Extinct?

The Hilltop neighborhood and DeBoers property prove that historic preservation is threatened.

Historic preservation in Denver is really in trouble right now, despite its many successes. The easy-to-understand community benefits of landmark protection are all over the central part of the city -- lower downtown, Country Club, Seventh Avenue Parkway, Potter-Highland, Montclair, Larimer Square and on and on -- and they make the Mile High City what it is. Without official protection by landmark ordinances, these neighborhoods would have been lost long ago. So what's the problem for preservation? Greed.

Developers would like nothing better than to see preservation go under the wrecking ball. Conveniently for them, a set of phony talking points have been floating around, meant to undermine the city's landmark-protection process. So many different people are spouting these ideas -- newspaper writers, lawyers, members of the Denver City Council, members of the Denver Planning Board -- it's hard for me to believe it's a coincidence and not a conspiracy.

The talking points I'm referring to are patently false on their faces. The failed attempt to create a Hilltop historic district and the compromise involving the S.R. De Boer compound illustrate how they've been used to the city's detriment.

A vacant lot on Cranmer Park, where a Victor Hornbein masterpiece once stood.
A vacant lot on Cranmer Park, where a Victor Hornbein masterpiece once stood.

The first talking point is that neither Hilltop nor DeBoer's property was good enough to be discussed by the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission. The benefit of spreading this idea is that it gets properties away from requirements for conscientious oversight and makes them easier to demolish. Even though Hilltop and DeBoer did eventually go before the group, in the future they will be used as "bad" examples to help abort other potential districts, like Park Hill, from showing up before the commission.

Though clearly false, this talking point has repeatedly appeared in editorials in both of the dailies expressing opposition to historical designation of Hilltop and the DeBoer properties; it's even turned up in news stories penned by the Post's George Merritt -- which is really bad. Far from being poor fits for the landmark commission's mandate, Hilltop and DeBoer are exactly the kind of situations the process was created to deal with: sites of historic value that are endangered by insensitive owners.

Let's look at Hilltop, which was developed in the 1930s but really took off in the 1950s. The neighborhood features a variety of fine examples of architecture in styles current at the time, such as Tudors, colonials, Spanish mission re-creations and, most important, mid-century modernist works. Many of these residences were custom-built, with several being the work of the most important Denver architects of the day.

Then there's the whole Jewish cultural context. When most of Hilltop was built, Denver's better neighborhoods, like the first phase of Crestmoor, had covenants requiring that all residents be Christian, meaning Jewish people couldn't live there. Hilltop, on the other hand, had no such covenants, and therefore attracted Jews. The neighborhood includes one of the city's most important Jewish institutions, Temple Emanuel, and a host of others, notably the Jewish Community Center, which was set up because Jews couldn't join country clubs then, either.

Also -- and here's something that ties the cultural and architectural history of Hilltop -- Jews tended to be among the greatest supporters of modernism. In fact, the late Joseph Marlow, an important modernist architect who designed several Hilltop houses, once told me that nearly all of his clients were Jewish.

So in Hilltop, there's architecture at the junction of cultural history, and all of it dates back a half to three-quarters of a century. How is it again that Hilltop was not an appropriate candidate for landmark consideration?

After a fierce conflict, the application for landmark protection for Hilltop was withdrawn. We didn't have to wait long to see the result: A few months later, the 1949 Lewin House, at 255 Dexter Street on Cranmer Park, an out-of-this-world Usonian-style masterpiece by the late, great Victor Hornbein, was scraped. (Imagine the swine that would see this pearl as a building site, then imagine the monstrosity such philistines will put in its place.)

The DeBoer property makes an even clearer case for landmarking, since the structures located on the land feature architectural and cultural history from the early twentieth century and are directly associated with two important figures in the history of Denver: Saco DeBoer and John Edward Thompson. DeBoer was a renowned landscape designer who did many of the city's parks and parkways; Thompson was a University of Denver art professor and one of the most important painters in Colorado's history. The group of buildings includes, among others, DeBoer's office, a rambling 1930s brick cottage with its signature bell tower, and Thompson's hacienda-style studio. The landmark process involves an objective finding of fact, and these facts prove that a strong case for saving the DeBoer place was easy to make.

But lies in the form of those talking points were told about the DeBoer cycle as they had been about Hilltop. In fact, the planning board actually based its recommendation on the false idea that the DeBoer property wasn't good enough for landmark oversight -- even though the landmark commission agreed that it was. Vince Carroll at the Rocky Mountain News piled on, ending a particularly ignorant piece by writing that "Denverites should stop abusing the preservation process to frustrate development they don't like." Say what? Or how about this dumb observation in an unsigned editorial in the Denver Post: "Despite the claims of a few zealots, the property is of questionable historic value."

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