The Basement Tapes

The old steam boiler in the basement of the apartment building at 13th Avenue and Pearl Street has the word "IDEAL" molded into its cast-iron side, below a patent date of 1905. It's kicking out sauna-like heat, just as it has since 1917, when the building was new.

"Think of it," says Doc Ball, one of three men standing around the boiler as though the orange fire kindled in its guts were a campfire. "All this heavy equipment came to the site by horse. If it was delivered by truck, it was one of the first. Think of the population of horses back then -- all the horse products, the glue from hooves, the horsehair furniture, the clothes..."

Imagine draft horses in the alley above, dumping their load of coal, which then plummets through a chute into the basement, where it piles up on the floor. And then some hapless guy -- Doc calls him a "stationary engineer" -- shovels it gradually but constantly into IDEAL's mouth.

"I don't imagine stoking was a real clean job," says Scott Lambert, son of the couple who owns this and two neighboring buildings.

"They wouldn't have been as dirty as, say, a guy who works in a mine," guesses Gregg Sloan, the building's manager.

"You wonder, did they shoot water down from time to time to keep down the dust?" Doc asks.

"No, they wouldn't have to," Gregg replies. A former history major, he specializes in such trivia. "The coal delivered here was shiny and dark, very hard."

"Anthracite -- so that's what it was," Doc muses. "You know, you see those coal trains going by and you wonder, where will it end?"

"They say this country's coal will last till the year 3090," Gregg says firmly.

"You don't say."

Since IDEAL was converted to gas long ago, it has no need for a human stoker. But the men continue to stand around the fire. An ancient steam boiler, even an extremely decrepit one, has the power to mesmerize.

Unlike most men called "Doc," Doc Ball was given his nickname early in life, when his baby face reminded his mother of one of Snow White's seven dwarfs. At 66, he's a youthful-sounding boiler repairman, having picked over the slang of six decades and discarded all but the most up-to-date words.

"I've always been a gearhead," he says, and from gearheads he descended. His father and two uncles worked as metallurgists in his home town of Wheaton, Illinois, and he spent his youth thinking he'd end up a contractor, with heating as nothing more than a sub-specialty. Yet he still remembers the heating systems of his youth: the gravity/warm-air system in his family home, a central stove that heated a Chicago apartment building where he spent time long ago.

"I guess I've always caught glimpses of radiators out of the corner of my eye," he says, only partly in jest. "And in 1955 I joined the Navy, and they stuck me in an engine room full of pipes and fittings. That was it for me."

Since then, he's devoted himself to turn-of-the-century steam and water boilers original to their buildings. Fifty years ago, his was a common expertise. But today, if you have one of those old behemoths in your basement, Doc's about the only guy you can call for twice-yearly tinkering. If your heater outlives Doc -- a good possibility, he thinks -- you'll still be able to call his son Rob. But after that, you may have to give in and install a forced-air furnace such as the one that heats Doc's own home in Lakewood.

"I would have preferred one of the old guys," he says. "They're a little thirsty with fuel, but I don't know any hot-air furnaces I expect to last eighty years or more. In all the years I've been in Denver, we've lost only three of the old guys. They were made big and tough." This is handy, since the only parts available for them these days are salvaged or invented.

Doc's north Denver workshop is packed with rows of radiators, steam-boiler guts and arcane pipe, a much more exotic collection than you'll find in a standard plumbing and heating supply store. "Steam always possessed a certain mystique," he says. "Steam was what got you to San Francisco: a steam engine. There's something about it."

Doc is now at leisure to discuss such theories, since he's just finished his busiest season. From early September through Christmas, he tunes up one furnace after another. "I'll do two or three days in Park Hill, with eighteen houses in a day," he says. "The stairs alone'd kill you. I'd weigh 300 pounds if I didn't do this for a living. I'm all over Congress Park, Capitol Hill, apartment buildings, churches, one or two factories -- little joints. A nursing home here and there."

Usually he's doing maintenance, but one of his clients has been tempted to install "historic heat" in a perfectly restored carriage house. "And I get calls from realtors," Doc adds, "because when people move here from California and buy an old house, they don't understand a steam boiler. They're afraid. They think of the Titanic. They don't understand how beautifully they work."

"Beautiful" is not a word that leaps to mind in the alley at 13th and Pearl.

The spot where horses once dropped off coal now features stained mattresses, broken bottles and a steady stream of the people who made them that way. "Section 8?" Doc wonders. "Low-income, definitely. You meet all kinds of people in a place like this."

The basement below has a smell that would be familiar to anyone who grew up in an apartment building in a big city: It's the distinctive aroma of the warrens that house the laundry room, the place you store your bike, the mysterious territory you check out because your mother told you not to, the land of the man known as The Super.

"What you smell is actually too much fuel in the mix," Doc clarifies. Even so, the old boiler is cranking out enough heat for 25 units, as well as the building's hot-water supply. Although the radiators in the apartments are unsubtle -- with only two settings, on and off -- the units are plenty warm. The one built into the old coal room may be the warmest: Its walls are fourteen inches thick, and one is shared with the boiler room. But the unit's doors are padlocked.

"I won't rent it," Gregg says of the dungeon-like space. "I just won't. I use it to store...stuff."

The building manager is in the midst of remodeling a vacant apartment on the first floor -- also full of stuff, and as evocative of better days as the furnace room. The windows look out on the concrete block wall of the 7-Eleven; the front door is thin enough to let in the many sounds of the hallway.

For example: "You crack son of a bitch, get OUT of my building!" Gregg is yelling at an addled man attempting to wander inside. "I said OUT, thank YOU!"

"This building was in a much better neighborhood when it was built," he confides, now back by the boiler. "For a while, it was a hotel. People had linens delivered. If you're around buildings and old people who've been here since Denver began, you hear the stories. You take them with a grain of salt, but you hear them."

Doc hears them, too.

"After World War I, the apartments they made for the returning vets had everything," he says. "Even beer in the refrigerators."

Even steam heat.

"I like steam heat, I really like it," Gregg observes. "But regulating it is tough."

"That's why we rely on Doc," Scott says. "He gets it done. He isolates the problem. And you can always find him or his son."

"Yep," Gregg says, baking in the heat. "Even during these winters we don't seem to have anymore."

In the coming months, Robin Chotzinoff will commemorate Westword's 25th anniversary with 25 profiles of Denver today. Click here to read these stories.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff