Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

The View

Denver is a city built on great neighborhoods, filled with characters and coffeehouses.

I fell in love with Stoneman's Row when I first moved to Denver and would take frequent trips to the original Muddy's, just so I could detour past these eight ancient stone houses standing sentinel over the highway. The block looked historic even before it became the West 28th Avenue Historic District in 1979, before it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. And in the early '90s, when a house finally became available on the block, I jumped at the chance to buy it — leaks, creaks, spiders and all. Not that the area was jumping back then. Muddy's had moved downtown (and then disappeared altogether), the Highland neighborhood just above had yet to boom, and the Platte Street area just below was known for My Brother's Bar and little else. But off in the distance, you could see Pikes Peak.

From my back window, I watched the construction of the new Elitch's (complete with the Total Tower, which seemed designed to offer a cheap-thrill peek into my bathroom). I watched Coors Field appear on the edge of LoDo. I watched the neon glow of Union Station's "Travel by Train" sign return. I watched Invesco Field at Mile High go up and the original Mile High Stadium come down. I watched Ocean Journey take hold, then drown in a sea of red ink, washing back up as the Downtown Aquarium. I watched new, always taller loft projects spring up in the Platte Valley and the Millennium Bridge suddenly poke out, like the prow of a ship. I'd arrived too late to watch the houses below mine get carted off, the hillside get carved away for the construction of I-25. But the highway in my back yard guarantees that while my view may change, it will never be lost altogether. And every morning, I watch the sun come up and glint off the dome of the State Capitol, then illuminate the confluence of two rivers, the spot where gold was found back in 1858. I see 150 years of history spread out before me.

The next 150 are off to a rocky start.

For the past two months, the sign welcoming people to the West 28th Avenue Historic District has been lying in the gutter. I try not to take it as an omen, but last year, the oldest building on the block, a bungalow built in 1888, two years before stonemasons created the bigger, more elaborate houses around the corner, was officially delisted by the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission. To begin to qualify as landmark, a house must have been the residence of someone important, or be a great piece of historic architecture, or possess important historic geography. The commission didn't consider Melvin J. Roberts, the man who built the 16th Street Mall and who is commemorated in a fountain there, as sufficiently historic (nor did it bite on the Dick Van Dyke stand-in who once lived in the house). And not only are there many bungalows in Denver, but this one had been seriously modified — although not so seriously as to deter the commission from adding it to the district in the '90s, along with four stately Queen Annes across the way. As for its geography, "This house was originally at the end of a row of similar houses, but it was the only one to remain after I-25 went through," staffer Christie Murata told the commission at a hearing in January 2007. "Its context is gone." Which also meant it was the last vestige of a history that once marched down to the Platte. The commission didn't buy that argument, either, and designated the building "non-contributing," which would allow its new owner to demolish the house if her plans for its replacement were approved.

"It's a terrible precedent," says Denver historian Tom Noel. "Landmarking means nothing if any time a developer leans on them, they delist it."

But for the site to be developed — say, into a 6,000-square-foot duplex project that obscures half the block from view, it would need to be rezoned, a process that considers neighborhood input. And so the residents of Stoneman's Row — a small crew that includes a curator and a sci-fi writer and a cranky editor — went into mediation. The result? The property that the owner bought for $575,000 a year ago from people who bought it a year before that for $425,00 is now back on the market — with a big banner hanging off the side announcing "Land for Sale." For $1.25 million. The banner is illegal but effective, given the property's location. As a web ad burbles, "If Denver was on the ocean, this is where the lighthouse would be."

And it's lighting the way to another potential shipwreck at the other end of the block. A decade ago, USA Today moved out of the nondescript Farm Bureau building down at 28th and Wyandot. At first, social services contemplated using it as a district office, but then Denver Public Schools took it over for the Contemporary Learning Academy, an alternative school for DPS students. Some neighbors, newer neighbors, neighbors who would perhaps like to develop that parcel — and that view! — themselves, fought the school. I was all for it: If you live in an urban neighborhood, you should welcome an urban school. Everything in my back yard.

But on Monday, I got an e-mail from Highland United Neighborhood Inc. saying that DPS was considering selling several additional school buildings, including the one housing CLA. "DPS has asked that we share our thoughts as to the highest and best use for redevelopment/reuse possibilities of the site," the note said, inviting residents to a meeting Tuesday night, when this issue of Westword would be on the press. But the best use could still be a school, and in fact, DPS has promised that CLA will stay put for at least a year. "This school is a draw from across the city," says councilwoman Judy Montero, who represents the area. "Where else could you educate youth who come from all over?"

Unlike the bungalow on Umatilla, the school building has no historic significance of any kind. Under Platte River Valley zoning, it could be replaced with a building of up to six stories. With DPS in a tight financial bind, you can understand why it would want to explore what it could get for such a valuable parcel, and share the wealth of that view — and in fact, it's slated to discuss the possibilities on Thursday with the Urban Land Institute, which just completed a study of the 16th Street Mall, the one created by an occupant of 2745 Umatilla.

But then, they don't teach much history in school these days.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun