40 West Arts is capturing West Colfax's history through commercial architecture

If you take a closer look, underneath layers of paint and decades of additions, there are gorgeous mid-century modern commercial structures along Colfax Avenue that have a story to tell. A sordid past is part of what makes the country's longest main street fascinating to some, but for Bill Marino and the non-profit 40 West Arts whose board he chairs, there's a desire to let onlookers know there is more to the avenue's colorful life than seediness.

Through a $50,000 state historical grant secured by 40 West Arts and the Lakewood-West Colfax Business Improvement District, Marino and his crew of volunteers are hard at work on a historic resources survey. Cataloging more than 500 structures along West Colfax from Sheridan Boulevard to Simms Street, the organization's building a complete picture by taking a photographic inventory as well as speaking with people who live and work in the Lakewood corridor. Marino talked with Westword about what information is being collected with the grant and how he hopes the public will soon be able to enjoy the once-buried history of this section of the fabled Colfax Avenue.

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Westword: What is 40 West Arts, exactly?

Bill Marino: We are located along a historic section of West Colfax -- 40 West Arts is an arts district that was designated by the state in 2012 as an emerging creative district. We were part of the original fourteen districts designated back in 2012. It was a big deal for us because we are very grassroots and very connected to our community and our artists. Part of 40 West Arts mission is not only to create community art spaces and community art events but also to celebrate the character and history of our area.

Can you explain the grant 40 West Arts and the Lakewood-West Colfax Business Improvement District recently secured through the state?

We put together this grant application to the State Historical Fund, knowing that with light rail opening in the corridor, a lot could change over the next ten years about the character of the area. There are so many buildings in the area that either haven't been catalogued or there isn't a whole lot of information available.

Along with (our own matching funds) we were awarded a $50,000 grant for us to inventory all the buildings in the West Colfax corridor that are more than fifty years old. That sounds kind of boring at first, but what it does is allow us to tell the history of the corridor through architecture and land use.

What part of West Colfax will this survey entail?

It is super-cool for a culture geek like me because what we didn't realize was that while we were preparing for the historic resource survey, we did a preliminary scan of the corridor from Sheridan to Simms -- the Lakewood section of West Colfax. You might think there are fifty or sixty buildings that would qualify for this survey; there were more than 500 buildings. Some of them are more than a hundred years old.

These are all commercial buildings -- though if there is something unique like the Loveland House, which was built in 1885 by William Loveland, it will get to be part of it, even though originally it was a residence. But it is 99 percent commercial buildings.

What sorts of things are you planning on doing with the information gathered through the Historic Resource Survey of West Colfax?

Well, we'll be able to fill holes in the history and culture of the corridor through architecture and land use. We're already gathering this kind of information, as we have volunteers on the street, knocking on doors, taking pictures and doing interviews. We also have another group of volunteers at the county archive pulling information. Our goal is to be able to catalog this information for posterity so others can access it, but also to create interpretive signage to be able to tell the story of West Colfax to residents and visitors and commuters.

We already have some interpretive signs planned for the Wadsworth Station as we work with RTD and the city of Lakewood to put up a series of signs there. Whether it is fun facts or remarkable stories or information on influential people, we're going to be able to identify more interpretive signage to put up at locations around the corridor. Our ultimate goal in addition to cataloguing for posterity and doing the interpretive signage, is that we also believe that there is educational material that can be created and shared with local school districts. We're also working with the Rocky Mountain Guide Association to create a regularly occurring tour of the corridor based on the information that we've learned. Keep reading for more on West Colfax's history. We also want to create some oral histories that people can download and learn for themselves. As much as we can, we want those voices to be of people who are still alive and are able to tell the stories about the '20s, '30s and '40s and so on....plus, we'll do some narrative histories. We'd like to create those and have them available for download from our 40 West Arts site, because that really helps fulfill our mission of celebrating the character and history of our area.

Since you are well acquainted with the area, were you surprised by anything revealed about the buildings surveyed so far?

It's premature for me to be able to tell a full story, but there are absolutely some buildings that we can't wait to find out more about. There's some mid-century buildings that have had multiple uses but still have their strongly angular roofs and oddly shaped Chevron frontages that are a throwback to the diner/motel era -- there are several of those in this area. But there are also some -- like a 75-year-old Masonic Lodge -- that have been abandoned that folks were talking about tearing down.

In addition to all the work we are doing toward the consumer-oriented and fun and celebrating history (components), we are also looking at a preservation component. If we have to go after more grant money or collaborate with the city and country to identify some buildings, we really would like to make sure that they don't get redeveloped. Maybe turn them into museums or preserve them as some sort of community asset and destination.

But you wouldn't consider the survey a full-scale preservation effort...

Certainly, we couldn't designate 500-plus buildings as historic preservation sites -- or get them on the national registry and all of that. But we will absolutely look at buildings that are either not currently used or the owners have a civic bent to them and might be interested in a preservation use. We're not in the business of imposing this on anybody, and that's how the ordinance actually reads in the City of Lakewood -- Lakewood has a designation that allows it to put a historic designation on a building, but it is only with the owner's consent.

Being able to tell the history of an area like West Colfax is really exciting, because so much of it is unknown, even to Colorado natives.

I've poured a lot of years of love and care into what we're doing out here with 40 West Arts and with the Business Improvement District, but stories can be told all the way back to 150 years ago, where this was where Denverites came to summer -- that is exciting. They would come out here because we were out in the "boonies."

There has been kind of an evolution of this remarkable character of Colfax -- it has an agrarian history, it has an entrepreneurial history. As automotive culture took over, the love of the open road and Jack Kerouac and the "Gateway to the Rockies" -- that's when the diners and supper clubs and the motels appeared and it was a super-glitzy area. Now this section of West Colfax is going through its own new renaissance -- partly because of the arts and culture of 40 West Arts and the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, but also because of some public investment like light rail. It has really spurred a lot of interest in young people moving out here -- but it has also been because of the arts and culture.

The story of Denver, Lakewood and Aurora -- it is a rich, rich story. The metro area has a great story to tel, and we just want to make sure that we share our part of it and let people know how we fit in.

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies

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