A ghost sign that had been buried for decades under beige stucco just reappeared on the side of a two-story Victorian storefront at 2801 Welton Street. And it's not going to disappear again anytime soon. Star Mesa Properties, which is redeveloping the 5,000-square-foot, circa 1895 building in the Five Points Historic Cultural District, plans to save the old Yuye Cafe sign — and that's a good thing, since the 2014 update of Denver’s Design Standards and Guidelines for Landmark Structures and Districts requires the owner of a historic property to “preserve a historic painted wall sign,” better known as a “ghost sign.”
“If the walls could talk about the various things they’ve seen, it could be a very interesting book,” says Bob Cardwell, a principal with Star Mesa Properties. Instead, he’ll do the talking for the project, which he calls the most “fascinating experience in 36 years of commercial development.” Star Mesa bought the property about two years ago, recognizing early on that the building was “in tough shape,” he says.
The developer applied for a grant through the Welton Design/Development Challenge hosted by the Denver Office of Economic Development; although both the block housing Rosenberg’s Bagels & Deli and the still-stuck Rossonian project won awards (for $75,000 and $150,000, respectively), Star Mesa did not. “The city literally didn’t think the building could be saved,” Cardwell remembers.
But it was. After some forensic destruction, the developer and architect found that the structure and roof were sound, though the building had to be gutted and a completely new custom storefront created.
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Still, since it’s in a historic district, they’ve been working closely with the Landmark Preservation Commission and History Colorado to save what they can, Cardwell says; they also obtained the smallest Denver Renewal Authority grant ever. But then, this redevelopment isn’t on the scale of Star Mesa’s usual projects.“It’s small for us, but it’s the right thing to do,” Cardwell says.
So is saving that ghost sign that emerged during the forensic work. Architect Kevin Koernig was “ecstatic” at the discovery, Cardwell remembers, and they’ve hired a muralist to “bring it back to integrity.” But not to clean it up too much, since the city rules advise: “Do not restore a historic wall sign unless the sign is in extremely poor condition, since over-restoration can cause confusion over the age of the building and the sign, and the time period featured in the sign.”
In the meantime, they’re about to sign a restaurant tenant for the first floor, which was always some kind of tavern/bar, Cardwell says, everything from the Yuye Cafe to BJ's Port; the second floor, which had traditionally been a hotel of sorts — even if the guests didn’t check in for long — will be office space. They’re hoping to complete the work by February or March.
So soon the facade will be returned to its original, turn-of-the-last-century glory, as the rest of the beige paint is removed from the red brick. There’s still plenty to be done, but as the ghost sign proves, the spirit is willing.