Mike McPhee and Dana Crawford: Chronicling the woman who saved “the soul of a city”

Dana Crawford with retired journalist Mike McPhee, who wrote a book on the visionary and preservationist, at their book signing Tuesday at Union Station. (Lynn Bartels)
Dana Crawford with retired journalist Mike McPhee, who wrote a book on the visionary and preservationist, at their book signing Tuesday at Union Station. (Lynn Bartels)

When I moved to Denver in the summer of 1993 to work as the night cops reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, my editors occasionally dispatched me to an abandoned flour mill where hobos had started yet another fire.

I already found the streets around downtown confusing and the poor Denver Fire Department would take my calls and try to guide me to the location in the dark, where I would finally arrive only to find that police had already shooed away the transients.

You can imagine my shock in 1997 when preservationist Dana Crawford announced she was turning the flour mill into condominiums.

I wasn’t the only one who thought the idea was “just shy of insane,” as author Mike McPhee says in his new book, “Dana Crawford:  50 Years Saving the Soul of a City.”

“In the late 1960s, it was shut down, emptied of most of its heavy steel machinery and left to the pigeons, the homeless and the graffiti artists,” he wrote of the mill. “Dana’s close friend and colleague, Jeff Shoemaker of the Greenway Foundation, attended the press conference announcing the project and fell into disbelief.

“This is completely non-salvageable. No one will live down here. I’ll buy the dynamite  and I’ll push the plunger,” he told her.

The condominiums were a huge success.

The new book by Mike McPhee on the legendary Dana Crawford.
The new book by Mike McPhee on the legendary Dana Crawford.

I attended Mike’s book signing  Tuesday night at Union Station — another Crawford project — in part because I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of turning that huge, ugly mill into a trendy spot and because I’ve known Mike for years, first as his competitor and then as his colleague at The Post.

“To Lynn, my Denver Post deskmate and Rolodex back up — enjoy,”   he wrote, referring to my penchant for having plenty of folks’ phone numbers.

A number of other former Denver Post folks stopped by to offer support: Steve Raabe, Jeff Roberts, Ann Schrader, Pat O’Driscoll, Lou Kilzer, Todd Engdahl, Dick Kreck, J. Sebastian Sinisi, Mark Obmascik  and Bonnie Gilbert, to name a few.

Crawford  helped resurrect Larimer Square, which once had been the heart of old downtown Denver but had turned into Skid Row by the time she arrived in town. Decades later, the block she revitalized is still a top tourist attraction and gathering hole for the locals.

Crawford continually pestered city officials about preservation. At the book  signing, she recalled that former Federico Peña once told a crowd that when he was mayor he told the people in his office, “Just give her whatever she wants and get rid of her.”

1 thought on “Mike McPhee and Dana Crawford: Chronicling the woman who saved “the soul of a city””

  1. I moved to Denver in ’65…and eventually worked as the regional press officer for ACTION, the federal agency for the Peace Corps, VISTA and Older Americans Programs. We were among the first to have offices so close to Larimer Square, then skid row. It was a little odd, parking outside just a few blocks away but so good to be located in downtown Denver. Over the years., thanks to Dana Crawford and other pioneers, the area became the exciting hub of a rejuvenated city. I later worked in Larimer Square and various locations downtown. Thank you Dana and other visionaries.

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