As the tide of bland, boxy apartment complexes rolls through metro Denver amid its housing boom, sightseers looking for a respite need not roam far.
Historic buildings offer a change of pace from “empty architecture,” said Stephen Leonard, a history professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
“We get a lot of variety from historical architecture that we have,” said Leonard, a widely known voice on Colorado history who has taught at MSU for five decades. “I think our sensibility, our ability to appreciate differences and to understand beauty would be considerably lessened if we didn’t have the variety of some very fine architecture we have in Denver.”
Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, Leonard said, “We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us.”
“I think they tell us a lot about the tastes of the period. You look at the flamboyance of Victorian architecture, which is really sort of a grab-bag term for the 1860s-90s,” Leonard said. “Those buildings combine different styles. They sort of reflect the exuberance of a nouveau riche class. There’s not much restraint in them.”
What followed was a move away from that style, “almost a reaction against too much ornamentation,” Leonard said, “that maybe reflects a more mature country and state.”
Curious eyes can find styles from that era and beyond around the Denver region. Here’s a look at a few buildings still standing.
Westminster Bell Tower
In 1986, the City of Westminster wanted to celebrate its 75th birthday with a “grand public monument,” according to city spokeswoman Jodie Carroll.
The city decided to incorporate it into the design of the new city hall, which was set to open in 1988.
“Since our city name is Westminster, staff thought it fitting to have a grand bell tower such as Big Ben in Westminster, London,” Carroll said. “An entourage of distinguished persons from Westminster — including the Lord Mayor herself — were present for the groundbreaking of the new city hall and bell tower.”
The tower’s design, including the pyramid at the top, were taken from Big Ben. The city wasn’t named for the area in London, though: The area’s original name, Harris Park, was changed in the early 1900s to honor Westminster University, which was where the Belleview Christian School building now stands, Carroll said. That’s just a few minutes southeast of the bell tower.
The tower stands at 4800 W. 92nd Ave. in Westminster.
Highlands Ranch Mansion
A small farmhouse built in 1891 eventually became the Highlands Ranch Mansion, a public property surrounded by historic barns, ranch houses, corrals and pastures.
“Through the years, each owner expanded the residence, adding their own style,” said Sherry Eppers, spokeswoman for the Highlands Ranch Metro District. “The unique details from different architectural periods can be found on both the exterior and interior of the building.”
The mansion was a residence until the late 1970s, and many Denver-area socialites called it home, Eppers said. Today, it’s a gathering place for celebrations, weddings and private events. The property was conveyed to the metro district in 2010.
“The mansion is a link to Colorado’s rich history,” Eppers said. “Residents enjoy learning about the history of the mansion’s families and the tradition of ranching in the area.”
The mansion sits at 9950 E. Gateway Drive in Highlands Ranch. For more information, see www.highlandsranchmansion.com.
Loretto Heights campus
Perched atop a high point in Denver, the former Loretto Heights College building is visible for miles around in the metro area.
The 70-acre campus at 3001 S. Federal Blvd. was once a Catholic college. First named Loretto Heights Academy, it grew out of an effort by the Sisters of Loretto dating back to the late 1800s. Its reddish-brown administration building with a tower is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The campus became Teikyo Loretto Heights University in 1989 and Colorado Heights University in 2009. It closed around fall 2017 after an insufficient student population made it difficult to sustain the school, according to the university.
Concerned about the historical value of the campus and its future, several local residents held meetings throughout 2017, and meetings were also held in 2018 and this January.
The developer who bought the property from the university, Westside Investment Partners, has announced it will renovate Pancratia Hall on the campus — once home to a dormitory — into affordable housing units, according to a January news release. Westside has also said it is committed to preserving the administration building, the adjoining chapel and the cemetery, where dozens of nuns were interred.
Jefferson County government building
First called “a veritable Taj Mahal” by detractors who opposed the county’s spending on the expensive building, the Jefferson County Administration and Courts Facility is now known lovingly by county employees as “the Taj,” according to Ronda Frazier, county archivist.
The county needed a new building amid population growth. Between 1972 and 1990, the courts’ caseload increased by almost 500 percent, and services had to be scattered throughout the county, Frazier said.
“The new building provided space for almost all of the county’s operations and was designed to provide services to citizens all in one location,” Frazier said.
The large, dome-anchored building at 100 Jefferson County Parkway in Golden opened in 1993, with architecture meant to mesh with the surrounding landscape. The wheat-colored brick matches the clay in nearby terrain, and the maroon granite used was inspired by the soil and indigenous sandstone, Frazier said.
“It was designed to reflect the life and architecture of the county’s namesake, Thomas Jefferson,” Frazier said. “The central atrium of the building was styled after the rotunda Jefferson designed for the University of Virginia and also the Jefferson Memorial rotunda in Washington, D.C.”
But its most interesting aspect for Frazier is its butterfly-like shape when viewed from above, and its curved “wings” makes it appear smaller than it is.
The building “was designed by the architects to create a focal point,” Frazier said, “for what is a big, diverse governmental organization.”
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