Steve Turner headshot

Professor Steve Turner on historic preservation and his transition to academia

September 30, 2021

Professor of Practice and Historic Preservation Program Director, Steve Turner brings a host of credentials and experience to his work at CAP. We sat down with Professor Turner to talk about his recent AIA President’s Award, his background, and how his work as Colorado’s State Historic Preservation Officer informed his transition to academia.

Congratulations on your recent award win! What was your reaction to receiving this prestigious accolade?

I am honored and also quite surprised. I’ve had a non-traditional architecture career so I didn’t think I would necessarily be on the radar at the American Institute of Architects. I am so pleased and beyond honored to receive this award.

Tell us about your background. 

I’m originally from Atlanta, GA, and also spent a lot of my childhood in Clearwater, FL, which I consider to be my hometown. I received my undergraduate degree in architecture from the University of Florida and received my graduate degrees in architecture and urban and regional planning from the University of Illinois. 

I’ve been teaching at the CU Denver College of Architecture & Planning for one year formally, but informally I have been teaching most of my life. Having been in the historic preservation arena, I have been asked to speak and teach quite a lot over the years. I’ve spoken at everything from major conferences to rotary club meetings in little rural towns. I’ve found that people are always interested in learning about historic preservation and I’m eager to share my knowledge. So I would say I’ve been trying to communicate my passion for historic preservation for 40 years now. 

I’m also the Executive Director of History Colorado where our biggest mission is to help people learn about the history and historic preservation. It’s our aim for people to understand those areas and what makes them relative to our lives today, and how we can build better futures by learning about and preserving our history.

In this chapter of my career, I want to focus on passing my passion on to the next generation.

Tell us more about your role at the CU Denver CAP.

At CAP I’m the director of two programs: the Historic Preservation Program and the Classical Architecture Program so I have a hand in two different worlds. And, as Director, it’s not one class in particular I manage—it’s broader than that. I’m involved with the whole program, from helping select students, to marketing the programs to potential future students. I have been teaching Historic Materials Conservation but I am considering taking on some other classes right now. In other words, I paint with a broad brush.

An integral part of my role is offering students the best possible educational experience. A lot of that is done through connecting my students with professional contacts that I’ve developed over the last 40 years. My goal is to develop an already strong program into the absolute best place to go if you want to study architecture in the American West.

Working directly with the students is another important part of my role at CAP. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of students on their capstone projects. What I really love about that work is that I can help the students make connections with people that are in the profession and working in areas they want to be in, whether it’s in sustainability, economic development, government preservation, administration, or beyond. I have a lot of great contacts in all of those areas and can introduce students to people who bring a lifetime of experience to the areas the students are interested in.

Personally, what I get out of this experience is an incredible feeling of hope for the future. There are so many days I look at the state of the world and think “oh, this is just a mess,” and working with these students makes me energized. It’s the most hopeful work I can be doing because they are bright and full of energy and they want to do things to build a better society. In this chapter of my career, I want to focus on passing my passion on to the next generation.

Tell us about your work as the State Historic Preservation Officer, from which you recently retired.

The role of State Historic Preservation officer is to administer the Federal Preservation Program including the National Register for Historic Places Federal Tax Credit program and an environmental review component of the National Preservation Act. On the surface, it looks like the job is about ensuring the efficient administration of those federal laws, but I think what the job is really about is trying to build relationships and helping engage people towards the most positive outcomes we can arrive at when there’s a preservation challenge. My role was about representing the state and the citizens of Colorado—present and future—in conversations about historic preservation with the federal government.

A lot of people don’t know this, but Colorado has the largest preservation grants program in the country. The State Historic Preservation Office receives tax revenue from the three local gaming communities here in Colorado. They distribute about $10 million a year in grants which is over three times the next largest state grants program. What that means is if you go to any community in Colorado and you see a beautifully preserved library or historic school, county courthouse, or main street, it’s most likely because of the investment of State Historical Fund monies in those properties.

