Colorado History

Reader: Denver Is Losing Mom and Pops, Gaining Corporate Crap

Tom's Diner will keep the lights on.
Brandon Marshall
Tom's Diner will keep the lights on.
In some cities, news that a 24-hour greasy spoon will continue to stand would not be cause for celebration. But  Tom's Diner comes with a healthy side of history: It was the ninth link in the homegrown White Spot chain, founded in the ’40s by William “Fred” Clements. This particular location was just blocks from the Capitol on the fabulous Colfax strip, designed in 1967 by the legendary Los Angeles firm of Armet & Davis in the classic “Googie” style, named after the futuristic Googies coffee shop built in L.A. in the late ’40s.

And the Tom’s Diner building not only had an impressive architectural pedigree, but also a legendary reputation as a Denver gathering spot. Among other things, it had had been picketed by hippies in August 1969 after several of their cohorts were refused service. Tony Clements, who’d taken over for his father, closed the White Spot at 601 East Colfax in the mid-1980s. “Like running a restaurant in Beirut,” he said at the time. “In the ’60s, it was pot and hippies and all that, but we managed. But when the neighborhood went to heroin and crack, that was too much. I got out.”

And Tom Messina got in...and wound up in a big fight with preservationists two decades later, one that led to a last-second save, as Patricia Calhoun reported in "Historic Denver Made History in 2019." Meanwhile, Denver residents continue to debate the value of saving the diner.

Says Aaron: 
Look at all of the hometown flavor that we have lost over the last ten years in the name of progress. There were so many wonderful mom and pop places to eat that were here for years, that now are gone and replaced with corporate crap.
Counters Jamie:
  Denver is so eager to hold on to what they consider "character" because Denver lacks a lot in that area.
Suggests Steve:
 Prediction: a lot of money will be allocated from Denver’s Hysteric Preservation department, the place will look good for a few years and then go into decline because the "highest and best use" doctrine isn’t followed. Because of the designation, it will fall into disrepair and ultimately turn into a real eyesore. Tom will be screwed for such a wrong-minded decision.
Responds Leon: 
It's a GOOGIE. The owner sold his property to the GBX Group so the property wouldn't get leveled for some damn condos. The owner made the deal he was happy with.
Notes Michael: 
Just so everyone is clear, GBX is making their money in part by taxpayer support in the form of utilizing various federal and state incentive programs such as historic tax credits and preservation easement deductions. I’ll leave it to more high-minded folks to debate the civic value in preserving a diner for whatever reasons. Just know we all are subsidizing this ongoing private business.
Concludes Jason:
Cities are not museums. They are built to change and adapt as needed. In 1929, the venerable Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Manhattan was bought and torn down by "greedy developers." Residents grumbled at the time because in its place, all they built was the "ugly and monstrous" Empire State Building. The Waldorf-Astoria was rebuilt down the street by new architects..... and New York did not die.
Messina, who opened the 24/7 Tom’s Diner in 1999, had bought the building and its surrounding property for $800,000 in 2004. By last year, though, he was ready to retire. He got an offer for a reported $4.8 million for the parcel, with one caveat: The diner would need a certificate of non-historic status from Denver’s Community Planning and Development Department, which would allow it to be demolished, making way for what could become an eight-story apartment complex.

That’s when some Googie-loving Denver residents stepped in to have the building declared historic, and in July, members of the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission voted unanimously to give the building landmark protection, over Messina’s objections. The controversial proposal was on its way to city council for a final vote when the residents withdrew their application: Historic Denver had been at work behind the scenes, and on December 21, the announcement came that the owner had reached a deal with the GBX Group that would spare Tom’s Diner — it’s now officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places — and still allow for compatible development on Colfax...and for Messina to retire in comfort.

What do you think about the deal? About the fact that Tom's Diner — the building, at least — will remain? Post a comment or share your thoughts at [email protected]