Playing to an Empty House

To save its former building, the Eulipions theater group will have to put on its best show yet -- in court.

A few weeks ago, Don Gilmore, a member of Friends of Eulipions, walked past the Eulipions theater group's former home in the massive El Jebel Shrine Temple, at 1770 Sherman Street, and glanced through one of the windows. He saw nothing. The offices had been cleared out; costumes, props and personal belongings had been moved and, in a symbol of the antagonism between the members of the original theater group and the new board of "suits" appointed to bail them out of financial trouble, the group's members hadn't been told where their things had gone.

It's easier to guess why their things are gone: The five-story Moorish temple, a Denver landmark, appears destined to be converted into residential lofts or condominiums. Last month, the Gray Group, a real estate company, met with the Denver Landmark Commission, which must approve any changes made to the exterior of landmark buildings -- those with historical, geographical or architectural significance. The company submitted a plan from the architectural firm of David Owen Tryba that would add balconies and lower the windows so that they would be more appropriate for residential use.

The plan received preliminary approval, but there are no guarantees the commission will approve the Gray Group's final design. Nevertheless, plenty of preservationists are worried, especially about the building's interior, which is full of grand ballrooms and performance spaces and is not regulated by the commission. "I'm very disappointed to hear it was going to be sold to be turned into housing," says Kathleen Brooker, the president of Historic Denver. "[Developers] take out the opportunity for the public to enjoy those spaces, as well as taking out the spaces themselves. The best use is one that would maintain the ballroom and theater for the enjoyment of the public."

For sale: The El Jebel Shrine Temple could be turned into lofts or condos.
David Rehor
For sale: The El Jebel Shrine Temple could be turned into lofts or condos.

Brooker would like to see the developer and the city work together to preserve the character of the building, perhaps by building a residential high-rise on the adjacent parking lot. "It's not beyond the realm of possibility, but it would take everybody coming to the table to preserve the space," she says.

One local developer, Steve Ownbey, says he had just such a plan. He was prepared to buy the building late last year, construct a new parking garage with space for stores on the adjacent parking lot (also owned by Eulipions) and keep the temple itself as a cultural arts center. Ownbey's plan would have left the theater's ballroom -- a space he calls "phenomenal as a small business conference center" -- intact. "It was a great plan. We had banks interested," he says. "We were prepared fully to go in and cooperate with Eulipions, keep it a great fine-arts facility. Then we would build our tower on the parking lot."

But Ownbey says he was told by the current board that if he talked to the Friends of the Eulipions -- which had been formed in the summer of 1999 to support the original theater group -- about a joint venture, that would kill the deal. The new board eventually declined his offer anyway.

As it turns out, the Gray Group may have had an advantage: The company's lawyer, Ed White, is the son of a voting member of the landmark commission, also named Ed White. The senior White voted in favor of the Gray Group's conceptual design.

The younger White says that since he wasn't representing the Gray Group in front of the commission, there is no conflict of interest. Bob Gray, president and owner of the Gray Group, sees no conflict, either. "If someone would say that, it would be completely wrong," he says. "To impugn a gentleman of his stature is not only outrageous, it's egregious and totally false."

If it were up to Jo Bunton Keel, the building wouldn't have been put up for sale in the first place. Keel, a former dancer, founded the theater group in the early 1980s as part of a grand vision to bring black theater to Denver. The temple and parking lot next door were purchased by the group in 1995, after years of patiently building a budget through community and corporate support and help from the city and historic-preservation loans. The plan was to pay back the loans with revenue generated from the parking lot. But the operation grew too quickly, and during a period of unstable leadership by its board of directors, Eulipions found itself fighting to stay out of debt and keep its doors open ("All the World's an Empty Stage," January 6).

The City of Denver offered to help keep the group afloat, but only if Keel stepped aside and let the city's representatives choose a new board. She agreed in early 1998, but by the summer of 1999, a rift had developed between Keel and the new board over what to do with the building. Keel was fired, the building's locks were changed, and plans got under way to sell the building and pay off the organization's debts, which total about $1.6 million ($1.2 million of which is what is owed on the mortgage), according to court documents. Keel started a counter-group called Friends of Eulipions and has been battling the current board in court for the last year.

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