My house was built in 1894. It has witnessed the transition from horses to cars to electric scooters you can rent with your phone. It has stood through both World Wars, both pandemics, the gold boom and the marijuana boom. If my home’s walls could talk, they’d probably have a lot of impressive stories to tell.
But my walls can’t talk. They also can’t hold a modern number of electrical outlets or, with their narrow doorways, grant passage to a full-size couch or a queen-size box spring. They can’t stop shedding a thin layer of brick dust onto everything in the living room either. To live in an old house is to be constantly awed by all the ways things can adapt and last–and to be reminded of all the ways they can’t.
As Colorado heads into its 146th year of statehood this summer, I wanted to know more about how its 1,500 registered historic properties and neighborhoods–and the people who care for them–are navigating 21st century challenges. Here’s what’s new with our state’s old buildings these days.
Preservation versus progress
Rapid growth over the last decade has increased demand for density. According to census data, Colorado’s population more than doubled between 1980 and 2020. Between 2010 and 2020 alone, the state’s population increased nearly 15%, compared to a 7.4% growth rate for the rest of the nation. At the same time, Colorado’s rural communities have largely been declining in population, with more people moving into Front Range cities instead.
As a result, community leaders and builders have had to work together to balance the needs of growth–more apartments, more offices, more shopping centers–with the value of preservation. Decades ago, urban renewal efforts demolished large sections of many cities, including Denver, in the name of progress, which often took the form of a parking lot. But today’s approach is much different, says Kara Hahn, a principal city planner with Denver’s Landmark Preservation office.
“A thriving city needs to have a mix of both old and new buildings,” she says. “Not every old building is historic and needs to be saved, but the buildings that help tell the story of Denver’s history are the ones we work on preserving.”
The focus at both the state and local level now is on adaptive reuse, helping old buildings serve a new purpose. For example, Denver recently renovated Pancratia Hall, a former dormitory built in 1929 on the Loretto Heights campus, into 74 income-restricted apartments. The project preserved the building while also adding density and increasing the city’s affordable housing. And while preservation efforts can often come with a hefty price tag, the city made use of federal and state tax credits and grants to help fund the project.
Reuse projects like these can have big economic impacts. A 2017 study by History Colorado and Colorado Preservation found that every $1 million spent on historic preservation in Colorado leads to $1.03 million in additional spending, 14 new jobs and $636,700 in increased household incomes across the state.
Reuse also helps the state grow in a more sustainable way. “I like to joke that preservation is the city’s largest recycling program,” Hahn says. “People think it’s easier to demolish and start from new, but then you have that huge amount of waste going into the landfills. From a sustainability and climate change perspective, it makes sense to work with the building that’s already there.”
Unfortunately, sometimes the building that’s already there wasn’t built with everyone in mind. Older buildings can come with steep steps, narrow entryways, and uneven flooring, making it difficult or even impossible for people who use wheelchairs or have other mobility requirements to access them. Addressing those hurdles is becoming more urgent as Colorado’s senior population grows. By 2040, it’s projected that Colorado will have 1.25 million residents who are 65 or older.
Additionally, historic designation has often meant that homeowners are stuck with drafty single pane windows or wooden exterior doors, driving up energy use as well as repair and replacement costs. A realtor.com analysis found that the average wood window costs $800 to $1,000 while a vinyl window runs about $450 to $600. The difference in cost of ownership can be significant in a state that has seen housing prices rise for the last decade, with the median single-family home now selling for $600,000.
Inclusivity proponents have also drawn attention to the fact that many historic districts preserve stories that are often white- and male-centered. According to History Colorado, less than 5% of Colorado’s registered historic properties are directly related to the history of women and underrepresented communities.
These issues haven’t escaped the notice of state and local preservationists, who have started rethinking some policies with equity, accessibility, and affordability in mind.
