Dana Crawford (1931–) is a nationally prominent preservationist and developer who exemplifies how one woman can transform a city. She started with Larimer Square and then Lower Downtown (LoDo), the hubs of Denver’s skid row, and helped turn them into one of America’s most popular and dynamic urban neighborhoods, attracting a set of wealthier white residents who had once spurned the city. By spearheading this wave of new investment in the long-neglected heart of Denver, Crawford triggered a process that has spread to and greatly transformed surrounding core city neighborhoods.
Dana Hudkins was born in Salina, Kansas, on July 22, 1931. She graduated from the University of Kansas with a BA in journalism and later completed an associate business administration degree at Harvard University. In October 1954 she came to Denver and found work with Koska & Associates, a leading public relations firm. She also became active in the Junior League and as a Denver Art Museum docent. In 1955 she married John W. R. Crawford III of Denver, a graduate of the Colorado School of Mines and geologist for the Argo Oil Company. They raised four sons in their Capitol Hill home.
Dana Crawford made her name in historic preservation, saving some of Denver’s oldest downtown buildings from the wrecking ball and redeveloping them into spaces that attracted prosperous businesses and affluent residents. Her first and most significant project was Larimer Square. “I went down to Larimer Street in the 1950s looking for old furniture to restore,” Crawford later reminisced. “I couldn't help but notice that some of the derelict buildings themselves were fine antiques needing restoration. I began researching and found that the 1400 block of Larimer had housed the log cabin of Denver's founder, General William H. Larimer.”
Crawford pointed out to everyone who would listen that Larimer Street was once Denver’s bustling main street, lined by City Hall as well as the city’s finest office block (the Tabor Building), its grandest hotel (the Windsor), and its first streetcar line. All were gone. Decline had started with the silver crash of 1893 and Denver’s pivot uptown toward the Brown Place Hotel and the State Capitol. As the city grew in new directions, old areas such as Larimer Street received little new investment, particularly as federal housing and transportation policies subsidized middle-class migration to the suburbs. Downtown disinvestment attracted bars, liquor stores, flophouses, pawnshops, and secondhand stores, all of which lined Larimer by the time Crawford arrived.
To create Larimer Square, Crawford first had to take on the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA), wrestling the 1400 block away from their wrecking ball. In an effort to remake what officials saw as a derelict downtown, DURA’s Skyline Urban Renewal Project aimed to level much of the old city from Cherry Creek to Twentieth Street between the Market–Larimer Street alley and Curtis Street. A once-planned freeway would have obliterated much of what was then labeled skid row. Crawford enlisted Denver mayor Bill McNichols, Jr., and other community leaders to lean on DURA. DURA and later some of her Larimer Square renters called Crawford “The Dragon Lady of Larimer Square” for her fierceness and toughness, concealed under a charming, velvet-smooth exterior.
Crawford’s vision for Larimer Square drew inspiration from two pioneering preservation projects, Gaslight Square in St. Louis and Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. She noted that the St. Louis project was handled by multiple parties while Ghirardelli had a single controlling developer. Gaslight Square’s multiple owners had difficulty agreeing on a single course of action. This taught Crawford a lesson in tight control. She later reflected, “I applied suburban shopping center management principles and techniques to make Larimer Square work.” She set a precedent by combining the roles of two traditional enemies: preservationists and developers.
Dana and John Crawford incorporated Larimer Square Associates in 1964 and began construction in 1965. She served as president, with partners including Denver’s future US congresswoman Patricia Schroeder and her husband, James Schroeder; Rike and Barbara Stearns Wootton; and Thomas and Noël Congdon. For the restoration work, Crawford recalled finding “some old-timey brick and stone masons, stained-glass workers, woodworkers, metalworkers, and other craftspeople who remembered those lost arts. We used them in Larimer Square to train young people who have since gone on to other preservation projects like Ninth Street Historic Park on the Auraria Higher Education Center campus.”
As a public relations expert, Crawford repackaged Larimer Square as the historic heart of old Denver. Her hype did not celebrate Larimer Street’s long and notorious skid-row history. Much unsavory “history” was ignored, replaced by “heritage” celebrating the good old days. (History attempts to re-create as much as possible what actually happened based on the most reliable professional scholarship; heritage involves interpreting history to make it appealing to shoppers, visitors, and others in search of happy history.) While claiming to re-create the historic street, Crawford banished many old-time Larimer Street fixtures such as utility wires overhead, billboards on buildings, and fire escapes on the facades. Yesteryear’s narrow, crowded sidewalks full of telephone poles were cleared and widened to house sidewalk cafés. The transformation pushed out the poor people who once frequented Larimer Street, forcing them to move a few blocks north. This sanitized, spruced-up block appealed to suburbanites as well as city dwellers and became a popular and financial success.
Historic Denver, Inc.
After creating Larimer Square, Crawford’s next mission was to help establish Historic Denver, Inc., in 1970 to save the Molly Brown House from demolition. A developer proposed to tear down the Queen Anne–style residence at 1340 Pennsylvania Street and replace it with a much larger, modern apartment building, as had been done with much of that block. Crawford and others thought the house of arguably Denver’s most famous woman should be spared. To do so, they organized a preservation group that included Colorado First Lady Ann Love. This team of mostly women raised money to buy the house and begin restoring it as a museum.
