The sale earlier this month of El Jebel Shrine Temple, at 1770 Sherman Street, the former home of the Eulipions theater organization, may finally have ended one act in a bitter dispute between two rival Eulipions factions, but the story is far from over.
In October, a real estate company called the Gray Group, which had planned to buy the 94-year-old building, received preliminary approval from the Denver Landmark Commission to modify the exterior by adding balconies and lowering windows in order to convert the historic landmark into condominiums ("Playing to an Empty House," October 5). Two weeks ago, however, the company sold its contract to another developer, Continental Oil Field Services, for $3.9 million.
Continental president Martin Wohnlich says he's working with Denver city officials to determine what to do with the building. Concerns have been raised that converting it into condos would obliterate its grand interior spaces. Wohnlich says he expects to announce a plan in the next couple of weeks. "We are all personally committed to retain at least part of the original use, like the ballroom, which is a jewel," he notes. Continental has developed apartment buildings, gas stations and a senior housing project in Reno, Nevada, as well as one southwest-Denver condominium complex.
In 1995, with help from city loans and historic-preservation grants, Eulipions purchased the empty El Jebel for $1,775,000. Jo Bunton Keel, who had founded Eulipions in 1982, had always dreamed of finding a permanent home for her organization. Unfortunately, maintaining the building was much more expensive than Keel had expected, and before long, her theater group was racking up debt. In a move encouraged by the city, a new board of directors was named to bail out the theater company in 1998. But this new board, stacked with non-performers, was more interested in paying off debts than in putting on plays. After arguing with the new board over the direction of Eulipions and the future of the temple, Keel was eventually fired and locked out of the building. She then organized a new group, Friends of Eulipions, and has spent the last year trying to block the building's sale in court.
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Darrell Nulan, a member of the board that fired Keel, says he hopes to use the proceeds from the sale to pay off existing debt and then set up an endowment to preserve the theater group's future. But most of the theater people who were a part of the old Eulipions are now in Keel's camp, and the new board has no artistic director and has never produced a show. Nulan acknowledges that his board needs to "figure out how best to go forward.
"At this point, we don't have a plan together," he adds.
In the meantime, as they prepare to stage their annual Black Nativity show, Keel and company are contesting the sale in the state's appellate court. Although the courts have ruled against the Friends of Eulipions at virtually every turn, Keel insists that the sale is not the end of the line. "They're not going to get rid of us that easily," she says.
"Our position is that it's an invalid sale," adds attorney Alison Maynard. "Whoever bought this building, they bought a lawsuit."