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.
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."
Let's put this one in the pure bullshit category, shall we? From an objective standpoint, the DeBoer estate is a slam-dunk nomination -- a no-brainer. (Maybe that's the problem with the planning board and the editorial writers at the dailies: no brains.)
The bogus notion that neither Hilltop nor the DeBoer complex qualified as being historic was routinely connected to another nonsensical talking point: that landmarking without the permission of property owners was "unprecedented." Just because a majority of Hilltop residents and the DeBoer heirs opposed preservation, that makes those places rubbish? No. In fact, the official landmarking process only requires owner notification, not consent.
Bravo to Councilwoman Jeanne Robb for pointing out, during the DeBoer public hearing on March 12, that back in the '80s, the Mayan Theatre was landmarked by the City over the objections of its owners, who wanted to tear it down. She also said that preservation had been born in Denver in the 1970s when the Moffat Mansion was destroyed, thus outraging the community and leading to the passage of the first landmark ordinance and the founding of Historic Denver, the city's preeminent preservation advocacy group. Now, what was that about hostile preservation struggles being "unprecedented"? The standard is contention; everybody knows that. Everyone, that is, except those dim-bulb city councilmembers Jeanne Faatz and Charlie Brown, who really acted out at the hearing.
First there was Faatz, who looked wild-eyed and completely demented. She petulantly addressed the crowd, which was overwhelmingly made up of supporters of preservation, and then likened them to a mugger. That was an interesting analogy, because I thought it was she who had mugged the audience, using the blunt object of her mindless rhetoric to do it.
Not to be upstaged, Brown was just about foaming at the mouth as he made his remarks. He tried to crucify Everett Shigeta, the Denver Community Planning and Development staffer for the landmarks commission, but whatever the issue Brown was trying to use as a "gotcha" -- and which was obviously written on the piece of paper he was handling -- must have turned out to be spurious, because he dropped the matter clumsily. (Shades of Joseph McCarthy!)
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If you've never seen Brown at full tilt, it's a sight to behold. It's as though a movie studio asked central casting to send over a pompous gas bag. That night he was chewing up the scenery and pushing around ordinary citizens. To back up his opinions, he regurgitated the two talking points. And at one point, he forced the author of the landmark nomination, Dave Burrell, to apologize for a factual error in his Your Hub piece. Hey, I demand an apology from Brown for mouthing the falsehoods!
Before that meeting, after months of pitched battles, the Wright Trust, which controls the property for DeBoer's heirs, had agreed to a compromise brokered by Historic Denver that allows parts of the parcel to be preserved. I point this out so you understand that Faatz and Brown made their stupid remarks after both sides had agreed to a solution, but before the city council voted on it. The new district, which is much smaller than the one approved by the landmark commission, was subsequently approved by the city council, with Faatz and Brown dissenting.
Denver's historic places are part of the equity shared by all Denverites. We cannot let developers, with the planning board and the dailies in their pockets, use false talking points to take away our heritage just because the only thing they value is the almighty dollar.