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After the Fall

The Evans school has seen a lot over the past century -- including a death last spring. But does this building have a future?

"Beyond its history, the Evans school is such a visual icon," says Dale Heckendorn of the Colorado Historical Society. "It continues to convey the residential character of the neighborhood and gives you some idea of how many families were once living in the area. So many of those structures have been lost to fire or neglect. Architecturally, it is a clear example of what was going on in the city."

But there's not much going on at the school today. The building sits smack in the middle of an area that's been polished into the Golden Triangle, where new galleries, shops, cafes, bars and restaurants pop up like prairie dogs. And still the property is vacant -- even though Dick Eber, now 69, has been vowing to change that for thirty years.

Eber is not a hurried person. He talks slowly and deliberately and takes a careful interest in everything around him. He loves old cars, considers himself a historian and has been a member of the National Trust for Historic Properties for twenty years. He knows the history of the Evans school, and of the territorial governor whose name it bears. He loves the building so much, he says, that he wants to make sure its future is handled just the right way.

"I understand that there are some people who are frustrated, and others who would bend over backwards for it," he adds. "My question is, 'Isn't it worth waiting for?' We want to make sure that whatever is done is done at the right time. Isn't that worth something?"

Not enough, say many of the school's neighbors, who feel they've waited too long as it is. Under the Ebers' ownership, the Evans school has deteriorated into an eyesore -- an embarrassment in an area that will soon host a high-profile architectural event, the Denver Art Museum expansion designed by Daniel Libeskind.

"This isn't just any building," says Margerie Hicks, executive director of the Golden Triangle Neighborhood Association. "For one thing, it's across from what will be a world-class art museum. This neighborhood is going to be getting international attention. TV cameras will be rolling; the world will be watching. And that's what will be in the background?"

"It is a symbol of the neighborhood," says architect Dennis Humphries, whose firm, Humphries Poli Architects, sits a few blocks from the Evans school. "It will even feel stronger once the Libeskind expansion is done, because the two buildings will engage in a dialogue about history. The former school certainly reflects the history of the neighborhood when it was a much stronger residential area."

Hicks and Humphries have dreamed about the building for years, projecting ideas and plans onto the boarded-up windows and weather-beaten walls. Humphries is now president of the GTNA, and he plans to make the Evans school a priority. At the group's annual meeting on January 27, he referred to the structure as the "largest gem on the ring" in a neighborhood that's worked hard to clean up its small stones.

"In eight years in my position, on average, a month does not pass that I don't get a call from someone who wants to buy, lease, partner, consult, invest in or do something with that school," Hicks says. "The opportunities that the owners have had have been infinite. It's come from every segment of the city."

Major cultural institutions -- including the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Public Library and the Colorado Historical Society -- have all brainstormed ways in which their futures might align with that of the Evans school. In 2000, the Historical Society approached Eber about a possible partnership and commissioned an appraisal of the property, but negotiations stalled in the early stages. A host of architects, engineers, artists, city planners and historians has offered to aid the restoration efforts by conducting design workshops and drawing up plans, sometimes for free, but they've gotten nowhere.

"Dick participated with open ears, but nothing ever happened," Humphries says of his own attempts. "Beyond that, we never got involved, because it seemed an exercise in futility."

"Dick has been reluctant to give up control -- to sell to a developer or even to partner with someone," says Ira Selkowitz of Historic Denver, which has drafted grant applications on behalf of the school and lobbied to have it recognized as a local landmark. "One of the common refrains is that he's waiting to assemble his team. Truly, a project of this magnitude could not be pulled off by a novice, no matter how well-intentioned. So our position has been, 'Well, we'd be happy to be on that team. Who is the team?'"

Eber seems genuinely bewildered to hear that people think he isn't eager to cooperate. He's met with several potential buyers and more activists, architects and engineers than he can remember, but he says plans have never moved forward because the right plan has never emerged. "People don't realize what's involved," he explains. "My door is open to anyone who wants to give me some insight, input or to help come up with ideas. And we've never talked about selling as a concept. But is the building an unreplaceable part of our existence? I don't think so, if we found a useful, commonplace purpose for it with another buyer."

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