SMELL OF THE HOUSEPAINT

In a Pentecostal church near 11th Avenue and Acoma Street in downtown Denver, a corps of volunteer carpenters is busy building the only Elizabethan-style stage in Denver--and a one-of-a-kind theater arts facility.

The church, where a small congregation still holds services on Wednesdays and Sundays, was recently purchased for $200,000 by a business partnership that includes real estate developer Mickey Zeppelin and three members of Denver's Cowper-thwaite family. Under their ownership, the building will double as the new home of the Ad Hoc Theatre company. As part of that transformation, it's getting a facelift and a new name: the Acoma Civic Center.

In lieu of one years' rent to the partnership, Ad Hoc artistic director James Gale has rounded up eighty volunteers to construct a 250-seat theater. Plans also call for the installation of a small arts gallery and entertainment space, as well as offices for Ad Hoc and other arts organizations. Zeppelin and investor Lara Cowperthwaite hope to create a miniature arts mecca that will serve as a boon to both arts groups and urban lofts being marketed in the area by Zeppelin and others.

The theater is an integral part of the city's long-term plan to reinvigorate the Golden Triangle, an area bounded to the north by Colfax Avenue, to the west by Speer Boulevard, and to the east by the alley between Sherman and Lincoln streets. Known as the Civic Center Cultural Complex, the plan grew out of the construction of Denver's new main library. A subterranean passage from the library to the Denver Art Museum is now in place, and Acoma has been closed and turned into what city planners call the "Avenue of the Arts." The city has set aside money for street furniture, tree grates and new sidewalks on Acoma, and the Art Museum and the adjacent Colorado Historical Society have purchased several parking lots, using a piece of one to dress up the neighborhood with a small park.

"Acoma is an acute piece of the Avenue of the Arts," says Madie Martin, an urban designer in the city planning office. "We're looking at a unique streetscape with its own distinct character."

The new theater is "a great fit" to the area, adds Dick Farley, the city's deputy director of planning and development. "The more culturally related institutions we have, the better."

The city already has worked with Golden Triangle property owners to develop a neighborhood plan encouraging residential development, notes Farley. Zeppelin points out that the Triangle is within convenient walking distance not only of the library and art museum but of downtown employers. Art galleries, bookstores and coffeehouses will be the next to move in, he predicts. Over the past year, Zeppelin's company has built 42 lofts at 11th Avenue and Cherokee Street; developer Bruce Berger plans to build 58 more lofts in the area this fall, Zeppelin says.

In addition to Zeppelin, the partnership that owns the old church includes Tee and Lara Cowper-thwaite, Blanche Cowperthwaite, artist Susan Wick and attorney Hugh Hallack. Lara Cowperthwaite, a longtime arts activist, says that for her the Acoma Center represents a lifelong dream.

Cowperthwaite founded the Mountain International Exchange, a program to bring artists from around the world to Denver, in 1991. She sees the church, built in 1892, as central to her plan. There will be an apartment in the church for visiting artists, she says, and the partnership also intends to host a film series, produce children's theater, offer concerts and poetry readings and provide gallery space for the visual arts.

"We are looking to create a forum for all art forms, a forum to generate ideas and spur action," says Cowperthwaite. Adds Zeppelin, "We'd like to see it become another Aspen Institute to explore urban concepts."

Ad Hoc was chosen as the anchor tenant, says Cowperthwaite, because "I had seen James Gale's work and liked it very much--I thought it was top of the line." And the theater company, which recently merged with Denver's The Other Theatre Company, has big plans of its own. Ad Hoc hopes to hold educational programs at its new home, and it's preparing a regular season of classics and contemporary works, including a new play by Denver playwright James Cannon. Its first offering, a production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, opens October 15.

To date, the Acoma Civic Center has been personally financed by the partners. Zeppelin says the partnership expects to spend another $100,000 on renovations by the time the garden--the last touch--goes in this coming spring.

 
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