A Change Blowing In
By 8 a.m., the Zephyr Lounge has already been serving for an hour. The bar is dim, and the previous night's smoke has yet to settle in the air. But the jukebox is kickin' out Patsy Cline, and Barb Pooler (she goes by Barbie here), decked out in rhinestones and an exquisite pair of '50s-style horn-rim glasses, is tending to her two customers.
"This is the only place I'd wear rhinestones this early," she says. "Unless, of course, it's a Breakfast at Tiffany's morning."
The Zephyr doesn't look like much sitting here on this stretch of East Colfax Avenue, just west of Peoria Street, in a neighborhood inhabited mainly by nail salons, pawnshops and every variety of "Mart." The bar has none of the soaring-roofline moderne architecture seen in the no-tell motels and diners that dot the strip, even though it dates from the same era. In fact, the squat structure is easy to miss, because there's only a small Zephyr Lounge sign in the parking lot -- with a bright yellow "Welcome Fitzsimons" banner attached -- and large block letters on the facade spelling out "BAR" and "LOUNGE." Most people characterize it as a dive bar; it is. But it's also a workingman's bar. And Barry Melnick has been opening it for them with a 7 a.m. happy hour since 1947.
Unfortunately, he isn't in the bar today to ask what I'm drinking. At 86, he's finally been sidelined by a car accident and then a heart attack. Other than vacations, this is the first time he's been away since the Zephyr opened. Barbie's blond 'do is no replacement for his full head of white hair, but she's got skills. I eye her other customers' mugs and decide this isn't the type of place for a Bloody Mary. Their cups steam with coffee that Myron Melnick, Barry's son, warns me is made like "rocket fuel." He suggests a cup with a shot of Kahlúa. I accept, with a vague feeling that this might be a sacrilege Barry wouldn't have allowed between his walls.
Barry Melnick has been in the bar business his entire life, although he has never been a drinker or smoker. He grew up in Poland, watching his mother ply the trade in her small beer garden. His father, an expediter for the railroads, died when Barry was twelve, leaving his mother to feed three children.
While she worked, Barry played in a back yard shared by several families. It was the kind of childhood where all the neighborhood kids share one bike and think they're lucky. But in 1938, just a year before Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, Barry's mother convinced his uncles, who had already immigrated to Denver and founded Melnick Bros. Fresh Meats, to bring over her two boys. They never saw their mother and sister again.
Barry was twenty when he arrived in Denver, and he spoke no English. But two days after he arrived at Union Station, his uncles "put a white cap on me and put me behind the meat counter," he remembers in a documentary of his life that Myron produced for his 85th birthday.
For three years, Barry made $5 a week working at the meat market during the day; he went to Emily Griffith Opportunity School at night to learn English. In 1941, he enlisted in the Army -- pre-Pearl Harbor, he notes emphatically -- and became a dental-lab man. His brother fought in the Battle of the Bulge, but Barry was never stationed overseas. He made sergeant, and when his tour was over, he came back to Denver, back to the meat market and back to his classes.
Until he ran into Nate Feld. An old buddy, Nate owned a bar downtown and recommended that Barry buy one of his own. So when he found the Zephyr, a stunning Art Deco lounge complete with tufted bar near Fitzsimons Army Medical Center, Barry and a partner bought it. "My dad thought being near a military base was the way to go, because he was retired military and could relate to those people and talk to them," Myron explains.
And for 56 years, that's exactly what Barry has done. The Zephyr was the neighborhood bar for Samsonite workers getting off the night shift, military guys who needed a break, and anyone else wandering in off the street seeking solace in a beer and a place pouring it that never changed even when everything around it did. Barry's cook was with him for thirty years, and when he died, Barry quit serving food rather than suffer through new personalities; two bartenders have worked for him since the '60s. "My father definitely has a lot of loyalty," Myron says. "He never liked change. He keeps things the same."
These morning happy hours are usually a little more interesting, Barbie swears. Most places couldn't justify opening so early for just two people, but that's the way Barry's always done it, and that's the way it will always be done. So Barbie has learned her regulars and their schedules and is always ready to serve "a nice, stiff bourbon and Coke at 7 a.m." to one, and two or three Coors to another. "It's mainly the elderly and night workers," she says.
Back in the day, the bar used to be much busier. But after Samsonite shut down its plant, there just weren't as many guys in the neighborhood who needed to wind down after a night on the line. Then the Army closed Fitzsimons in 1995 as part of a nationwide cost-cutting measure. And a lot of the regulars have passed away. "My father just outlived them," Myron says.
