In 1860, residents of Denver City and Auraria convened on Larimer Street to toast the joining of their two (formerly rival) towns. Later, Larimer hosted Rothschilds, Vanderbilts, and Guggenheims at the glamorous Windsor Hotel, built in 1880 at Larimer and 18th streets. Larimer thrived as Denver’s grandest thoroughfare…until silver crashed in 1893. Then the street devolved into what a historian called the “ideal skid row”—one that by 1950 held 46 bars or liquor stores, 57 flophouses, and 10 missions. So the city did some Sodom and Gomorrah–style renovations. “This was the national prescription: When a city was rotting, tear it down and start over,” says Thomas Noel, a University of Colorado Denver history professor. That included many buildings on Larimer—but not its 1400 block, home to antique stores frequented by a local geologist’s wife named Dana Crawford, who saw the beautiful architecture behind the blight. She rallied support from Mayor Thomas Currigan, assembled investors such as former U.S. Representative Patricia Schroeder, and pried a loan from the New York Life Insurance Co. Fifty years ago this month, Crawford’s investment group rechristened the block “Larimer Square.” It took years for the concept to succeed, but many credit this now-thriving nook of boutiques, bistros, and bars as the catalyst for downtown’s rebirth. More important, Larimer Square, the first of the city’s 53 historic districts, proved that Denver’s past doesn’t have to be razed to make way for its future.

Click here to read a conversation between Dana Crawford and chef Jennifer Jasinski about Larimer Square.