Larimer Square is an area as rich in history as it is in fine shopping and dining. As the Mile High City’s oldest and most historic block, its buildings tell vividly the story of the birth and early years of Denver. This is a peek into the past of Larimer Square and the people who were part of it.
Going Way Back
The history of what we now know as Denver goes back to the 19th century land claims. In 1858, Colorado was born as news of gold spread east. Green Russell and a party of Georgians made the first gold strike that summer. They settled at the point where Speer Boulevard crosses Larimer Street today and called their camp Auraria. Soon another group arrived and set up town stakes across the creek and called their settlement St. Charles (about where the Granite building now stands on the corner of 15th and Larimer Streets). Then most of the second group went back to Kansas during the winter to register their township and stock up on provisions to return in the spring.
Just after their departure, another group from Kansas arrived at St. Charles headed by General William H. Larimer Jr. He liked what he found and immediately staked out a town for himself as he sent his sidekicks off to Levensworth. They arrived before the original St. Charles representatives and “jumped” the claim, renaming the town site Denver City after James Denver, the territorial governor of Kansas. The main street was named after General Larimer. Larimer and his son constructed a 16-foot by 20-foot cabin shortly after they arrived. The down-to-earth General had an interesting sense of humor; the doors to his cabin were coffin lids! Also, his cabin had the only “glass” window in Denver.
The cabin was torn down in 1861 and a one-story false-front store took its place until the Granite building was erected in 1882. Soon Denver grew to a town of 25 buildings on Larimer Street. Auraria also grew, and the two towns existed as rivals, until the spring of 1860 when, in a torch lit ceremony on Larimer Street Bridge, the two united and agreed to the name “Denver”.
The city block of Larimer Square housed Denver’s first bank, bookstore, photographer and dry goods store. The block was also the site of Denver’s first post office (where Nest is currently located) as well as the site of the first theater (in the Lincoln building where the store Eve is now located.)
On the grassy area at the corner of 14th and Larimer Streets stood the first City and County Building. The old landmark was torn down in the 1940s.
The building on the northwest corner of 14th and Larimer Streets was once Gahan’s Saloon, a legendary watering hole for politicians, policemen and city hall reporters. Tales are told of the Gahan Saloon’s notorious back room poker games. The onset of prohibition in 1916 led to the emergence of Gahan’s Soft Drink Parlor. However, legend has it that the basement housed Denver’s hottest speakeasy!
Dana Crawford Days
In 1963, award-winning preservationist Dana Crawford formed Larimer Square Associates. Under Dana’s leadership and vision, the group successfully prevented the demolition of the 1400 block of Larimer Street by the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA), an organization dedicated to building an impressive skyline at the expense of many historical districts. The struggle was a success and one that led to several similar successes in Lower Downtown. Dana pioneered the redevelopment of Larimer Square throughout the coming years, creating a lively shopping area from the neglected and abandoned buildings of Denver’s original main street.
Larimer Square became Denver’s first historic district in 1971. It is its own district – not within “LoDo” – and is outlined as Larimer Street from 14th to 15th Streets, alley to alley. The entire real estate “footprint” is only 142,000 square feet.
“Larimer Square and its many stores, restaurants and special events represent the spirit of a great western city,” Crawford says. “My family and I are proud to know that we helped originate the revival of historic Larimer Street.”
Larimer Square Today
Larimer Square was sold to its current owner, Jeff Hermanson, in 1993. Since then, Larimer Square, under the direction of Hermanson and real estate executive Joe Vostrejs, Larimer Square has gone through a dramatic repositioning movement. More than 90 percent of the property has been leased to new merchants in that time frame that fit the vision of distinctive urban shopping and dining. Larimer Square currently has more than 100 tenants with 40 retail/restaurant merchants in that mix.
“The Larimer Square vision will always be evolving,” says Hermanson. “We travel the country reviewing real estate and retailer trends and concepts to keep the Square fresh and artisanal.”
Now that you have been enlightened on the history of Larimer Square, be sure to visit us for a first hand look at where Denver began, or just relax and enjoy all that modern-day Larimer Square has to offer.Download the Larimer Square Historic Walking Tour