How Focus Property Group Operationalized a Denver Landmark
The development group had to balance business and history in transforming one of the city’s oldest firehouses into a restaurant
As Denver continues to grow, it seems that the city skyline is constantly evolving to include new apartments, condos and skyscrapers. With growth, however, comes the responsibility of preserving the buildings that helped put Denver on the map in the first place.
“There are so many benefits to continuing to use our historic buildings,” says Laura Swartz, communications director of community planning and development for the city of Denver. This allows us, as a city, “to retain that connection to our shared history and add variety and vibrancy to our city by having a mixture of buildings – some old, some new – with many different architectural styles.” And as a bonus, she adds, it allows us to preserve building materials and mitigate the environmental impacts of new construction.
Denver buildings receive landmark status based on history, architecture, geography and cultural significance. “The city wants to work with [companies] to meet their goals while preserving the character of the building,” Swartz says.
One such landmark is one of Denver’s first fire stations, Hose House No. 1, in the Union Station neighborhood. “This project is a great example of how it's possible to simultaneously preserve and reuse our historic building stock,” she says.
First constructed in the second half of the 19th century, it was a prominent fixture of The Bottoms, one of the first neighborhoods in the city. The building housed the fire house for nearly 15 years, until the railroad came in and blocked the entrance, rendering it useless. Although a few other businesses, including a boiler manufacturing shop, occupied the space over the years, the building has remained vacant for many years.
That is until earlier this year, when Denver real estate development company Focus Property Group opened a new restaurant in the building. The restaurant, Woodie Fisher, is named for one of Denver’s early fire marshals — Redwood "Woodie" Fisher — and is part of the group’s redevelopment of the whole block which includes a new hotel as well.
According to Focus Executive Vice President Josh Fine, it took a while for the group to determine how to repurpose this unique space, but preserving it was always a priority. “Everything else in the neighborhood has been demolished," he says. "It’s really a jewel in the neighborhood, and we wanted to celebrate that history.”
What Goes Into Redeveloping a Landmark?
“The first thing that we needed was Landmark Preservation Commission approval,” Fine says. “It’s a public process, and this building, it is a pretty prominent landmark right at the entrance to Union Station, so there was a lot of attention on the design and the choices that we were making.”
This attention resulted in a number of changes to the firm’s original design, however, Fine feels it “ultimately led to a better development.” An unusual feat, he says, adding that “as a developer, you kind of hate those entitling processes where other people are trying to design and develop your building, but I actually think in this particular case, I felt that there was a collaborative effort to help make this a real jewel and treasure for the city.”
Swartz says landmark review is just one step in these projects. For every landmark in Denver, the Landmark Preservation team reviews changes to the exterior as well as ensures the project meets other city regulations, from building, energy, fire and zoning codes to health regulations (particularly for restaurants) and business licensing requirements. The team also helps developers understand the state and federal tax credits available for commercial properties.
“The Woodie Fisher project in particular sat empty for many years before it was redeveloped, so something special about this project was the work that went into rehabilitating the masonry exterior, windows, doors and roof before it could be habitable,” Swartz says.
Balancing Business and History
Before becoming an operational restaurant, the building had to undergo major structural changes while maintaining and preserving elements of the history, which was no small feat, Fine says.
“The building itself was in a tremendous state of disrepair,” he says. Among the issues were a flock of pigeons that had to be evicted; a lack of structural reinforcement — the building was just a masonry building with no structural members to hold it up; disintegrating bricks that had to be removed and replaced with recycled historic brick from similar time periods; a fire-damaged roof in need of removal (it was replaced by a full-ceiling skylight); and a lack of modern building systems such as electrical and HVAC systems.
And then, a lot of effort went in to designing and furnishing the space with regard to the history. This included using historic and found items to decorate such as recycled firehouses repurposed into light fixtures and restoring the original carriage doors of the firehouse.
“Every historic element that we found in the building we tried to use it to the extent that we could,” Fine says. “There’s a sense of respectful and playful with the history in the design of the building.”
In paying respect to the history in the business itself, the restaurant is keeping the concept and food as local and approachable as possible to keep it as a neighborhood amenity. Under Executive Chef Franco Ruiz, the ingredients-driven menu features fresh and wood-fired cuisine that is seasonal, local and sourced sustainably.
1999 chestnut place
denver, co 80202