Global development hub finds home in historic Curtis Park horse barn

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the late 1800’s Denver public transit moved by horsepower. A team would pull a streetcar along level ground and up hills, then drivers loaded the horses into the cars themselves for the descent. In 1877, the Denver City Railway’s horse cars ferried more than 300,000 people between historic downtown Denver and one of city’s earliest “suburbs,” Curtis Park.

“Curtis Park really wouldn’t exist as it does today without those early streetcars coming up this way,” said Joel Noble of the Curtis Park Neighbors Association.

Easily connected to downtown by public transit, the neighborhood flourished, and in 1882 the Denver City Railway built a large, brick horse barn on 33rd and Arapahoe to house its 32 horses and 12 horse cars.

By 2008 the historic building was the last of its kind and had been entirely vacant for years. Its roof was collapsing, and several corners of the building had crumbled. “It probably would have been easier to tear it down and build a new building,” said Denver architect Aaron Tweedie.

The scale and construction of the building was not well suited to residential use, so when the Denver Housing Authority purchased the vacant structure as a part of a larger plan to revitalize the area around Arapahoe street, their plan was just that: to tear it down and build housing on the site.

“We convinced them the building had historic value,” said Noble. “From there it was just a matter of figuring out how to best use the space.”

That use emerged as a coalition of international development organizations headed by Andrew Romanoff of International Development Enterprises (iDE) and Denver Urban Gardens began looking for spaces. The DHA introduced the two groups just over two years ago and together they sought an architectural firm to restore and repurpose the barn.

“We really take pride in and specialize in adaptive reuse– the dramatic renovation of these old buildings,” said Tweedie, the lead architect and builder from the design-build firm tres birds, which won the contract to redevelop the barn as a collaborative work environment. Tres birds is a recent transplant to the Five Points neighborhood as well, with an office-workshop in a renovated(ish) warehouse on north Franklin.

The tres birds workshop on Franklin street. All tres birds architects also work as builders on their projects.
The tres birds workshop on Franklin street. All tres birds architects also work as builders on their projects.

The facade of the old horse barn was preserved and landmarked.
The facade of the old horse barn was preserved and landmarked.

Today the barn, officially known as the Posner Center after a donor’s father who once owned and operated a small shop in the neighborhood, is home to more than 40 international development organizations and also serves as the headquarters of Denver Urban Gardens.

Tres birds essentially rebuilt the structure from within, using hydraulic jacks to level the floors and restructuring the roof to accommodate a bright atrium.

“That was such a dark, scary, awful building when we started,” Tweedie remembers, adding that in places trees had begun to grow in through the disintegrating walls.

Because so many organizations co-occupy the building, a lot of the design traffics between private and shared spaces. There’s the possibility of total, quiet isolation in a series of former horse stalls which are now glass walled “flex rooms.” There’s also sweeping communal space stocked with free-floating desks, a ping-pong table and a modern open kitchen for fundraisers and Urban Garden cooking classes.

Doug Vilsack of Elephant Energy, an organization that works to bring solar panels to Namibia, said the shared workspaces are perfect for an organization like his.

“We’ve been around for six years and have 50 to 60 staffers, but the vast majority of them live and work in Namibia,” he said. Vilsack added that, with tenant structures that range from shared desks to entire office wings, the horse barn shaped up as the ideal home base for his organization’s handful of Denver administrators.

Touring the building with him, it’s clear how much Vilsack loves the space. He bends down by a post to show where horses’ teeth dented the wood more than a century ago. He rests a hand on the unusual staircase and mentions that tres birds built it, along with the custom workstations, out of salvaged boxcar flooring.

Shared space wraps around the atrium and stairwell on two floors. Vilsack points out a classroom upstairs, explaining that they’re already working with local universities to host courses and place student interns with the building’s organizations.


Common space includes desks and staircase built by tres birds of recycled boxcar flooring.
Common space includes desks and staircase built by tres birds of recycled boxcar flooring.


I’m about to ask Vilsack how, aside from bringing in equally internationally focused local students, this gaggle of international organizations could hope to engage with the growing and changing neighborhood around them. That’s when I’m struck by a series of images on the gallery-white walls.

The photos are part of a series called “Picture.Me.Here.” It’s the installation of a digital storytelling project by refugees now based in Denver. And, just like that, the building brings me into contact with something I didn’t know about Denver, about who lives here, and about modern communities. With more and more people on the global move, the international and the local are merging with increasing speed in cities all across America. The future of sustainable development might just begin with the acknowledgment that local and international development are intimately connected.

Stella Madrid at the DHA says that, although this project was new for her organization, which usually focuses on local development through housing construction, she can’t imagine a better use for the space.

“As DHA puts significant focus on revitalizing communities, historic buildings can be a stabilizing force as that revitalization occurs,” she wrote to the Independent. “A re-born historic building strikes a perfect chord by respecting history, displaying and communicating creativity while also solidifying character a developer just can’t create.”

The Posner Center’s also working to bring the dynamic neighborhood around them into the renovated landmark in person. They’ve hired someone to do community outreach, and Noble notes that just after the horse barn was complete, the organizations opened their doors to the Curtis Park Neighbors Association’s monthly meeting.

“Right away they’re inviting in all kinds of groups from the general area to ask ‘How do you envision us being an active part of this community?’” said Noble. “It would be easy to say they work internationally, so they’re not really here, but I really think their actions show they want to be in and of the neighborhood while doing great things abroad.”