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Real estate agent works to save Denver's older homes

Mary Rae is at home in an old renovated mansion in Denver. And so are a lot of other people because of her efforts to save inner-city buildings and neighborhoods.

In the last seven years Ms. Rae has become known as a crusader who will fight to save and preserve Denver's older homes. As a result, she has also become a leading specialist in the renovation of old buildings.

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She is today probably the city's most unusual real estate agent because she won't touch anything less than 40 years old and deals primarily in center-city housing.

Ms. Rae, with her own brand of feminine refinement and a soft voice, has also earned a reputation for being able to tackle city hall to get certain zoning laws changed. She has also been able to convince Denver's financial world that inner-city renovation is an important and profitable venture, as well as a salvation for homes, jobs, schools, and businesses.

It was in 1972 that Mary rae witnessed, with dismay, the demolition of the beautiful Moffat mansion. She decided then that she must do something to try to prevent such destruction in the future. She concluded that too much of Denver, the city in which she was born and which she loved, had already been laid waste by bulldozers to make way for high-rises and parking lots, and that "somebody had to stop it." She appointed herself the champion for saving old buildings and began to search out people who could buy them and do something with them.

Although she knew nothing about real estate or preservation at that time, she left her job as an administrative assistant with an oil firm and enrolled in a real estate school. Soon thereafter, when the Croke-Patterson mansion was about to be demolished, she herself scraped together the down payment to purchase and save it and later converted it into elegant offices.

Her next step was to establish her own firm, Mary Rae & Associates Ltd. Following her own inclination toward "adaptive reuse" of old residential buildings, her firm is now ensconced in the remodeled 1890 McKinley Mansion at 950 Logan Street in Denver. Today, the flourishing agency has 25 associates, 20 of whom practice what Mary Rae preaches. Like her, they have purchased and renovated old Denver homes in downtown areas, helping to swell the back-to-the-city movement of people interested again in centrally convenient urban living.

The present house (though her second effort at recycling an old structure), which Ms. Rae bought for herself and her two teen-age children, was once a derelict Georgian building on High Street and is part of a block that she has been responsible for totally turning around. "I took a long time to renovate and furnish the house, and I invited the whole city to come in and watch the process," the entrepreneur says. "Every Sunday during the six months we were gutting and renovating it, I had 'in progress' house tours so people could follow each step of our progress. I would be there, and the general contractor would be there, to explain what we were doing and answer questions about processes and products. It was like a live version of the 'This Old House' television show, but people were seeing it done firsthand. It taught them a lot and showed them how they could do it themselves.

Also, because the Rae firm has acted as general contractor on several projects, it has built up a directory of reputable local craftsmen and trades people, which it shares freely with Denver residents who are purchasing old houses.

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Another Rae innovation is to tell a little tale, romantic perhaps, and sell a little historic lore on each house she places. She does, or hires done, enough research on each individual house to give potential buyers little historical sketches about the property, including names of families who have lived in the house and interesting events that have taken place there.

She approaches the market in many imaginative ways, including the placing of advertisements on a classical music radio station. "I felt that people who liked classical music would also be likely to like old houses, and so it has proven. We also like to put distinctive line drawings of the houses in newspaper ads, and let the public inspect them by means of well-publicized open houses."

"I've had to dare to be different, and to look at buildings and at the real estate business in a completely different way," Ms. Rae explains.

Her most daring venture so far was probably the purchase, cutting in half, and removal of an enormous mansion called Brisbane to a condominium site several blocks away. The two halves of the house, along with its carriage house, were remodeled into 11 condominium units. They give architectural authority and character to the other new units in the complex called Brisbane Commons in Denver's Capitol Hill district. The old now handsomely complements the new. It was about the biggest house move in the history of Denver, and the five-block trip took 44 hours and cost $52,000. Ms. Rae doesn't plan to repeat such a venture soon, though she insists there were intrinsic rewards in the project.

At another point, when 14 houses in the Gaylord section were scheduled for demolition and the owner's financing fell through, she quickly found 14 people who, all in one day, agreed to buy and restore one house each.The block remains intact -- and renovated.

Today, Mary Rae says one of her great satisfactions is to drive around Denver with her teen-age son and daughter and view with pride the many buildings that wouldn't be there now had it not been for her efforts to save them. When the magazine "Colorado Woman" featured her last year as one of the state's outstanding businesswomen, they prefaced their article with this statement:

"If a Who's Who for the preservation of Denver's inner city is ever published , the name of Mary Rae, mansion-saver and realtor-visionary, will be among those high on the list."

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