How the hell did that happen? I hear that query, or a variation of it, a lot these days in booming Denver. I hear it a lot just on my block, where a gargantuan modern home now obscures many of the historic stone structures behind it.
I fell in love with Stoneman's Row when I first moved to Denver, and would take frequent trips to the original Muddy's coffeehouse on 15th Street just so I could detour past these eight ancient stone houses standing sentinel over I-25. The block looked historic even before it became the West 28th Avenue Historic District in 1979, before it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. And in the early '90s, when a house finally became available on the block, I jumped at the chance to buy it — leaks, creaks, spiders and all. Not that the area was jumping back then. Muddy's had moved downtown (and then disappeared altogether), the Highland neighborhood just above had yet to boom (much less be dubbed LoHi), and the Platte Street area just below was known for My Brother's Bar and little else.
But off in the distance, you could see Pikes Peak. From my back window, I watched the construction of the new Elitch's. I watched Coors Field appear on the edge of LoDo. I watched the neon glow of Union Station's "Travel by Train" sign return (and then get obstructed by new construction). I watched Invesco Field at Mile High go up and the original Mile High Stadium come down. I watched Ocean Journey take hold, then drown in a sea of red ink, washing back up as Landry's Downtown Aquarium. I watched new, always taller loft projects spring up in the Platte Valley. I'd arrived too late to watch the houses below mine get carted off, the hillside get carved away for the construction of I-25. But the highway in my back yard guarantees that while my view may change, it will never be lost altogether.
It will change, though. In Denver these days, the only constant is change.
The oldest building on my block, a bungalow built in 1888, two years before stonemasons created the bigger, more elaborate houses around the corner, was officially delisted by the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission in 2007. To begin to qualify as a landmark, a house must have been the residence of someone important, or be a great piece of historic architecture, or possess important historic geography. The commission didn't consider onetime resident Melvin J. Roberts, the man who built the 16th Street Mall and who is commemorated in a fountain there, as sufficiently historic (nor did it bite on the fact that a Dick Van Dyke stand-in once lived in the house). And not only are there many bungalows in Denver, but this one had been seriously modified — though not so seriously as to deter the commission from adding it to the district in the '90s, along with four stately Queen Annes across the way. As for its geography, "This house was originally at the end of a row of similar houses, but it was the only one to remain after I-25 went through," staffer Christie Murata told the commission at a hearing in January 2007. "Its context is gone." Which also meant it was the last vestige of a history that once marched down to the Platte. The commission didn't buy that argument, either, and designated the building "non-contributing," which would allow its new owner to demolish the house if her plans for a 6,000-square-foot duplex project to replace it were approved.
They weren't. So the property at 2745 Umatilla Street that the owner had bought for $575,000 a year before from people who had bought it a year before that for $425,00 went back on the market — with a big banner hanging off the side announcing "Land for Sale." For $1.25 million, with a web ad that burbled, "If Denver was on the ocean, this is where the lighthouse would be."
That lighthouse — a 6,887-square-foot single-family home completed in 2011 — is now on the market for $3.2 million, a record in LoHi; the owners who built it want to downsize. The views from the rooftop deck (complete with full kitchen and giant TV screen) are spectacular, but the interior is also a knockout, with an 1,800-square-foot "man cave," a wine cellar and a four-car garage (which you need in a neighborhood where parking is in increasingly short supply). And unlike many of the faux-old buildings going up around town, it did not try to mimic the historic houses. Instead, its colors were intended to complement them, even at the same time it dwarfed some. Designed and constructed by Real Architecture Unreal Construction, it won a Mayor's Design Award in 2011. When I wrote this:
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It's a stunner, all right, and for its smart, contemporary use of the space deserves the Mayor's Design Award...But it's also stunning for what it's done to the neighborhood—blocking the view of the historic area that people used to see as they headed to Highland, and blocking the view from some of those houses altogether. Then again, the house has given Denver a new look...a view not of the past, but where this city is going.
When people look at this house — and there will be people looking, since Kentwood City Properties is currently showing it to qualified buyers — they may well ask how the hell a house of this size and scale came to be. The critical point was the delisting of the bungalow; with LoHi rapidly developing, a project here was inevitable, and the designer worked within Platte Valley zoning (yes, neighbors checked) to create the most spectacular structure imaginable. It's a landmark of its own, on a landmark block.
I hope the new owners love it as much as we do. And if they happen to have a spare parking spot....
In the weeks to come, we'll be looking at more new projects around town that have people wondering, "How the Hell Did That Happen?" We're not going to be dealing with aesthetics — we'll leave that to Fugly — but zoning questions across metro Denver. Have a nomination? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.