It's all a facade: Signs are a-changin' at Denver 
It's all a facade: Signs are a-changin' at Denver landmarks.

Off Limits

We're witnessing the end of an era. Several eras, actually.

In June, Gart Sports began renovating the historic facade of the Gart Brothers Sports Castle at 10th Avenue and Broadway. And when the scaffolding came down last week -- just in time for Gart's merger with the Sports Authority -- the transformation was shocking. Not only had the stained-glass windows on the upper levels been restored and the entire building coated in a creamy paint job, but eighteen tacky sports paintings that had graced the exterior for decades were gone.

Gone, but not entirely forgotten: The pieces have been dumped in a basement storage area that Sports Castle employees call the "Pit of Despair."

The building seems almost naked without the action-shot images of goalies wielding hockey sticks, batters in full swing and quarterbacks in mid-huddle that have greeted shoppers and motorists speeding down Broadway since the mid-'70s, when they were commissioned by then co-owner Jerry Gart. (We here at Off Limits have always enjoyed gazing at the pieces from the windows of the nearby Westword office.)

"I'm surprised they even wanted to keep them," says a hard-hatted worker on the project. "They were pretty trashed out; I think they should have just junked them. For a long time we thought they were painted by one of the Gart brothers themselves, and that's why they hung around so long."

Paul Gaudet, who's overseeing the renovation project, says the ultimate fate of the paintings has yet to be determined. They may make an appearance in another Sports Authority location (the Sports Castle is the only outlet that will retain the Gart name), or they may languish in the Pit forever, lost relics of a now-distant artistic era. (A black-and-white mural done in the same style as the banished exterior panels still lines a wall inside the store, although it's often covered by banners.)

"I've been with the company a long time, and they've been there for as long as I can remember," Gaudet adds. "Jerry was pretty fond of them, if I remember. Anytime you make a change to an old building, you lose something. But some losses are bigger than others. I think the building will do just fine without those."

And at least one Capitol Hill resident thinks his neighborhood could do just fine without Argonaut Liquor's flashy new sign. Denver's legendary liquor store cleaned up its image a few months ago, switching out its old-fashioned marker for an electronic billboard. But once Michael Henry got an eyeful, he realized it didn't conform to Denver zoning codes, and he called city zoning administrator Kent Strapko.

"I heard a few complaints before I noticed it myself," says Henry, the co-chair of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods' Zoning, Transportation & Liquor License Committee who also happens to be the director of Denver's Board of Ethics. "I was involved about twenty years ago, when current sign code was adopted, and one of the key elements of it is that there just should not be animated or fluctuating or moving signs. For the most part, every business has complied with it. So I was shocked to see in such a visible location such a large, very colorful moving sign."

The next thing Argonaut co-owner Ron Vaughn knew, city Neighborhood Inspection Services inspector Gina Romero was telling liquor-store employees that their new sign -- sold to the store by Brilliant Signs, whose regional manager, John Irwin, just happens to have been Argonaut's manager for ten years -- was a no-go because it was flashing far more often than the legal limit of once an hour. (Which means that the changing sign at St. Paul's United Methodist Church at 16th Avenue and Grant Street is also in violation.)

"When my colleague pulled the permit for the sign, he got permission for unlimited messages," Irwin explains. "He interpreted that as being able to do anything he wanted to do. But they can only flash once an hour. The complaint was that it would look too Las Vegas, and I would concur. I certainly don't want a Las Vegas look on Colfax."

But that's no reason the world's longest street should look too stodgy, either. So Irwin, who also happens to be the secretary/treasurer of Colfax on the Hill, another neighborhood organization, is trying to work out a compromise that will allow the sign to flash a different message every five to six minutes. "A sign like the Argonaut has is a very good mechanism for attracting business," he says. "These signs bring 24 to 42 percent more people to the business, because it's such an eye-catcher. So I've gone to the City, pulled codes, talked to officials and am trying to get letters of support from Colfax on the Hill and the Colfax Business Improvement District."

Neither of the Colfax neighborhood organizations will comment on their plans (nor will Henry, who says, "I won't negotiate through Westword"), but their respective boards will debate the issue later this month. And in the meantime, the sign remains a staid, discreet reminder that Argonaut's top one hundred wines are on sale.

Beer was the original beverage of choice at the building that now houses the Tivoli Student Union on the Auraria campus. And the former Tivoli Brewery is about to undergo a complete facelift. The cracked, peeling surface will get a historical landmark's version of microdermabrasion, which will expose the original red-brick facade that hasn't been seen in nearly a century and leave it looking many decades younger. (Dermatologists only wish they could have that kind of success story.)

A key member of the restoration team is Mark Oatis, one of Denver's last remaining sign masters. He has trained under the best of the best, those "wall dogs" who created some of the city's most infamous images: the Tivoli Beer sign poking through the American Beauty ad on artist Myron Melnick's Five Points studio, a trio of cigar signs in an alley near Pearl Street and Exposition Avenue, the Purina Dog Chow dog on the grain elevator alongside I-70. Oatis was involved with the last major overhaul of the Tivoli back in the mid-'80s, when he created the black-and-white Teamsters mural on the wall outside of what's now the Starz theater, the large beer-tray paintings that line the food court, and a stunning gold, silver, abalone and mother of pearl mirror tucked in a second-floor corner.

"Things have changed a lot over there in the last thirty years," Oatis says. "The thing that's ironic about this is that I'm finally going to get to letter the smokestack, and that was what had always captured my imagination as an apprentice sign painter."

Subcontracting with Restoration Specialties Inc. on the job, which is scheduled to be completed in fall 2004, Oatis will be redoing those Denver-defining six-foot-tall letters, fixing the neon Tivoli sign that glows from the tip of the building and repairing a host of other markers. In exchange, however, the Tivoli may lose some of Oatis's earlier work: Several of the murals, including his Teamster piece, could come down during the paint stripping and tuck-point restoration.

"Even in the '80s, while it was being really repaired, it was not a restoration, per se," he says. "I believe what's being taken on now is more on the order of a historic restoration. Unfortunately, an external mural and some of the elaborate signs that accompanied the 1985 rehabilitation will fall victim to this restoration."

In the wall-dog business, it's beer today, gone tomorrow.

The silver panic: When filmmaker John Sayles announced this week that he'd be making his newest movie in Colorado, it ended a long dry spell for the state's film business -- and gave Mayor John Hickenlooper a chance to tout Denver as the "creative capitol of the Rocky Mountain West."

That doesn't mean no one's going to rain on this parade, though. The movie, which will be filmed in Denver and Leadville this fall, is a mystery story "that we're hoping is going to be called Silver City," Sayles says. But that could change, depending on copyright issues.

Or perhaps on the fact that the new USA Network show Peacemakers, which debuted just last week and stars Tom Berenger, is set in the mythical 1880s Colorado town of . . .Silver City. And even though Denver's Rick Ramage is co-producer of the series, it's being filmed in the Vancouver area -- like so many of the other movie ventures that Colorado lost to Canada in the past decade. (Bye-bye, Raymond Burr.)

For locals with stars in their eyes, Sayles and company will be casting close to home. To get your name in lights (ideally ones that won't violate any city codes), send a photo to Silver City Films; Att: Casting; 2401 15th Street, Suite 200, Denver 80202.


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