Fighting through a wave of protest in 1987, the owners of Deep Rock Water Company demolished two century-old homes in the nationally registered Curtis Park Historic District. So when Deep Rock purchased a three-home piece of land in that same neighborhood two months ago, some residents experienced deja vu.
Several residents of the northside community hastily petitioned the Denver Landmark Commission to designate the homes, and the block they sit on that's bounded by 24th, 25th, California and Stout, as a city historic landmark. If passed by the commission and then the city council, the designation would enable the city to reject demolition requests--which Deep Rock denies are in the works, but which others see as inevitable.
"Deep Rock's act is expansion, and we're fearful it will be a repeat performance," says neighborhood resident Michael Ritchie, who unsuccessfully fought to save the two homes in 1987. The property just purchased by Deep Rock is only a block from the company's headquarters.
"It's a miracle that Curtis Park has survived," says local historian Tom Noel, a fourteen-year member of the Landmark Commission. "It's the oldest Victorian neighborhood in the city. To have a neighborhood that close--without a freeway through it, or a ballpark on top of it, or a big parking lot--is amazing. Speaking for myself, I'm very sympathetic. They're constantly in a fight to keep out parking lots and demolitions. It's war."
Deep Rock insists there's nothing to worry about.
Asked if the company intends to demolish the houses, Doug Oberhamer, the company's vice president and chief operating officer, replies, "I can tell you that right now there are no plans to do that. Those homes are leased and our company intends to honor the terms of those leases."
Residents point out that the leases have almost run out, but Oberhamer insists that "as far as I know, as long as they want to be tenants-at-lease, or there are successor tenants, that's our plan--to lease those homes."
Oberhamer says he doesn't know his company's stance on the landmark application, which is scheduled for a public hearing September 6 before the commission.
Some residents contend that Deep Rock was never up-front to begin with when purchasing the land.
The person who sold the three-home parcel at the corner of 25th and California says he didn't know Deep Rock was the buyer. "We didn't sell it to Deep Rock," insists John Lange.
Yes, he did. "The family that owns our business," Oberhamer explains, "has a number of subsidiary companies that are all related, but all our real estate is done under one." The one he is talking about is California Development Corporation, named "because we're on California Street. There's nothing clever or deceptive about that."
Lange sees it differently. "I think what you're telling me is, whatever this California corporation is, is Deep Rock, and I didn't know that. To me, if Deep Rock was going to buy it, I guess, yes, it would have made a difference to me. I would have had to think about that, because I think Deep Rock bought something else down there and people got mad at them or something five or six years ago. So maybe we could have put some conditions on it."
The incident Lange refers to is the one in 1987 that still fuels the anxiety of Curtis Park residents.
At stake seven years ago were two homes at the corner of 26th and California, across the street from Deep Rock, that the company razed for office expansion. And like the present situation, residents looked to historic designation as a shield.
"We sought using the Landmark Commission because the commission had, that very year, passed a new law that gave the nonproperty owner the right to get a stay of demolition on an historic property," recalls Ritchie. Ultimately, the Curtis Park residents' attempt to save the homes failed. Destroyed were one house built circa 1883 and the onetime residence of Denver pioneer and poet Lawrence Nelson Greenleaf. The Landmark Commission denied historical status to both houses because of their extreme deterioration.
"When the Landmark Commission went through these buildings," Ritchie recalls, "their reaction was `How could anyone live in this?!'"
Ritchie, an investor, is in the midst of renovating one of two nineteenth-century homes he owns in the district. He says he had planned to refurbish both but now hesitates because he fears that other houses will be demolished.
Deep Rock's Oberhamer, however, says he doesn't see that happening. "Back in 1987, that was quite a different story," he says. "We needed that land, and we worked with those in the neighborhood for a long time. We offered to donate the houses; they could have moved them on to any of the other lots in this neighborhood. We went to great lengths and extraordinary expense, which we were glad to do."
When Deep Rock made its recent purchase in June, the property originally contained four units. Two of the units, a house and a garage, caught fire last winter and the city had placed demolition orders on them. As a condition of sale, the water company agreed to satisfy the pre-existing orders, which meant demolishing the two structures. And this is where Oberhamer feels that residents may be drawing the wrong conclusion.
"I looked at the paperwork submitted to the city, and in order to get a demolition permit, you have to put down a reason why you are demolishing the property," explains Oberhamer. "We put down `for parking.' But even though we put that down, there are no plans to do it."
Kay Moore, who lives at one of the remaining residences now owned by Deep Rock, says she was told otherwise when she asked demolition workers who were razing the two burned-out structures about the two surviving structures.
"I remember talking to a worker," she says, "and I asked him, `So when are you guys gonna tear these down?' And he said, `Well, we're going to wait and do them together.'" A nearby resident, Paul Steere, echoes Moore's tale.
Jo Frederiksen, who lives in the other existing house, says, "I am very concerned with these two houses, given what they did to the other two houses they owned in 1987. I would like to stay here another year, but I would also like to know that when I move that the house is secure and will remain intact."
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Both of the houses were built in 1880 and designed by Frank Edbrooke, the architect of the Brown Palace Hotel and many other landmarks in Denver.
"In all the history of Denver, Edbrooke is one of our most outstanding architects," says State Senator Dennis Gallagher, who wrote a letter to the landmark commission in hopes of preserving the two homes. "One of the reasons for having an historic designation is that you can use residential for offices. That would be a possibility, that would be my hope."
Although the significance of Curtis Park has landed the neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places, many of its historic buildings are not protected.
"People in the city, particularly the Denver Landmark Commission, have urged some of us in the Curtis Park area for a long time to start the work of protection in this area," says Bill West, who spearheads the application. West adds that it's a "hard political process, but the pressures are now upon us. There's no question, with the baseball stadium and light rail, things will happen.