In the heart of downtown Denver, Larimer Square consists of a 1,400-foot stretch of Larimer Street, named after the city’s founder and used as its main thoroughfare for more than 30 years.
As early as 1858, William H. Larimer, Jr. founded Denver City across Cherry Creek from the new town of Auraria. The Denver City Town Company was established, and a street grid was developed. It was he who named the main street after himself and the parallel streets after his associates. The town began to grow and take shape after Larimer and three others constructed cabins at what is now Larimer and Fifteenth Street. By the end of the year, a small cluster of shops and shacks had been established. When Auraria and Denver City merged in April 1860, the ceremony was held on the Larimer Street Bridge across Cherry Creek.
In 1863, Larson Street was confirmed as the city’s main thoroughfare after a devastating fire destroyed much of it. Development along Larimer Street boomed in the 1870s. In 1871, it became the first streetcar line in the city. As Denver was connected to national railroad lines and money began to flow into the city from Rocky Mountain mines, it began to grow rapidly. All of the city’s best specialty shops, department stores, and restaurants were located on Larimer Street.
Larimer Square has many historic buildings dating from the 1870s and 1880s when multistory brick commercial buildings were built along the street. The oldest building on the block is the Kettle Building at 1426 Larimer, which was originally a butcher shop owned by George Kettle. Lincoln Hall, the Second Empire–style building at 1413–1419 Larimer, housed a dance hall and, later, a harness shop. Located at Fifteenth Street and Washington Avenue, George Washington and William Clayton acquired William Larimer’s original cabin site in 1882 and erected a four-story building that was originally McNamara Dry Goods and then the Granite Hotel. At the other end of the block, Gahan’s Saloon served politicians who worked at the large city hall that Denver opened in 1883 at Larimer Street and Cherry Creek.
However, Larimer Street’s status as the city’s main street began to wane by the 1880s, as the location of commercial blocks and other buildings changed. In 1880, when Horace Tabor’s Tabor Block opened at the corner of Larimer and Sixteenth, it was on Sixteenth rather than Larimer. A year later, 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 throughout 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.
Over the first six decades of the twentieth century, it continued to decline. 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.
In 1958 the newly commissioned Denver Urban Renewal Authority 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. She 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.
Downtown Denver’s Larimer Square contains the best-preserved 19th-century buildings. In terms of adaptive reuse, it is an influential example of historic preservation. It was the first historic district to be designated by Denver’s Landmark Preservation Commission, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. In 2015, Larimer Square celebrated its 50th anniversary. As of today, it is home to dozens of cafés, shops, galleries, and professional offices, including restaurants run by top Denver chefs including Jennifer Jasinski, Troy Guard, and Frank Bonanno. The continual success of Larimer Square helped spur similar initiatives that have transformed Lower Downtown and Union Station into thriving areas for offices, hotels, restaurants, and shops.