Denver's premier independent creative-writing institution, Lighthouse Writers Workshop, announced its new location this week, a brand-new building at 39th and York streets, just off the new greenway bordering the Clayton and Cole neighborhoods.
Lighthouse had previously done business — and offered important literary contributions to the city and state — at various historic sites. Early on, the group founded in 1997 operated out of the Thomas Hornsby Ferril House, named for Colorado’s first poet laureate. Most recently, the nonprofit has been based in the equally historic Milheim House, which was moved from 1355 Pennsylvania Street (across from the Molly Brown House) to1515 Race Street in 1989.
“We started talking about the move out of necessity,” says Michael Henry, poet, co-founder and executive director of Lighthouse. The owners of Milheim told Lighthouse that they were selling, and offered to sell it to the institute at market price. The same thing had happened at the Ferril House, when owner Colorado Humanities decided to sell.
“This time,” Henry says, “it just didn’t seem to make sense to keep leasing. We’d been looking at the old Evans School, but it was lease-only, and rents are so high. And we really wanted a place where we could stay for a while.”
The organization will break ground on the planned 11,000 square-foot facility in late spring or early summer, with a “dream-date” launch of June 2022, just in time for Lighthouse's annual Lit Fest. The $1.6 million project is made possible in part by donors both private and public, incuding grants of $250,000 and $60,000 from the Bonfils-Stanton and Gates Family foundations, respectively.
“There’s been such an amazing grassroots effort in terms of raising the money,” Henry says. “Our community has been so generous with individual gifts. We’re so grateful for that, and for all their support.”
The design for the new facility includes a three-story circular stair tower with a row of windows up top and an unfinished steel circular stair under a chandelier on the interior. “The architect says at night, it’ll definitely remind people of a lighthouse,” Henry says.
The location and sheer size of the building will open up new possibilities for Lighthouse and its many offerings, including the expansion of programming, the building of greater community, the amplification and uplifting of historically marginalized communities, and the support of writers, writing and reading.
“This neighborhood seemed like a good fit. Bruce Randolph is right there, Manual High is nearby, and we’ve never had a real walking-distance community function,” Henry says. “I’m excited about the possibility, how we can be good neighbors for Cole, good resources for the community both citywide and right down the street.”
The past year has come with challenges and also surprising successes. While the staff can’t engage in their usual in-person workshops or on-site readings led by some of literature’s most acclaimed writers, attendance — digitally — is up.
“[In] 2020 compared to 2019, overall enrollment [was] up 20 percent," notes Henry. "Our Young Writers program has almost doubled in size. It’s insane. Surreal. In a way, I feel terrible, because so many great arts efforts are struggling. But people are craving connection. They want to creatively explore what they’re going through. Writing is a powerful way for them to do that. People need that now.”
So is this the last move for Lighthouse Writers Workshop?
“I hope so,” he says. “We get to create the spaces exactly where we want them. And no one can come to us in a few years and say that they’re selling; we won’t be faced with that decision again. This is a huge undertaking on a number of fronts, but we’re ready and excited. I hope we can attract new arts organizations to the area, really make it a hub for creative work. We’ll be there for a while; we’re making it exactly what we want and need it to be.”
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