To give you a frame of reference, my first job out of college was working with the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, where it was a source of great frustration when someone would call us with a historic preservation problem because we could give them technical advice but never had money to solve their problems. That’s what I loved about the Colorado State Historic Preservation Program: when someone called with a preservation issue, we could help them with a grant. That makes all the difference in the world for the outcome of the project. That ability to invest in preservation around the state means that Colorado is unique in the sheer number of historic properties it’s been able to preserve and restore.

How has your transition into academia been?

It’s been really smooth, and what’s made it that way is the wonderful staff at the College of Architecture and Planning and the support they have given me. I do feel that on some level I’ve always been involved in preservation education but doing it in this official academic setting is a different ballgame. When I have questions I can reach out to Dean Nan Ellin or Associate Dean Leo Darnell or any number of my colleagues and other professors at the University for advice. Everyone has been extremely generous in helping guide me as a new program director and assistant professor. I couldn’t have asked for a smoother transition.

How does historic preservation benefit Denver in particular?

I think if you asked 100 different historic preservationists you’d get 100 different answers to this question because I think it benefits the city in so many ways. From my perspective, historic preservation benefits Denver in two primary ways. The first is that preservation is the ultimate form of recycling; it’s an inherently sustainable activity. We spend a lot of time in architecture talking about building the future. I’ll reference Carl Elefante here, who said the greenest building is the one that’s already built. I believe that the more we can preserve and restore, the less impact there is on our natural resources and the better it is for the environment.

The second way I think historic preservation benefits Denver is that historic buildings and spaces create a unique sense of place within the community. In Denver, we have places with a sense of history like Lower Downtown, Larimer Square, and RiNo with its historic warehouses. All of these places have a unique sense about them and the preserved buildings help create spaces people want to spend time in. I think what’s valuable about that is that sense of uniqueness translates into people caring about their environment, and if you have a citizenry that cares about their environment then you’re going to have a stronger community. The first step in building a strong community is having citizens who feel engaged and connected to that community, and that’s what historic preservation does.

How did you get into architecture and historic preservation?

My mom was very interested in architecture. I grew up in a time when women’s career choices were more or less limited to teaching, nursing, and being administrative assistants, but I think my mom would have wanted to go into architecture if she could have. When I was a kid she dragged me around to see buildings done by Frank Lloyd Wright and Atlanta architect John Portman

What are some tips you’d share with students that would help make them successful in this line of work?

I think something very important in this line of work is passion—you have to decide for yourself if this is something you’re really passionate about. My second tip is to not stress about the job. I’ve seen the pattern over and over again when students graduate and it takes a little while to get started in preservation, but once you get your foot in the door, this line of work will provide you with a lifetime of growth, learnings, challenges, and the feeling you’ve made a significant contribution to society.

What’s been the biggest accomplishment of your career, so far?

I have a few. I can drive around the state of Colorado and point to specific buildings that are still standing today because I was involved in helping save them and that feels really, really good. Another accomplishment I would point to is helping History Colorado to resolve a major financial issue. The new museum that was built about a decade ago required bonds which put the organization in a significant financial bind. I earned my role as Executive Director partly because I spent the last four years working with the state legislature to resolve that issue and secure funding to cover the bonds. That means that this 142-year-old historical institution now has the strongest financial footing in its lifetime, and being involved in that feels great. 

People walking into History Colorado Center on a sunny day
Photo Credit: History Colorado

I’d also highlight a significant rezoning I was involved in with the City of Denver where I managed the rezoning of a particular neighborhood that was dealing with scrape-offs of existing housing. We were able to put into place new zoning that didn’t stop the scrape-offs but did create a situation where, visually, the newly built houses appear much more compatible within older neighborhoods. When you drive around the city today you can see the difference in new construction and how it fits much more cohesively in existing neighborhoods.

How do you think CAP stands out from other architecture and design schools?

First, because of its location in Denver, we’re able to have a faculty of not only great teachers but also great practitioners. That’s a key distinction from a lot of architecture programs. Here at the CU Denver CAP, everybody does what they teach and that makes a big difference. It also provides for students a highly effective learning lab where it’s easier to get them internships—in places like the State Historic Preservation Office or at architecture firms—so they can gain real-world experience relatively easily. I think these elements result in a truly unique learning environment.

This interview was edited and condensed by Agency PR