Historic Boulder celebrates 40th birthday

The Central School is destroyed in the early 1970s
Photo courtesy of Historic Boulder

In the 1960s, many historic buildings in downtown Boulder — including some dating back to the city’s roots in the last quarter of the 1800s — were demolished in the name of progress, in the name of expansion, in the name of economic development.

But in the early ’70s, a group of local residents rose up against that tide and drew a line in the sand when it came to three particular properties.

The upstart preservationists succeeded in saving two of those structures, the Highland School at 9th Street and Arapahoe Avenue and the city’s original Union-Pacific train depot, which has been relocated more than once and now stands at what is expected to be Boulder’s Transit Village.

Unfortunately, the third building, Central School, erected at the site of Colorado’s first schoolhouse, was demolished.

And that loss, even more than the two preserved structures, may have cemented the activists’ place in history.

The group quickly became known as Historic Boulder, and the organization celebrates its 40th anniversary this week at a party being held from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Sept. 27 on the mezzanine of the Boulderado Hotel, in the heart of the downtown it has helped protect.

According to Historic Boulder President Abby Daniels, the group’s first board president Joyce Davies helped organize a standing-room-only meeting at Boulder’s public library in the early 1970s to save the three threatened structures.

Davies recalls what it was like during Historic Boulder’s infancy.

“We had no money, no reputation, we had nothing at that time,” she tells Boulder Weekly. “The first few years there, we were so busy we couldn’t think.”

Davies, who would later be hired as the group’s first executive director in 1977, says there were both public and private buildings that succumbed to the expansion of the downtown business district in the 1960s between Pine and Canyon streets.

“At that time, nobody was giving them any thought at all, it was just, ‘We need a bigger building there,’ so down they went,” Davies says.

Saving the Highland School was one of their top priorities, she explains, and seven preservationists secured loans of $20,000 each from local banks to keep the historic structure from being torn down. About $70,000 was paid to the school district to secure the building, and the other half was used to renovate it, Davies says.

It still stands today as an office building, thanks in no small part to its owner, Sina Simantob, who by most accounts has taken good care of one of Boulder’s oldest structures.

“It’s a wonderful example of how a good caretaker can take an old building and give it new use,” Davies says.

When city officials wanted to open 14th Street to traffic between Spruce and Canyon, threatening the historic train depot, the fledgling organization helped save the station with the assistance of the Jaycees, which secured money from the city to have it relocated to 30th and Pearl, according to Davies.

The activists weren’t as lucky with Central School, since the school district was set on selling it to a developer who tore it down — but not before preservationist Prissy Bowron got wind of the wrecking ball’s approach and affixed a sign to the structure saying “Historic Boulder protests and regrets the destruction of this historic building.”

“That’s really when people started to take us seriously,” Davies says, adding that Bowron and her husband Bob deserve much credit for buying historic homes in the area, renovating them and reselling them.

The demolition of the Central School seemed to create a sense of urgency. Historic Boulder went on to bolster its reputation by spearheading the city’s historic preservation ordinance in 1974 and making its influence felt on the Boulder Landmarks Board, which has designated more than 163 individual landmarks and 11 historic districts.

Today, Historic Boulder and its members are credited with saving dozens of structures that would have otherwise been razed, including the Boulder Theater and the Arnett-Fullen House at 7th and Pearl.

Historic Boulder in front of the Hannah Barker House | Photo courtesy of Historic Boulder

Now, the group has taken on its most ambitious endeavor to date: preserving and rehabilitating the Hannah Barker House, one of the oldest residences in Boulder, which was donated to Historic Boulder in late 2010. Hannah Barker, who purchased the home with her husband Ezra Barker in 1877, two years after it was built, was one of the city’s most prominent pioneer women and was among the first female schoolteachers in Boulder County.

According to Daniels, this structure, located near the group’s first preservation effort, Highland School, will be the most expensive project the organization has funded, in part because it was neglected for many years.

But the group has some help. The University of Colorado chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity has adopted the property to be one of its volunteer projects, and in addition to using income from the Historic Boulder endowment, the group has acquired a grant from the State Historical Fund for the initiative.

Of course, more donations are needed to finish the final phases of the project over the next few years.

Daniels says the Barker House effort is a sign of Historic Boulder’s continuing vitality. The group is not opposed to change, she explains; in fact, the organization has helped preserve “landmarks of the future” built as recently as the 1950s.

“We don’t want a town frozen in time,” Daniels says, “but in historic preservation you want that change managed.”

She describes the approach as maintaining “a city that has a sense of place. … Communities with character are the most economically viable.”

As for Davies, she has returned to the board of Historic Boulder, and she plans to attend its 40th birthday party.

“I go off the board for a period of years, and I can’t stand it,” she says. “I have to know what’s going on. I love the organization. That’s sort of my mission in life, I love old buildings. Every one we save, I’m thrilled about.”

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