Do commercial buildings learn? If they want to avoid the wrecker’s ball, they’d better be like enduring businesses — carefully conceived, solidly built, well located and open to change. Just as businesses that fail to evolve fall by the wayside, so do aging buildings that can’t be profitably reimagined.
Can you predict which buildings will stand, and which will fall? Imagine yourself as a reporter standing at the corner of Pikes Peak and Tejon in the summer of 1954, asking passers-by a simple question:
“Name three downtown buildings that will still be standing in 2014. Name three that will be gone.”
Still standing? Many folks might have named downtown’s then-signature buildings: Jimmie Burns’ opulent opera house, at that time a first-run movie theater; the still-magnificent Antlers Hotel; and the striking red sandstone building at the northwest corner of Pikes Peak and Tejon that housed the First National Bank.
Gone? Most likely some of the insignificant three-, four- and five-story buildings that lined Tejon Street between Platte and the County Courthouse. Surely, progress would sweep them away.
Those three signature buildings were gone within two decades, along with scores of small commercial structures on Colorado, Cascade and Nevada. The city’s changing business environment doomed buildings great and small as suburban growth exploded in the east and northeast.
Yet many buildings survived the locust years, that period in the 1960s and ’70s when new was good, old was bad, and leveling historic structures made absolute business sense — or so the property owners of the time believed.
Here are six survivors, buildings that learned and are still in business, gracing our city and, one would suspect, earning decent returns for their owners.
DeGraff Building, 118 N. Tejon St., 1897
Designed by prominent Springs architects Barber & Hastings, the DeGraff Building was erected at the height of the Cripple Creek boom by David DeGraff, described as a “veteran of the California gold rush.”
The first floor contained retail tenants, while the top floors were devoted to office uses. The offices were converted into apartments in the early 1940s, and reconverted to office use 25 years later. The building was “modernized” in the 1950’s with an unfortunate application of a pebble aggregate façade, which was removed in a graceful renovation during the early ’80s. Restored to its original appearance, the building’s principal tenant is now Old Chicago, a restaurant that likely generates far more revenue than did the bicycle shop that occupied the space 115 years ago.
Maytag Aircraft Corporation Building, 701 S. Cascade Ave., 1957
According to the city’s historic resources website, “The Maytag Aircraft Building is significant as an exceptional example of Modern architecture in Colorado Springs. Contributing features include its folded plate roof, cantilevered walls, stacked, glazed brick wall cladding, tinted windows and use of an exterior courtyard as an integral part of the building. Designed by the local firm of Lusk and Wallace, the building is also historically significant for its association with the Maytag Aircraft Corporation of Lewis Maytag, Jr., serving as the company’s headquarters from 1957 through at least 1982.”
Today, the building is occupied by CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates), which acquired the property in 2002 for $700,000. The sale apparently generated a nice profit for a previous owner, who had acquired the building for $425,000 in 1996.
Cheyenne Building, 2 E. Pikes Peak Ave., 1901
Constructed for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, the Cheyenne Building housed offices on the bottom floor and sleeping rooms on the two top floors for railroad employees. It became a downscale hotel in 1909, a use that endured until the early 1960s.
Acquired by the First National Bank as an expansion site, the building languished. The upper floors were vacant, while the ground floor had various short-term tenants. In 1989, the building came within weeks of demolition, to be replaced by a parking lot that would serve the downtown library. That deal fell apart, and Denver brewpub entrepreneur John Hickenlooper acquired the property.
Renovated and reinvented, the building now houses the Phantom Canyon brewpub/pool hall/meeting place. Once forlorn, decrepit and unloved, it’s now a downtown landmark. It’s hard to imagine that it won’t survive for another century, especially after outliving all of its neighbors at the intersection of Pikes Peak and Tejon.
Hibbard Building, 17 S. Tejon St., 1914
Designed by Colorado Springs architect Thomas Barber, the building has been continuously owned by members of the Hibbard family for 100 years. From 1914 to 1996 it was home to Hibbard’s, downtown’s last department store.
Extensively renovated in 1996-97, the building now houses a street level Chipotle restaurant with light-filled, high-ceilinged offices on the upper floors. It aptly symbolizes stability, continuity and tradition, not to mention permanence.
It’s as safe from demolition as any building in the city. Unless you’re foolish, desperate or deranged, you don’t tear down a building with your name on its façade.
St. John Brothers Plumbing Building, 206 N. Tejon St., 1895
The earliest known occupant of this graceful little one-story building was St. John Brothers Plumbing in 1899. Since then, it has had a variety of retail uses, including other plumbers, a candy store and, since the 1960s, art galleries. Currently occupied by the Boulder Street Gallery, the building’s façade is still ornamented by an antique lamp bearing the name “Handy’s,” an early 20th century confectioner.
Like every commercial building in the 200 block of North Tejon, it’s a survivor. Imagine this tidy row of small commercial buildings as a company of soldiers drawn up for battle, each protecting the other.
Graced by well over a dozen storefronts, located across the street from Acacia Park, all of the buildings on the block are at least 75 years old. Iconic downtown businesses, such as the Chinook Bookshop and Hathaway’s magazine store/newsstand have come and gone, replaced by Terra Verde and Berkshire Hathaway Realtors. The block soldiers on.
Pearl Laundry, 333 N. Tejon St., 1914
This drably functional, single-story brick building is now a centenarian, having outlived many of its more glamorous contemporaries. It served as the home of the Pearl Laundry Company, a steam-cleaning business, for more than 30 years. In 1972, it was converted into the Agora Mall, which has housed multiple retail tenants during the past four decades.
Lessons to learn
Six disparate commercial buildings, ranging in age from 57 to 117 years. If they could speak, what could they teach us?
Size matters. Big buildings with big footprints make attractive targets for teardown and redevelopment. Location matters — not so good that the land beneath the building becomes more valuable than the building itself, not so bad that tenants flee and the building yields no income. Numbers matter — the more buildings around you, the more tenants and the more foot traffic the better.
And affection matters.
Would the Hibbard family have remained devoted to their eponymous downtown building if it didn’t so boldly bear their name? If the Cheyenne Building’s façade didn’t feature its much loved terracotta bust of a Native American chief, would the community have so fiercely opposed its demolition?
We’ll see. Meanwhile, check back in another 50 years for an update …