Renewing Historical Colorado

Denver preservationist Dana Crawford shares what she loves about the city in this Q&A, including her involvement with the restoration of historic buildings and her favorite places.

Published in the 2014-2015 Colorado GuestBook. 

Lovingly running her hand over the upholstered bench she’s sitting on, Denver preservationist Dana Crawford extols the brilliance of the design team she worked with in bringing together the details of the Crawford Hotel, located on the upper levels of the recently restored Union Station in downtown Denver. She points with pride to the art on the walls, created by local artists and giving a sense of the sophisticated West.

It’s not only the art and furniture Crawford has her hands in, but the restoration of Union Station itself; the white vaulted ceilings, the art deco trim, and the Herculean lighting structures replicated from the 1914 originals all had to get the nod of approval from Crawford. This isn’t the first preservation project this doyenne of Denver has been involved in. Crawford began in the 1960s with the restoration of historic Larimer Square in downtown Denver—a place well-loved by locals and tourists alike, and some would say the soul of the city. Union Station sits among a slew of other beautiful buildings Crawford has saved from the wrecking ball.

The Crawford Hotel at Union Station
The Crawford Hotel at Union Station (©Ellen Jaskol)

The 1960s were a time when a lot of historical buildings were lost. What influenced you to go against the grain and want to preserve some of the historical sights?

I moved to Denver in the ’50s. I grew up in Kansas, but I went to school in Boston the year before I came out here. Of course, Boston is a city that pays a great deal of attention to its heritage because it’s so important to the heritage of the country. Denver reminded me a lot of Boston because it had a lot of historical buildings, but no one was paying any attention to them. There were very few restaurants downtown; downtown was not much of a gathering place. Urban renewal was being discussed which would have demolished many of the buildings. I became obsessed with the idea of saving some of the buildings and making the city a gathering place for the people of Denver, all the people who were moving here at the time, and all the people who would move here in the future.

Tell me about your involvement with the restoration of Union Station.

I’ve been involved for a very long time because the station was actually threatened with demolition in the ’70s, so we had a group called S.O.S.—Save Our Station—and we got petitions signed over at John Hickenlooper’s brew pub. We worked hard to show that this building is important to the history of this community and to its future too. People just didn’t believe it was worth anything.

How did you take it from signing petitions to where it is today?

There was a competition for the redevelopment of this building and I am part of a team that I put together of really spectacular people and we worked out a plan to develop it according to historic features of the building. You’ll see all of this trim and all of the important aspects of the original building, which was built 100 years ago and reopened to the public in July 2014. The wings opened in 1881, so you have two eras of Denver architecture here in one assemblage.

You invested a lot of yourself into this city. What is it about Denver that makes you want to give back? 

Denver is a really remarkable place to live. It’s a city that’s beautifully located, not only in the United States, but on a global basis. From the airport’s perspective we’re halfway between Munich and Tokyo. Many people don’t understand what a fabulous climate we have. I think we’re one of the top 10 of almost every city now in terms of growth and wellness, and all of the issues that are important to us in this day and age. It’s a great place for entrepreneurs, and I’m an entrepreneur. It’s also a great place to bring up a family. I have four sons. They used to come down here and get on the ski train, the Eskimo Train it used to be called. Many of the people who come through this station now, that’s one of their primary connections to the station—they remember going up to Winter Park on the Eskimo Train every Saturday, so they were here once a week and remember it well.

These buildings that you have had a hand in restoring are absolutely beautiful, down to the small details. Would you call yourself a perfectionist?

I would call myself a preservationist. I don’t think you can be a perfectionist and have any degree of happiness because there are always big teams of people and they all have different ideas. I’m more of a collaborator than a perfectionist.

What has been your favorite urban restoration project and why?

It’s difficult to say. The Union Station, of course, is such a hub for so many people doing so many different types of things. I’m a people person so I like the interaction between historic buildings and people, but I always like to answer that my next project is my favorite project because it is the one that’s really consuming my mind. It’s a secret though, so I can’t tell you what it is.

What attracts you to an area that needs to be revitalized?

That’s a funny story because when I go to other cities, usually at the invitation of an official or somebody, I say take me to your pigeons and your pensioners, because they generally hang out with beautiful, old buildings.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

I always have to say my four sons. That’s true, and they’ve been really involved through the years with a lot of these projects. But Denver is a really wonderful community, and when I sit out in front of Union Station in the evening and look up 17th Street and look up at the Lower Downtown and all its historic buildings, I feel happy. I watch other people and that seems to make them happy too, and that’s a great feeling.

What are some of your favorite spots in Denver?

Usually I end up in restaurants and, in Larimer Square, I like Bistro Vendôme a lot. I like Stoic & Genuine, which has some sensationally different oysters that you can’t find any place else but here. It’s a somewhat secret restaurant and the seafood is completely fresh and spectacularly good.

So, you mentioned secrets—what are some of Denver’s best-kept secrets?

People just think we’re covered in snow all the time, and it’s difficult to convince them that it’s otherwise. So probably still, one of the best-kept secrets is that this is one of the most pleasant places to live from a climate perspective that I’ve discovered anyplace, especially if you’re someone who likes all four seasons. We have spectacular recreational opportunities with the mountains and the location is pretty fabulous if you want to get anywhere in the United States.

What else do you love about Denver?

Something that’s fascinating about this community is it’s a big melting pot. Very few people are native Coloradans, and when you go into a big room full of people it’s really fun to see where everyone started out. You have every state represented, and people—like me—want to stay here as long as they can.