Confident that there would be other preservation battles to come, Crawford suggested that the Molly Brown House group broaden its mission and adopt the name Historic Denver, Inc. (HDI). Still an active preservation group, HDI has helped the city designate more than 340 local landmarks and more than 55 historic districts. The Molly Brown House Museum has become the state’s most visited.
Despite the success of Larimer Square as a historic district of restaurants, shops, offices, cafés, art galleries, and nightclubs, the adjacent Lower Downtown (LoDo) neighborhood remained for decades an area of half-empty old warehouses and relatively few residents. Crawford recognized the area’s potential as the anchor of a broader downtown revival. In the early 1980s, she helped transform the skid-row Oxford Hotel, the oldest in town, into a boutique hotel, complete with the trendy art deco Cruise Room bar.
The key turning point in LoDo’s history came when the area was designated as a local historic district in 1988. This gave the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission power of design review over any change involving a building permit as well as the authority to deny demolition permits. The Lower Downtown Historic District protected the area from Cherry Creek to Twentieth Street, from Larimer to Wynkoop Streets.
Once again Crawford moved fast, buying up aging warehouses for her Edbrooke and Acme loft projects. This inspired other developers to follow her lead, creating more than two dozen LoDo loft projects during the 1990s. Such projects included restoration of the trackside Ice House, a cold-storage warehouse for dairy products, into lofts with first-floor restaurants. Throughout LoDo, dollar-a-night hotels became million-dollar lofts and dive bars became upscale thirst parlors, casting old downtown denizens out and replacing them with well-heeled professionals. Further redevelopment followed, including a branch of Denver’s iconic Tattered Cover Book Store, Colorado’s first brewpub (the Wynkoop Brewing Company), and Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies.
Perhaps Crawford’s wackiest idea was restoring a crumbling eight-story concrete flour mill amid abandoned railroad tracks. Defying long odds, it became the Flour Mill Lofts and her personal residence in 1998. That project helped jump-start revitalization of Denver’s South Platte Valley with newcomers such as Mile High Stadium and Denver’s grand old amusement park, Elitch Gardens.
Crawford had long eyed Union Station as the former hub of Lower Downtown. When it opened in 1881, the station reigned as the largest, most stylish, and most important building in town. As train traffic declined over the decades, so did the station. A mausoleum-like quiet descended on the mostly empty edifice. Then in 2011, Crawford spearheaded the Union Station Alliance of architects, construction and restoration firms, and hotel and mall operators. With partners Sage Hospitality, the Regional Transportation District (RTD), architect David Tryba, and others, the alliance reincarnated the landmark. They undertook Crawford’s most spectacular restoration, transforming the old depot into a boutique shopping mall and high-end Crawford Hotel, named for Dana.
The parking lot in front of the station became a large pedestrian plaza with splashing fountains and near constant activity. The tracks behind Union Station were repurposed as an RTD light-rail hub. As part of the complex, RTD also built an underground hub for metro bus service. At the 2014 grand opening ceremony, Crawford theatrically waved a wand. Her magic had worked for the $38 million rebirth of Union Station.
The high-ceilinged Union Station lobby became what Crawford called “Denver’s Living Room,” a vibrant space full of couches, tables, and desks where people could chat or work on their laptops. In early 2020, however, the alliance declared the lobby off-limits to people who did not spend money at the station’s businesses or have a transit ticket, leading to concerns that the policy was intended to exclude poor people from a previously open public space.
Crawford has served as a board member and treasurer of the Colorado Historical Society (renamed History Colorado in 2009), and on many other civic boards such as Downtown Denver, Inc. She has been president of Preservation Action, a national preservation-lobbying group. Her Urban Neighborhoods firm consults on redevelopment and preservation projects for more than fifty cities all over the country. Her Colorado clients include Idaho Springs, Pueblo, and Trinidad. In 1995 the International Conference of the Women’s Forum in Atlanta honored her as a Colorado Woman Who Made a Difference, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation gave Crawford its highest honor, the Louise duPont Crownenshield Award, for nationally extraordinary work in preserving and redeveloping urban neighborhoods.
While most applaud Crawford’s work, some have criticized her for turning history into heritage and thus refining and cleaning up history for commercial purposes. Larimer Square, for instance, is not a square but a face block, a term lacking cachet. Crawford promoted Larimer as “the most famous street in the frontier West,” a claim that San Francisco and other western cities might well contest. She claimed the street “reflects the elegance and gayety of Denver’s heyday,” glossing over the violence and depravity of the street during the city’s founding. (William Larimer founded the city on a jumped claim and threatened to hang anyone who challenged him for it.) Any woman achieving so much is bound to have critics. Not even critics, however, deny that Crawford changed Denver. Without her, there would be no Larimer Square, and no LoDo, and the transformation of the city’s core would look very different.
The return of the wealthy and the white to Denver also led to gentrification at the expense of people of color and all poor people. Thanks in part to Crawford, Larimer Square, and LoDo, Denver has been turned inside out, with the poor and racial minorities increasingly priced out of the core city, which is turning whiter and wealthier.