L'Chaim To Life!

Like many old structures around Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhoods, the Temple Events Center Uptown--in its heyday the third home of Congregation Emanuel, Denver's oldest Jewish congregation--has seen better days. But if director Roger Armstrong has his way, the building's public centennial celebration on Sunday won't be just a tribute to a rich history; it will be an archway to a brighter future.

Key to that future is the temple's varied past. Designed by noted architect John Humphrey, the Moorish edifice sporting splendid 150-foot towers topped with copper minarets opened with a three-day celebration in January 1899. In those days, the temple's magnificent sanctuary rang with strains of Mozart and Bach coaxed from a breathy, 27-rank, air-driven Estey pipe organ as sunlight filtered in from all sides through jewel-toned stained glass. But silence grew as the town's gentry--including the temple's laity, which abandoned the site for Hilltop in 1955--emigrated south and east, leaving their Victorian mansions behind.

"The building always made a contribution to the community at large and wasn't just there for whatever group used it at the time," says CU-Denver graduate student Owen Charlton, who's done extensive research on the building's history. Rabbi William S. Friedman, a progressive and vocal leader who presided over Emanuel until he retired in 1938, used to invite clergymen from other denominations to speak at the synagogue. "He wanted to show they weren't just an isolated little Jewish group," Charlton says. During World War II, the temple hosted USO shows and a unique "Sisterhood Canteen" for Jewish servicemen stationed nearby and their non-Jewish cohorts.

After its initial flock deserted, the building was home to Baptist and Pentacostal congregations. Somewhere along the line, some of the beautiful stencilling in the sanctuary was unceremoniously painted over. The Holy Ark became a closet, the organ's leather pneumatic pumps cracked and dried, and the stained glass buckled. Rain leaked through the flat roof of a 1924 addition, causing damage to elegant arched ceilings. Yet the temple continued to have a life.

When the Baptists took over in 1956, they sponsored numerous community outreach programs. Even the notorious Lovingway Pentacostal Church, which presided there from 1977 until 1982 under the obstreperous Reverend Maurice Gordon, known for holding book burnings in the adjacent parking lot, left its mark on the neighborhood. "He got the building into the news several times," says Charlton. "He once made a sermon from the north tower and was charged with disturbing the peace."

After Lovingway's brief reign, the temple--sold to developers who intended to raze it for a parking lot--once again made news when preservationists successfully battled to save it. In 1987 the building was designated a historical landmark and became a nonprofit events facility. Now, director Armstrong says, it's the object of costly--and therefore slow-moving--renovations and upgrades.

Eventually, Armstrong also hopes to improve technical capabilities to facilitate use by theater companies and other performers. In the meantime, the building houses artist studios, a dance troupe's rehearsal space and a youth-outreach theater group and hosts private parties and all manner of arts and cultural events, from weekly Sufi dancing to performances by Tibetan monks. "We're booked almost every Saturday of the year," Armstrong says. "And almost every night of the week, something's going on." With the right amount of elbow grease, he thinks, that will easily continue for the next hundred years.

--Froyd

Century of Events Celebration, 3-6 p.m. January 24, Temple Events Center Uptown, 1595 Pearl Street, free.

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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd

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