When Richard Polk enthusiastically co-founded The Pedestrian Shops in 1971 to sell footwear on Boulder’s Pearl Street, he was one of the few new business owners settling in Boulder’s downtown. Vacant storefronts lined the once lively downtown as anchor stores like J.C. Penny and Montgomery Ward moved to the indoor Crossroads Mall — which opened in 1963 on Boulder’s 29th Street. Some of Polk’s neighboring shop owners who hadn’t shuttered their doors or relocated were not keen on changing with the times.
During this time of transition in the 1970s, however, one woman stood out as a strong advocate for the downtown, recalls Polk. Virginia Wheeler Patterson (Jour’46), co-owner of Pearl Street’s The Printed Page bookstore and a downtown board member, often visited with other shop owners and attended meetings related to rejuvenation of the area. Her persistence and vision are two of the driving forces that have made Pearl Street the vibrant street scene it is today.
“I would invite people to come to breakfast at the Hotel Boulderado and just talk,” Patterson says. “We were trying to get people who rented or owned property downtown to work together to present an attractive shopping venue and gathering place.”
In the late 1960s, designs for an improved downtown were created but often were rejected as impractical or too expensive. The idea to establish a mall on the street didn’t flourish until Gov. John Love signed the Public Mall Act in 1970, which allowed Colorado cities to close streets to build pedestrian malls. Pearl Street was closed to vehicles between 11th and 15th streets in the summer of 1976, and the mall was officially dedicated on Aug. 6, 1977.
Even so, Pearl Street business owners worried about restricted public access to their stores once the roads closed. It took the skills and persuasion of board members like Patterson to convince them to stay.
“Virginia was always an icon of what you hoped you could be,” Polk says. “She was a real promoter of downtown business.”
Patterson’s love for Boulder began as a CU journalism student.
She arrived by train from Wauwatosa, Wis., with her twin sister during World War II. She was paid $4 a week to edit CU’s Silver and Gold, the student paper produced twice a week on a linotype machine. As a senior, she won a nationwide contest to be guest editor-in-chief of Mademoiselle, a New York-based young women’s magazine that covered fashion and beauty trends, for a month. The experience was memorable, but she longed to return to Boulder.
“I missed the Flatirons!” she says.
Afterwards the Daily Camera hired her to sell display advertising, but before long she joined CU as a writer and editor, where she met her late husband Rev. A.B. Patterson Jr. — a longtime campus chaplain and CU sports announcer — and started a family.
In 1978 she and her husband took over The Printed Page and ultimately moved it to the 1200 block of Pearl Street. Shortly after, two of Boulder’s businessmen invited her husband to join the Downtown Businessmen’s Association.
“He said, ‘Well you know committee stuff isn’t my bag. Gingy is the one who does that,’ ” she says. “So it became the downtown businessmen and me [on the board].”
Patterson was in charge of marketing and spent her time working with business owners to buy into the city’s plans for the downtown.
“[Virginia] has been involved since day one,” says George Karakehian, a city council member and owner of Pearl Street’s Art Source International since 1978. “She was its driving force for many years.”
Patterson’s deeds haven’t gone unnoticed. The birthing center at the Boulder Community Foothills Hospital is named for her, as is an alley between Pearl and Spruce on 13th Street. She is a lifetime member of the Downtown Boulder board and has the Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award named for her, among many other recognitions.
“I can’t think of anybody who has done more for the vitality and for the creative energy of the downtown,” says Sean Maher (MBA’90), CEO of the Downtown Boulder Business Improvement District. “She’s been a mentor to hundreds of small businesses downtown. You name it, Virginia has been involved in it.”
Yet, in true Patterson form, none of these endeavors are considered her proudest accomplishment.
“It’s having a happy married life that included being parents of three wonderful sons,” she says, then pauses and adds, “That doesn’t sound very career-minded, does it?”
Photo courtesy Daily Camera Collection / Carnegie Branch Library for Local History