It was exactly a century ago that Griffith, who'd gotten her start as a substitute teacher in Denver Public Schools, started the Opportunity School, a DPS program that was open to people of all ages, from all economic and ethnic backgrounds. The school's motto: "So that all may learn."
The school got its start in a dilapidated downtown building that DPS had abandoned, but within the decade, it was doing so well that the Opportunity School got a brand-spanking-new facility at 1250 Welton, and over the years it continued to add more structures on the block for additional classes.
But by 2012, DPS had determined that the Emily Griffith complex had outlived its usefulness — except as a hot property in Denver's now-booming downtown. It was part of an ambitious consolidation process that started out as Project Lincoln, then became Operation Unite, designed to turn a fifty-year-old high-rise at 1860 Lincoln Street into space for three schools and DPS administration headquarters. The Contemporary Learning Academy was sold for $12 million; that property on West 28th Avenue is becoming a major apartment complex.
But the CLA building didn't have much history behind it. The Emily Griffith complex did, so in late 2012, DPS applied for a certificate of non-historic status for the buildings; if granted by the city, that would have allowed the demolition of the entire block — wiping Griffith's physical legacy off the map.
That's when history fans stepped in...and the long study session began, resulting in some of the complex's being designated historic in April. That means that if the deal is sealed, Stonebridge — which is based in Denver and has forty hotels in ten states — will have to preserve the circa 1926 building and incorporate other parts of the complex into its plans for the block.
Annie Levinsky, head of Historic Denver, led the charge to save at least the most historic parts of the complex; here's her assessment of the compromise that was worked out over the past several years:
The Power of Collaboration: Preserving Emily Griffith’s LegacyThe DPS Board of Education meeting starts at 3 p.m. today at 1860 Lincoln Street — the building that now houses most of the Emily Griffith programs. Here's the agenda item for the sale:
This week, Denver Public Schools’ Board of Education is expected to approve the sale of the historic Emily Griffith Opportunity School in Downtown Denver. This sale follows four years of collaboration between Historic Denver and DPS and represents both a victory for historic preservation and a win for thousands of Denver’s school kids.
It means that our community will retain, and build upon, the architectural and historic character of this special place, where Emily Griffith first started her school for “all who wish to learn.” The recently approved local landmark designation, along with terms of the sale, require the buyer to preserve the most important historic buildings on the site.
At the same time, the sale provides resources that DPS can reinvest in learning environments across the city. The sale is the final piece of the 2012 plan, named Operation Unite, which will provide new or improved facilities for more than 9,000 students.
It’s a resolution worthy of Emily’s legacy.
Historic Denver has been advocating for the preservation of this historic school site, which includes several buildings on a city block bounded by Glenarm, Welton, 12th and 13th streets, since 2012. That’s when DPS applied for a certificate of non-historic status, which would have allowed the demolition of the school, either before or after a sale.
To their credit, however, DPS leaders soon realized the future of the school needed additional consideration and partnered with Historic Denver, History Colorado and the Denver Landmark Commission. The district led a thoughtful and deliberate effort to understand which buildings have the most historic value and how new development can also be accommodated on the site.
In 2013, DPS funded a study of the site’s significance and condition, documenting the work in a historic structure assessment. The district then brought together an advisory committee, including myself and others from the community, to outline principles for the sale, which incorporated the goal of historic preservation as well as the needs of the district.
In 2016, after the Denver City Council approved landmark designation for the Welton Street side of the campus, members of the advisory committee reconvened to assess offers to purchase this important property. I plan to speak publicly in support of the sale in front of the Board of Education this week, and I will be joined by other committee members.
The mission of Historic Denver is to protect the places that give our city a unique identity. The educational opportunities provided for so long at Emily Griffith Opportunity School live on at Emily Griffith High School and Emily Griffith Technical College, both located within a couple miles of the historic site. Now, through the power of collaboration, we are assured that the legacy of Emily herself – and the hundreds of thousands of students who walked through the doors of her historic school — will not be forgotten.