Business picks up around nine or ten, Barbie says. As if on cue, two more people wander in at nine. One woman, a regular, is just having coffee, but the gentleman at the end of the bar orders a beer. He lives next door at the motel that Barry also owns. He is blind and cannot work. But Barry's been letting him live there for as long as Myron can remember. And he's not the only one; at times, Barry's had people living there with $3,500 in outstanding bills because he just can't throw them out. "Everyone knows about Daddy Bruce, but not Barry," Barbie says. "He even does Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner for the neighborhood."
And now that Myron is running things while his dad is recovering, he's trying to help Barry's assortment of charity cases. He's been calling Social Services to find help for the blind man, but he's gotten nowhere. "I'm trying to hook him up with the right people so he can stabilize his living situation," Myron says. "I don't want to throw the man out on the street; I don't think it's right. I have some empty rooms, so essentially he can crash here. But eventually he's got to get on his own. My father just could not tell those people, 'You gotta go.'"
So maybe that's why it hurt so much when Aurora told Barry that he and his business had to go. Especially since he'd owned the Zephyr longer than the City of Aurora has called the plat of land on which it sits Aurora. When Barry bought the original Zephyr building, Colfax and Peoria was in the middle of nothing. Little shacks, one of which Barry lived in for a while, lined the north side of the street. It wasn't until 1955 that Aurora annexed the area; by then, a mobile-home park had replaced the shacks. Today it's also home to a Conoco station, Mon Chalet motel and a garage. The original Zephyr sat on the lot now occupied by Myung Auto Repair; in the early '70s, Barry decided to rebuild right next door. It was one of the few times he embraced change.
In 1999, the Aurora City Council voted to rezone the area bordering Fitzsimons in preparation for future redevelopment. The city, which had initially fought the base closure -- Mayor Paul Tauer even went so far as to say the Army had "cooked" the statistics it used to select Fitzsimons -- soon realized that there was a huge opportunity to transform the "blighted" area surrounding it by controlling what became of the 578 acres. Tauer met with the University of Colorado, whose Health Sciences Center was outgrowing its Colorado Boulevard campus and getting little assistance from Denver in finding a way to expand, and the two hatched a plan to create a medical campus and biotech park on the former military base. They approached the Department of Defense and asked that Fitzimons be donated to CU instead of given over to competing ideas such as housing for the homeless, and in 1996, the DOD and CU's Board of Regents agreed.
"It's a life-sciences city," says Robert Olson, executive director of the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority. "It will be a square mile dedicated to patient care, teaching and biotech research and technology."
The University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and University Hospital are anchoring the $4.3 billion renovation with a 227-acre campus, which will be complemented by the 160-acre Colorado Bioscience Park Aurora. Children's Hospital will begin its move to the park next year. The entire project is expected to take twenty years, but 2,800 workers are already on site; eighteen biotech companies have moved in; Aurora has opened a police substation; Phase I of the Anschutz Inpatient Pavilion is up and running; and the Nighthorse Campbell Native Health building, State Veterans Home and Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Institute are open.
In order to serve the anticipated 600 homes and 32,000 workers of the new "emerald city," Aurora decided to clear out the "Marts" and fill the run-down lots with new restaurants, condos, art galleries and other upscale services. But to make room for the new, they had to figure out how to get rid of the old. In 1999, they rezoned a one-mile stretch along Colfax, making many of the approximately sixty businesses non-conforming uses. Hotels and motels, bars, gas stations, liquor stores, mobile-home parks, fast-food restaurants and repair shops were no longer welcome. The existing businesses were grandfathered in but encouraged to redevelop their properties into banks, restaurants, museums, parks, big-box retail stores, child-care centers, gyms and other amenities that were now the neighbors of choice.
"What a prize Aurora got," Myron says. "It's a bigger development than T-Rex."
When Barry first got a letter about the proposed changes, Myron went to the city council and suggested returning the Colfax strip to its original character, complete with '50s neon hotel signs: a little piece of Americana on Highway 40. That wasn't exactly what Tauer had envisioned, though, so the Melnicks retreated and didn't give the issue much more thought. They, like many of their neighbors, assumed developers would eventually buy them out or that the city would condemn their properties and pay a fair-market value for their land as the cost of progress.
It almost didn't happen that way.
