Carmen Court, an Unofficial Denver Landmark, on Endangered List

Robert Delaney
After 95 years, Carmen Court has a park-like setting of mature trees.
Among my personal struggles is the nearly impossible task of balancing my love of architecture with the fact that I live in Denver. The relentless assault on this city's good buildings has accelerated over the past five years or so, with not just historic structures, but modern ones coming down. To make matters worse, these demolished landmarks are almost invariably replaced by crudely designed, cheaply constructed monstrosities that push lot lines, city codes and zoning rules to their absolute limits.

The latest place in danger of hitting the chopping block is the ultra-charming Carmen Court, just south of Speer Boulevard.

Located on the corner of Emerson Street and First Avenue, Carmen Court is set back, wrapping the site in an angled configuration along the east and south sides of a large lot. This allows for a park-like space between the complex and the intersection, filled with large trees, that visually links up to the roughly triangular Hungarian Freedom Park (originally Arlington Park).

The complicated forms of Carmen Court evoke the idea of a small village of adobe dwellings, the kind found in New Mexico and southern Colorado, but with a dash of Spanish Colonial here and there in the tile and ironwork. Made up of multiple volumes with different skylines interrupted by chimneys, the building is a single story at the opposite ends near the streets, with two-story masses joined at the center. This mimics the topography itself, since the two-story part sits on the brow of a low hill. There’s also a little Hollywood to the place, with the non-repeating vignettes of windows, doors and porches creating an unrelievedly picturesque spot. It’s as though the building came right off a movie set — for a Ramon Novarro silent film from the ’20s.

click to enlarge The just-completed Carmen Court. - HARRY MELLON RHOADS
The just-completed Carmen Court.
Harry Mellon Rhoads
In the 1920s, the country saw an increased interest in all things Spanish, including a taste for what was called “Spanish” architecture. Carmen Court was constructed in 1925 as a stylish, high-end example of the craze; it was designed by Bert L. Rhoads, an engineer who had previously worked for the Gates Rubber Company and is thought to have designed those factory buildings. Though little is actually known of his architectural career, it’s clear that he was gifted in assembling complicated compositions of forms.

Originally a six-unit apartment building, Carmen Court was converted to condominiums in 1977. Now the owners of those condos have applied to the city's Community Planning and Development department for a Certificate for Demolition Eligibility, which, if granted, would allow for Carmen Court to be torn down.

The applicants for the demolition certificate are not the people who will redevelop the property, but it's definitely more valuable if the certificate is granted; BusinessDen has reported that demolition certificates have already been issued for three houses adjacent to Carmen Court. Since I don’t need a pig to find a truffle, I’d say there's a massive project in the works,  And if all those expensive, potentially expendable condos signing on weren't enough to indicate that, the Carmen Court condo owners are represented by that omnipotent 17th Street mega law firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

Those high-powered lawyers might come in handy if there's any up-zoning request involved. This sensibility is already all the rage at the planning office, as revealed by the dystopian fantasies outlined in the East Central and East Area plans, which envision the replacement of blocks and blocks of historical material in east Denver with Tennyson Street-style uglies. The Carmen Court parcel is currently zoned for five stories, but since no designs have yet been submitted for the property, the potential developer may be envisioning eight or even twelve.

click to enlarge Carmen Court has plenty of character, as seen from the First Avenue entry. - ROBERT DELANEY
Carmen Court has plenty of character, as seen from the First Avenue entry.
Robert Delaney
Until recently, a Certificate for Demolition Eligibility was called Certificate of Non-Historic Status, an Orwellian label, as genuinely historic buildings were often declared "non-historic" in the process. After such an application was filed, the city scheduled a three-week-long comment period. If in that time no one countered with an application to have the building declared historic, which would afford it protection from demolition, the certificate was usually issued.

The notice of the demolition certificate application went up on the Carmen Court property on March 24, the day after Mayor Michael Hancock issued his stay-at-home order. While the comment period was set to run out on April 14, it's now been extended until May 26. That's because the city has received a notice of intent to file a historic designation application for the property, and planning staffers have determined that it's probably eligible.
The property "retains a high degree of integrity and therefore still has the ability to communicate its architectural and geographic significance," they wrote in their March 24 assessment.

Under the updated preservation ordinance approved by Denver City Council last year, after such a notice is filed, the posting period is extended to a total of sixty days, with a meeting between the property owner and the historic-designation applicant facilitated by the city sometime during that period. "The goal is to arrive at a mutually beneficial solution that may or may not involve designation," notes communications program manager Alexandra Foster.

If the application for landmark designation proceeds and no compromise is reached, the matter will go before the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission when it again convenes. Given the abundant information that the Planning and Development office has gathered on Carmen Court, including period photos by the designer’s brother, renowned Denver photographer Harry Mullen Rhoads, the complex should be a slam dunk to qualify as a listed landmark, with the landscape also worthy of saving.

Then, sadly and probably inevitably, the whole thing would go before city council, where the Brownstein lawyers will line up to knock it down. And all will be safe once again for developers in Denver.

To state the obvious, you don’t get a beautiful city this way.

Read the full Community Planning and Development assessment of Carmen Court here: