Built to Last: Historic Preservation

How Colorado’s approach to historic preservation is adapting to modern times
Photo: Historicorps

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.”

Building equity

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.

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Corey Dahl

Corey Dahl is a writer and editor. She has written for a wide variety of news and trade publications, in print and online. Corey has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Colorado and a master's in communications management from Webster University. She lives in Denver with her dog Rosie.

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