In January, the city council approved an ordinance that would have ousted the Zephyr, the mobile-home park, the Conoco station and many other businesses over the next ten years if they didn't either redevelop or find someone to buy their properties. Under this amortization plan, if they didn't -- or couldn't -- conform or sell, they would simply have to close up shop and walk away from what, for some, represented a lifetime of work.
"The city was trying to make an inexpensive way for developers to come in and bulldoze this stuff," Myron says. "We're pro-development. We want to work with the city. We want to keep our properties up and attract a better clientele. But amortization is just totally unfair to the property owner."
The city council didn't agree, despite several hours of unanimous opposition testimony at a January hearing. Councilmembers approved ammortization six to four and said that anyone who wanted an exemption could use the appeal process. They were hard-liners, with Councilwoman Nadine Caldwell and Mayor Tauer making particularly acidic comments about the one-mile stretch.
So the neighbors took matters into their own hands. They formed the Fitzsimons Chamber of Commerce and started a campaign to repeal the council decision, collecting 7,706 signatures -- 3,705 more than needed -- to either get the measure reversed or put on the ballot.
On April 14, city council blinked. Councilmen Ed Tauer (Paul Tauer's son, who is considering running for mayor) and Steve Hogan, both of whom had originally voted for amortization, presented an alternative plan for redevelopment. "The proposal that we had for amortization clearly created problems for a lot of people," Hogan says. "I don't think it was understood; it clearly was mis-characterized, in my opinion. But sometimes perception is reality, and that's what you have to deal with. If we had moved forward with the referendum that was called for, it probably would have passed and amortization would have been out of business. And then what do we do?"
Hogan and Tauer suggested that a task force made up of business owners, property owners, neighbors, city councilmembers, city staffers and redevelopment-industry experts consider proposals on how to implement the vision of a cleaner, more gentrified Colfax. They recommended establishing a business-improvement district -- to be organized by businesses and funded through a property tax they assessed on themselves -- to work on cleanup and streetscape improvements, such as common-theme street lights and bus benches. The task force would also review the standards for redevelopment, which Myron and others thought were unreasonable, and see if there were alternatives; condemnation -- in which businesses are paid for the value of the land they sit on, if they own it, and relocation expenses to move -- would be a last-case resort for those who would not clean up or convert. Finally, the councilmen asked for a $30 million urban-renewal bond issue to go to a public vote in 2003 or 2004. "That would help provide money that is needed to pay for the condemnation process, or to pay for some seed money to get something going, or to pay for literally knocking down buildings and scraping off what is there, or incentives for developers," Hogan says.
The proposal was exactly what the Fitzsimons Chamber of Commerce was hoping for, and council adopted it and overturned the amortization ordinance. "We were just ecstatic that all of a sudden the city did a reverse," says Myron. "I think now we have to partner with the city and with our fellow neighbors and try to clean up the area. There are probably going to be some people who have to be condemned for some new developments or because they don't take care of their property. Whether the Zephyr can live that long, I don't know. I don't know that it really matters. What matters is that this is something that has to evolve over a period of time."
Sitting hunched over the bar, sipping his own rocket fuel too early in the morning, Myron Melnick describes himself as having a "creative mind." He always has ideas. Always a plan. To look at the fifty-year-old, with his checkered shirts and mop of curly gray hair, you might expect a working-class guy who talks big and just dabbles in artistic endeavors. But Myron's been one of Denver's best-known artists for decades, showing the sculptures and ceramics he crafts of paper at Robischon Gallery and across the country in group, solo and invitational shows. He has pieces in the Calvin Klein and United Nations collections in New York, and his work appeared on the television show L.A. Law. If Barry had had his way, though, Myron would have been a dentist.
"When I went off to college, my father was like, 'I want you to be a dentist. You make good money; you're good with your hands,'" he says. "I was a good boy, and I figured, whatever."
That was before he took his first ceramics class at the University of Colorado, before he was compelled to become an artist, before a girlfriend gave him a bucket of paper pulp as a gift. Barry, of course, was none too thrilled with his son's new interests, and the two battled for years over Myron's decision to make art a career. As a result, Myron was never really involved in the Zephyr, except for cooking there one night a week while still in high school. Recalls Myron: "Over the years, I've said, 'Dad, you should do this, why don't you do that.' And, of course, he'd be saying, 'You could be a lawyer, you could be a doctor, you could be, you could be...'"
