Space Odyssey

Tired of studios with burnt-orange shag carpeting? Prepare to blast off with Boutique Apartments.

Architecturally, the rectangular brick building at 1778 Gilpin Street is about as interesting as a three-story cardboard box. For apartment developer Grant Barnhill's objectives, however, the aesthetic emptiness is the equivalent of a blank canvas.

Last fall, while construction crews were tearing outdated carpeting and bathroom fixtures from the upper-floor units, Barnhill was in one of the ground-level units where artist Jimmy "Rocketman" Descant was assembling obsolete consumables into signature space vehicles. The bedroom was piled high with 1950s miscellany -- hood ornaments, beehive hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, thermoses, irons and bike sprockets -- all ready to be combined into fifty fantasy rockets that will be displayed around the building. It's a style Descant dubs "Buck Rogers art deco."

"I do my art based on a time when things were built stronger, built to last," he says. "It's not the Wal-Mart or disposable, cheap culture. I want to give things a new use."

This month, the apartment complex -- including a craft propped above the front lawn that reaches twelve feet high with a six-foot wingspan -- entered the Denver rental galaxy as "Rocket."

This isn't Barnhill's first themed endeavor among the aged Victorians and sober brownstones of Uptown. At 1777 Williams, directly behind Rocket, is the photography-focused Aperture building. Inside, large black-and-white photographs and vintage Kodak signs decorate the halls, while hundreds of antique cameras adorn the lobby. Outside, a classic drive-in movie projector is mounted to the stoop. Down the street, at 1733 Williams, a giant silver faucet juts from the facade of the 25-unit H20 building, which features portholes in the hallways and a Sea Monkeys mural in the laundry room.

Since Barnhill and partner Zvi Rudawsky started their company, Boutique Apartments, three years ago, they have acquired and remodeled seven properties, giving them each a distinct persona ranging from Eastern philosophy to Americana; Rocket is just the first of three buildings planned for 2007.

In his office inside the recently renovated Shambhala building (think of a mix between an Eastern art exhibit and a yoga studio), Barnhill talks about the local apartment market, which somehow leads into ruminations on global poverty and his belief that corporate culture must undergo a "fundamental shift" to encompass values that go beyond the bottom line. "I think we're all connected," says the 42-year-old business-school graduate. "What impacts others impacts us."

His rhetoric may be idealistic, but he's earned it in the cutthroat real-estate industry. Originally a commercial real-estate broker, Barnhill started buying neglected apartment buildings in the mid-nineties, just as investment tides began returning to many blighted inner-city neighborhoods. His projects started small and then grew, a four-unit structure begetting an eight-unit property, then a twenty-unit.

"And I tried to McDonaldize that process," Barnhill says. At his company's peak, he could turn over ten units a month. Rip out the carpet, slap on some paint, and dump it for some nice margins. "It was all about the short-term. It wasn't thinking about sustainable practices or building community," he admits. "We exemplified what's wrong with business in the U.S."

But the money -- oh, the money. "I was pretty much a total yuppie," he says. "BMWs, Armani suits, the whole thing."

But then his body caved. In 1998, he suddenly became tired. Beyond tired. Tired like thirty-year-old shag carpeting tired. The official diagnosis was an autoimmune disorder brought on by stress.

"It got so bad that I would wake up at 10 a.m., drag myself to the shower and then have to sleep for three more hours," Barnhill says.

He walked away from it all, and he and his wife bought an RV and drove across the West. He was astounded by the homogenous landscape of strip malls and housing. After six months on the road, they went international and spent two years backpacking through Asia, Europe and Central America.

He returned to Denver and worked at various art nonprofits, but soon found himself needing extra income. So he purchased a small apartment building with Rudawsky and undertook a remodeling effort. Feeling the familiar sickness of standardization return, Barnhill recalled the small, funky "boutique-style" hotels he had seen abroad.

"One of the things I saw traveling was there was a sense of place, a sense of community around these places," he says.

That's what he's focused on today, and his business model is built on economics with a long view -- serving one of the city's most abundant demographics. Call them hipsters, the creative underclass, Generation X, Y, whatever, but they are young professionals between 21 and 35 years who make between $25,000 and $50,000 a year.

"If you're a student or are just starting your career, you essentially have two options: You can either live beyond your means here," says Barnhill, swiping his hand across a section of a satellite photo of central Denver where a studio goes for $1,175 a month, "or you can live in a dilapidated, older building where the rent may be cheap, but you have to deal with crime and other problems."

Within that rental price gap is the vast middle of prospective lessees who are looking for studios or one-bedrooms that are both affordable and not complete hellholes.

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