buildings in downtown Denver. Along with San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, which was also redeveloped in the mid-1960s, it served as an influential example of historic preservation through adaptive reuse. In 1971 it became the first historic district designated by Denver’s Landmark Preservation Commission, and in 1973 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2015 the restored Larimer Square celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Today it is home to dozens of cafés, shops, galleries, and professional offices, including restaurants run by top Denver chefs such as Jennifer Jasinski, Troy Guard, and Frank Bonanno. The ongoing success of Larimer Square helped spur similar projects that have turned Lower Downtown and Union Station into thriving areas where offices, hotels, restaurants, and shops occupy renovated historic buildings.