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Did you know there's a swingers club in the basement of a gallery up by Pirate?" a Westwordwriter asked one day in early 2006.
"No way," I replied. "We would have heard. But I'll call Chandler Romeo. If anything is happening in that neighborhood, she'll know."
That's because in very large part, Chandler Romeo and Reed Weimer, a husband-and-wife team, have made the 3600 block of Navajo Street the arts district it is today. Early members of Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis, the co-op gallery that had moved into an old storefront at 37th and Navajo in 1982, they were living above Pirate when they got the chance to buy the building in 1985. They did, and over the years the artists became real-estate entrepreneurs, buying other buildings on the block and leasing the space back to like-minded individuals and organizations. Today their tenant list includes four nonprofit galleries as well as the Bug Theater; their contribution to the city's cultural landscape was honored with a Mayor's Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1996. That was more than ten years after I bought my first piece of art -- the life-sized, papier-mâché back of a station wagon -- that I'd spotted hanging in a now-defunct coffeehouse across the street from Westword's original office. It was the first piece of art that Chandler Romeo ever sold.
If you love Denver's homegrown arts scene -- if you love Denver, period -- it's impossible not to know about the 3600 block of Navajo.
Just as it would be impossible for Romeo not to know about a swingers club in the neighborhood. So I called and asked if she'd heard about anything like that.
Romeo was silent for a very long time. Yes, she finally said, she'd heard about a swingers club -- but she couldn't talk about it, because it involved one of their buildings and could wind up in court. And indeed it did, where last week the sordid details in the long-postponed case of Iron Hand v. Ewing & Thomas spilled out in the courtroom of Denver District Judge Norm Haglund.
As it turned out, when an old tailor's shop at 3648 Navajo became available in 2004, Weimer and Romeo had bought it, too, and began looking for a tenant to complement the neighborhood's existing mix. At the same time, another entrepreneurial pair, Scottie Ewing and his fiancée, Lynn Thomas, were searching for a spot for their assorted ventures. A professional extreme skier in Crested Butte for years, Ewing had moved to Denver, where he produced special events and parties. The two couples met and discussed what Ewing and Thomas might do with the building, which included a storefront built onto an 1890s house with lots of rooms. "They really wanted to attract daytime business," Ewing testified. He said they talked about opening a coffeehouse (he had a friend in the business), selling art, hosting after-work social events. Thomas was studying to be a licensed massage therapist; she might also offer massages there.
No one ever mentioned a swingers club.
Denver has a lively swingers scene, with assorted promoters and five officially recognized swingers clubs catering to those into the lifestyle and often competing with each other. By July 2005, the competition had gotten so heated that a sort of swingers' summit was held (see Jared Jacang Maher's "Swap Talk,"June 22, 2006). Among the participants were the owners of the Scarlet Ranch on Broadway and the people behind the Sindicate, "an upscale lifestyle scene that caters to young, attractive couples and single women." On its website, the Sindicate boasted of a bar and dance area, as well as a "group play/voyeur area."
That summer, several months after Ewing and Thomas had moved into the building, Romeo began to hear stories from neighbors about parties and traffic late -- very late -- at night. There didn't seem to be much going on there during the day; the coffeehouse was rarely open, and there'd only been a couple of art openings, including one for a show of erotic photography. And then in November, an anonymous packet arrived in the mail, with a cover letter talking about the Sindicate swingers club operating at 3648 Navajo, on top of several copies of web pages advertising events at the space -- one with a picture of Ewing and Thomas in full lifestyle regalia (or lack thereof).
While she was on the stand, Romeo's attorney handed her the packet and asked if that was "you and your husband." Romeo blanched. "Omigosh," she said. She thought he was referring to the swingers' picture; the lawyer was actually talking about the address on the envelope.
Weimer and Romeo are not prudes. They're working artists, and their gallery tenants show some of the edgiest art in the city, throwing parties to match. But in this courtroom, Romeo was now the "arbiter of morality on Navajo Street," according to Ewing's attorney.
Worried about what effect the after-hours events might have on the building's status, Romeo testified that she called the police and spoke to the vice squad. And in December, the fire department slapped the space with an order to comply and make certain changes. Ewing complied with some, not with others; he said it was impossible for him to get the required certificate of occupancy, which was the subject of a conversation that Ewing taped without Romeo's knowledge and played for the judge from a laptop festooned with a couple of pinup stickers. Ultimately, Ewing and Thomas canceled their big New Year's Eve party -- "we drove to Vegas to get our minds off everything," Ewing told the judge -- and Romeo and Weimer filed an eviction notice. On February 1, 2006, Ewing and Thomas moved out. Romeo subsequently filed a case in Denver County Court asking them for $15,000 -- rent remaining on the lease, utilities, some repairs. Ewing and Thomas filed a counterclaim, asking for $98,000 -- the gross income they estimated they were losing from parties. That's what pushed the case into district court, where it went through a couple of judges before landing with Haglund.
And though the backstory on this case had everything -- "late-night sex clubs," anonymous mailings, even the much-publicized suicide of Ewing's longtime attorney, Michael Andre, in a Cherry Creek standoff earlier this year -- in this courtroom, it finally came down to the simple matter of a lease. A lease that made the tenants responsible for determining that the use they contemplated for the space conformed with all of the city's rules and codes. And while a swingers club is a perfectly legal business in Denver, this particular spot had not been built out and licensed for one. After testimony that stretched over two days, the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, Romeo and Weimer, and also awarded them attorneys' fees.
The building at 3648 Navajo is no longer empty; a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth now rents it. The certificate of occupancy remains unchanged.
And Ewing and Thomas have gone on to a new project in a new neighborhood. Within the next few weeks, they plan to open Sugar House, a bar and lounge at Pecos Street and Alameda Avenue. Although some neighbors oppose it, they got their liquor license last August, and work on the interior continued even as the judge read his verdict. But then, Ewing doesn't have to worry about getting evicted from here. He bought this building.