Of all the could-be possibilities, Myron never figured he'd be running his dad's place. But with Barry laid up after angioplasty and Myron's brother and sister busy with their own lives, the family business fell to him. It fell to him to make sure happy hour starts at 7 a.m. To bring business back. To work with the city to improve the neighborhood.
And to jump-start that improvement, Myron figures there's nothing better than a good art opening. If the city wants galleries on Colfax, he'll give 'em one. With a twist. For twenty years, he's been collecting thrift-store art -- some high-end, collection-quality pieces, some paint-by-number Jesuses -- and now he's taking down the Budweiser signs and putting up a minuscule fraction of his collection.
"I wanted to have something maybe everybody could relate to," he says. "I would say art is rather elitist, and I'm part of that. Galleries are very expensive, but if you get in like me, a bottom feeder, you can find some great stuff."
His Five Points studio overflows with treasures. There's a jack-in-the-box collection. A glass collection. A ceramics collection. An industrial-molds collection (America's "true industrial art," he explains). A pinewood derby car collection (our "true folk art"). He has one room he intends to use just for displaying his years of booty. Another room for displaying his own works. A studio space for creating. A bathroom, with even more finds on display, bigger than a New York City apartment. But perhaps most impressive is Chairville, a room in the bowels of the building dedicated to chairs. Floor to ceiling, legs protrude at impossible angles like a mass grave of colors and styles. Some need reupholstering, some need refinishing; eventually, Myron hopes to find them all homes. Part of his business is putting together collections for other people, and selections often come from his vast treasury.
"I took art history in school, and a lot of it was kind of a yawn," says Myron, who has a BFA from CU and an MFA from the University of Minnesota. "But now I use it every day and love it. I don't like to do commissions. I tell my clients, if you want something with real heart and soul, buy the best of what's already out there."
Now he's taking the jewels of his collected twenty years and putting them on display at the Zephyr, trying to bring in a higher-class clientele and give the area more culture. It's not Barry's idea of a bar -- but for now, this is Myron's place. "I'm dealing with a lot of things he neglected," he says. "I've gotta get the train back on track. There's just so much potential. It's just a matter of somebody getting up and doing it."
Hanging in the place of honor at the Zephyr Lounge is a portrait of the King. Most of the beer lights are gone (although the Denver Broncos pennants stayed up), and in their place on the black-and-red-velvet-striped wallpaper is professionally framed thrift-store art. There's "Noble" the steer, bigger than the background scenery ($250); "Cliché," with dogs playing poker ($600); "Trekie Siblings," from the 1970s ($400); "Night on East Colfax," which depicts, Myron thinks, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception with what looks to be a prostitute walking through the doors ($650). A Gary Sweeney, "Which Way to Aurora," is mounted in the entrance. And surrounding "Elvis" are six paint-by-number Jesuses and two Madonnas -- one of which shudders, ever so slightly, in the wind as the front door opens and closes. Talk about sightings.
The bar is busy but not packed, with much of Denver's older art scene turning out for Myron's opening at the Zephyr on the last Saturday in April. Myron is glad-handing his friends and some patrons who just wandered in off the street, with no idea that they are about to witness East Colfax Avenue's big art revival. Mexican mariachi music plays on the jukebox as people munch trail mix from Styrofoam bowls (the pool table was commandeered as a buffet) and do the art-opening stroll: Step in close, stand back, admire, move on. "Noble" and "Trekie" attract at lot of attention, but the bar buzzes about the moving Mary.
Until Matt O'Neill arrives. This is his big night, his debut as a "country crooner."
By day he's one of Denver's most prominent artists, a painter who's exhibited locally, nationally and even internationally. But tonight he's proving to be multi-talented.
"I think Matt's an incredible craftsman and just incredibly talented," Myron says. "I couldn't think of a better way to have him start his music career than here in the Zephyr. He's always been interested in collecting guitars and singing. Every once in a while, I'll come across a guitar in a thrift store, and he'll come over and buy it and strum a few songs, and it's, like, this guy is incredible."
There's little room for the bandmembers, but they take out a booth and get set up, ready to kick out some Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Sr. and other honky-tonk standards. When Matt starts to sing, the crowd stops talking, pleasantly surprised by his voice. He's good. Unsure of himself at first, but talented.
"It's good to be at the Zephyr," he tells the crowd. "It's good to be anywhere. If Myron's old man saw this, he'd get right out of bed -- 56 years down the tube."
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