The State Historical Fund, established in 1990, is funded by a portion of Colorado’s gaming tax revenue and distributes grants to nonprofit, government, and private owners of historic properties to help with repair costs, accessibility upgrades, and other expenses. As of 2020, the fund–one of the largest of its kind in the nation–had awarded 4,743 grants worth a total of $315 million since its inception.
In 2021, the fund changed its grant application to include a section asking applicants how their project was created by, with, or for BIPOC communities. Projects serving these communities also now have lower cash-match requirements, which can reduce or eliminate the fundraising burden for grant seekers.
In Denver, the city revamped its preservation criteria in 2019, adding cultural reasons as justification for historic designation. The new criteria was used to designate the La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood as the city’s newest Historic Cultural District last year, honoring the community’s influential role in the Chicano Movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“We want to be a leader in this field and expand what has historically been designated to make sure it reflects all of Denver’s history and residents,” Hahn says. “Preservation is not just telling the story of who was rich enough to hire a good architect and build a pretty building.”
As part of the designation process, the city worked with the neighborhood’s residents to customize design guidelines that took affordability and feasibility into consideration.
“We talked about important features to preserve but also what would allow residents to stay in place,” Hahn says. “Vinyl windows were added to a lot of the homes in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so we decided to allow them because it’s now part of the character of that neighborhood and also provides equity and affordability.”
The city has also just begun a four-phase update to its city-wide preservation design guidelines to allow for more flexibility. The first phase, for example, includes a proposal that would loosen restrictions on the placement of solar panels.
The future of preservation
Even with looser and more inclusive guidelines, historic homes still require skilled, knowledgeable craftspeople to help update and maintain them. Jon Sargent owns Fort Collins’ Deep Roots Craftsmen, which specializes in historic home repairs and remodels, and says he’s had trouble finding experienced, qualified workers. Demand for construction help is high, and supply is limited, as fewer young people are opting for building careers.
“There are many easier ways to make money in today’s society, but there are aspects of this work that are rewarding in ways you don’t get in other industries,” he says. “A lot of people see it as a Plan B or a dead end, but it’s really critical to realize you can make a good living, especially if you like learning and variety.”
An aging construction workforce also means knowledge about older construction methods and preservation techniques is being lost as craft experts retire.
“Those of us that are in the trade, it’s even more important that we take on a teaching role now,” Sargent says.
Colorado-based HistoriCorps wants to help. Modeled after the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, the nonprofit partners with national parks, local governments and other agencies to save historic structures located on public lands. The organization sends a crew of volunteers and experienced professionals to restore buildings ranging from a colonial plantation home in Virginia to a log cabin deep in an Arizona forest. Most of the craftspeople who assist with their programs, though, are in their 50s and 60s.
“Our workforce across the country is getting older,” says Jason Whitehead, HistoriCorps executive director. “Most of our volunteers are retired, and it’s important to us as an organization to start reaching younger audiences and get them to start thinking about preservation.”
Last summer, HistoriCorps partnered with Colorado Mountain Parks to pilot a six-week historic preservation Workforce Training Program. Four Denver-area students received hands-on training in historic preservation theory and essential construction skills while stabilizing a historic garage in Katherine Craig Park. The program ended with a job fair, where the students got to meet potential employers.
This summer, HistoriCorps will expand the program, offering two, six-week training sessions for 14 students from Community College of Denver and Mile High Youth Corps. The organization has been contacted by New York’s state parks system to run a similar program there, and it’s hoping to eventually expand into other cities and rural areas in Colorado and nationwide.
“There are more old houses and more old buildings than can ever be counted that need people to look after them,” Whitehead says.
Whitehead doesn’t expect most of the program’s graduates to move into formal preservation roles, but he hopes they’ll bring a historic preservation mindset to whatever they do going forward.
“They’ll know the basics they need to know going onto a construction site–what to wear, how to measure, the terms they need to know–but historic preservation will be in there too,” he says. “They’re going to be looking at a building differently than probably everyone else at the construction site. And they can be the ones who say, ‘We don’t need to tear this down. We can fix it. It’s not hard to do.’”