After the Fall

Tracy Rollert thought it would be fun -- roaming around an abandoned old school with her boyfriend, Jim, maybe making love to him in an empty classroom. A neighbor who saw them climb the chain-link fence surrounding the property yelled at them to be careful. Instead, the fearless 36-year-old removed her sandals and scaled a narrow drainpipe that snaked up the east side of the building to a ledge jutting out from the second story.

Although street lamps shone dimly at the corner, it was dark on the ledge. Tracy didn't have a flashlight; she and Jim had broken theirs trying to pry the plywood off a boarded-up window on the first floor. So while Jim went off to get another one at the convenience store, Tracy crouched on the table-sized ledge, trying to stay out of view of passing cars and nearby lofts.

Her head was cloudy from alcohol and adrenaline, but she was having a good time -- feeling free and adventurous, proud of her climbing ability. When she saw Jim returning, a spot of light approaching the shadowy yard, she stood up to greet him. And then she lost her balance, stumbled, fell. It wasn't that far to the ground, but Tracy flipped on the way down and landed on a metal railing. Her neck was twisted, her insides smashed. When the police showed up moments later, she was pronounced dead at the scene.

The Evans school was back in the news.

A century ago, builders got a lot of bang -- and bricks, concrete blocks, wood planks and steel railings -- for their buck; $115,000 was all it took to turn architect David Dryden's blueprints into a finished school at the corner of 11th Avenue and Acoma Street. Labor was cheap, too, and abundant in the working-class neighborhood: Strong-backed masons, steelworkers and bricklayers crowded the site as construction got under way.

In May 1904, a few months after the crew broke ground, Robert Speer was sworn in as Denver's mayor, bringing with him big plans for a classically styled city, one modeled on the designs of the old masters. And Dryden, who went on to design 22 more Denver schools, had set the tone with his plans for Evans Elementary.

Completed in 1905, the Evans school could accommodate 750 children. When the weather was good, students tended plants and did calisthenics on the roof, beneath a bright copper dome that crowned a classical-style portico -- a structure designed to rival those of fifteenth-century Florence.

The dome -- if not the boys and girls who stretched, bent and jumped jacks in its shadow -- was visible for miles, from across the flat plains and from the attic windows of the new Queen Anne mansions just east of downtown. Three stories high, the school loomed over the low-slung storefronts and modest one-story houses that surrounded it. Only the brand-new State Capitol and the old courthouse stood higher, towering over the growing city below.

Denver had a new vision, the City Beautiful, of which the Evans school was a fine, early example. It was functional and practical -- the use of wood was limited, and fire exits were plentiful -- and at the same time uncommonly stylized, with mosaic floors made of handcrafted tiles, pillars with Ionic capitals, wrought-iron railings, bay windows and decorative plaster ceilings.

"In point of beauty, utility, accommodations and appointments, it will compare favorably with any school building in the city," Florence Burton predicted in the December 25, 1904, edition of the Burton Scrapbook. "In some respects it is the superior of any now occupied. The experience of recent years has been taken advantage of. The directors of school district Number One believe they have a building that is a model for a school."

Although the Evans school is still considered a superior structure, it has been empty for decades, its huge windows boarded up, its classrooms bare. A chain-link fence has kept out most intruders, but not the elements. The wood floors are warped from water damage; the roof tiles have decayed. Once a treasure, it is now a 65,000-square-foot problem smack in the middle of a booming neighborhood.

Richard Eber and his brother, Alan, purchased the Evans school from Denver Public Schools for $620,000 in 1974. After court-ordered busing inspired white flight from the city to the suburbs, DPS had to close the school and unload the building. The Ebers had no real experience as developers, and no clear vision for the place. But they'd heard that another potential buyer planned to demolish the school, and they didn't want to see that happen. Eventually, they figured, they'd divide it up into offices or high-end condos, even though the neighborhood was then more of a weed garden and hobo haven than a residential oasis.

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Laura Bond
Contact: Laura Bond