GOING TO PIECES
On a chilly November afternoon, stepping into the Forney Transportation Museum may not offer the warm refuge one is looking for.
The five-story building at 14th and Platte is drafty and dim, dependent on light shining in through cracked and broken windows. Worn-out red shag carpeting greets patrons, and dusty, sloppy placards educate them about the venerable cars, bikes, trolleys and railroad exhibits inside.
Outside the museum, growth in Denver's Central Platte Valley pushes ever onward. There's the new Elitch's amusement park, the $65 million Colorado Ocean Journey aquarium (which will be built a block from the Forney), a redesigned Children's Museum and the city's proposed Riverfront Park Project.
No one seems to know just where the eccentric Forney will fit in among these new projects. Or whether it even will.
Consultant David Cole, whose firm handled city relations for Elitch's during its relocation from northwest Denver, says that because "the place needs to be completely redone, it just may not be feasible" for the Forney to be a major part of future plans for the valley. "It's just such a big project," he says. "It's hard for people to get their arms around all that has to be done." These days, owner Jack Forney says he has his hands full just scraping together enough money to pay for city-ordered safety repairs.
Denver City Council president Debbie Ortega, in whose district the Forney lies moldering, says she's "dumbfounded" when it comes to the museum.
And city planner Bar Chadwick says the Denver Planning Office currently has no plans to work with the Forney Museum. She says her impression is that the people who operate the Forney "like to be left alone."
Jack Forney, who runs the museum his late father, J.D., founded in 1962, says he "doesn't know where [Chadwick's] coming from." Chadwick might think he's difficult, he says, because he has opposed some of her plans for the Platte Valley. Forney says he has always supported the idea that the valley be a destination-oriented recreation area and not "Denver's parking lot. I've spoken up on several occasions opposing street planning and parking lots. Being a boy from out of town, I can do that."
J.D. Forney, who was born in Oklahoma and came to Colorado for school, built a small family fortune in Fort Collins from welding-equipment sales. He also was a transportation buff. His collection began with a Kissel open touring car, given to him by his family, and grew as people across the country learned of his interest. "His attitude was that a car shouldn't be scrapped or turned into a hot rod," says his son Jack.
Trapped by the dirt and gloom in J.D.'s museum are some fascinating artifacts. Down one hall is a 1915 Cadillac. Down another is a 1907 eight-passenger limousine. Ignore the wax mannequins in ripped, stained vintage clothing and dingy wigs, and it is apparent that the building is full of rare and exotic antique novelties--including the world's largest steam locomotive, Big Boy No. 4005.
About 40,000 people visit the Forney annually. It generates approximately $150,000 in revenue, all of which Jack Forney says goes back into operation and maintenance.
Forney's critics say it's not enough. They fault him for allegedly being uncooperative and uninterested in the city's help. He, in turn, accuses the city and other agencies of ignoring his museum.
J.D. Forney was sometimes gruff with government officials, according to his son. But some people in Denver agencies say his son is just plain noncommunicative. Whoever's right, the city hasn't poured money into the museum. "I don't think Denver regards the museum very highly," Forney says. He had hopes of getting help in 1989 from part of a $14 million municipal bond passed by Denver voters, much of which went toward redesigning the Platte Valley and providing infrastructure for the new Elitch's. However, Forney says, the city council "chopped us out of the plan." Since then, he adds, "the city hasn't acknowledged us at all. We're just little peanuts as far as Denver is concerned."
But the Colorado Historic Society didn't consider it peanuts last year when it awarded the Forney a grant--which has since been recalled. Forney had applied in March 1994 for $100,000 to pay for window restoration. He says he was disappointed, however, when the Historic Society awarded him a $50,000 "challenge" grant that would have forced him to match that amount with his own money or other funding. Forney says his agreement with the city gave him permission to spend CHS money only on the windows.
Lane Ittleson at the Colorado Historical Society says Forney failed to communicate his problem. CHS assumed he had declined its grant, so it recalled the money. Ittleson explains that it is not uncommon for CHS to give a group a challenge grant because it helps the Society measure recipients' commitment to historic preservation.
"We'd like to fund the window project, but we need to see the Forney bring more money to the table," Ittleson says. "We never heard from him, so it doesn't seem like he's really willing to negotiate with us."
Both Forney and his building have their defenders. Chris Shears, former president of the Denver Rail Heritage Society, which operates the Platte Valley Trolley on the riverfront, says developers could be interested in restoring the 94-year-old building, originally used to house steam-powered generators for Denver's own trolley system, because "it's important historically." He also says that although the building is run-down, Jack Forney "is doing his darnedest to do all the repairs on a schedule he can handle."
"There are so many things that can be done with those artifacts," Jack says. "It makes me sick that I can't restore everything."
For the next six years, though, Forney has other things to take care of first, according to Denver Building Inspection Director Doug Sutton. That's how long the Building Inspection and Fire Prevention Departments have given Forney to correct safety, fire and handicapped-accessibility problems.
Forney says any extra funds must go toward these mandatory renovation projects, which include restoring the roof and windows, upgrading the sprinkler and fire alarm systems, and building handicapped-accessible ramps and bathrooms. Until they are complete, Forney is prohibited from spending money to improve the appearance of his collection or the museum building. "The city is doing me a favor," he says. "They could come in and force me to do all the improvements at once, in which case I'd have to close."
Sutton says the city's relations with Forney actually have improved. "Up until a few years ago, we had an extremely adversarial relationship," he says, stemming from the days when J.D. Forney refused to "go through the proper channels" when it came to obtaining construction permits for the building. For this reason, says Sutton, the museum never met safety and fire prevention codes until Forney's son and the city were able to reach their current agreement.
Forney agrees that his dad often pursued construction that did not meet Denver building codes. He says J.D. "had a tough time with anybody that he thought was exercising authority unreasonably."
That may make fundraising difficult for his son. In the past, Forney hired grant writers to try and raise money for the museum from donors such as the Coors and Boettcher Foundations, but he never received any grants. "We were spending money trying to raise money, but we weren't very successful," Forney says. He adds that possible benefactors "just weren't interested in the museum."
Others blame Forney himself for the museum's sad state.
One "horrified" letter writer to the Denver Post last September complained after a visit to the Forney: "I found the [museum's] treasures in a building that was in deplorable condition with obvious neglect to the artifacts...What a shame that Denver's only museum of this type does not have a better home and showcase, run by people who are knowledgeable, interested and caring."
Forney wrote his own reply to the Post in October, saying, "We operate in the black (narrowly), and receive no city or grant money, although we have made applications. The Colorado Historical Society recently granted funds for window restoration; unfortunately, however, the society attached a condition to the grant that was impossible to meet...We are eagerly awaiting the day when we have enough funds to improve the status of the artifacts."
As proof of how poor communication is between the museum and agencies that could help it, Ittleson says staff members at CHS were not aware of Forney's stance on the grant until they read that letter.
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