Tilden Health School Saga Teaches a Lesson in Historic Preservation

The Bosler House was left open to the elements in 2008.EXPAND
The Bosler House was left open to the elements in 2008.
Historic Denver
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A decade ago, things were looking bleak for the Bosler House. The ornate mansion had been built for Ambrose Bosler, who’d moved to Denver in 1874 and become an ice magnate, setting up ice plants near Rocky Mountain Lake, Buffalo Creek, Crystal Lake and Highland Lake, close by his new home on Fairview Avenue in what was then the Town of Highlands (later transformed into 3209 West Fairview Place in Denver, just west of Federal Boulevard). That was just the start of a long history that saw the building become headquarters for a sanitarium a century ago, a stop on Dennis Gallagher’s paper route in the ’50s, an official Denver Landmark in 1984, and a civic embarrassment by 2008.

Keith Painter, who acquired the house in 1987, began doing some unpermitted work on the roof in 2008, in defiance of landmark regulations; after the city issued a stop-work order, much of the mansion was left open to the elements. The situation became so grim that Painter proposed demolishing the house, a request that would have required the permission of the Landmark Preservation Commission, which did not grant it.

Instead, in May 2013, Denver listed the house on the official Neglected & Derelict Building List and began fining Painter $999 a day. Those fines eventually exceeded the estimated value of the house, and the city foreclosed. It obtained a grant from the Colorado State Historical Fund to do a Historic Structure Assessment to see if the building could be saved, and against all odds, the HSA determined that it could be.

In 2016, new owners and civic heroes Steve and Jan Davis stepped in to do just that, and today, the Bosler House is the true landmark that it was meant to be 25 years ago.

The Bosler House today, centerpiece of the Tilden Historic District.EXPAND
The Bosler House today, centerpiece of the Tilden Historic District.
Historic Denver

And it’s not alone.

Looking at what the Bosler House’s transformation had meant to the area, members of the West Highland Neighborhood Association decided to see if the city could be persuaded to expand that landmark designation to celebrate a particular time in the building’s past. In 1914, Dr. John Henry Tilden had bought the property with plans to convert the house into the headquarters of a health school he proposed creating, then add other buildings on the extensive property. The Tilden Health School, which opened in 1916, not only taught health, but it housed patients from around the world, drawn to Denver for the climate and clean air. A 1927 ad for the facility noted that it was “where thousands [of] ‘hopelessly ill’ get well without drugs, serums or surgery.”

But the complex was never particularly healthy financially, and the Great Depression sounded the death knell in 1931; no one could afford fancy cures. The buildings were sold off separately, with the Bosler House moving through various owners until it was saved by the Davises. The structures that had been used for housing, clinics and administration also went through a variety of owners and functions (at one point, a part of the former Tilden campus served as Colorado’s home for blind adults). Finally, the former administration building became the Fairview Place Lofts, and a resident of one of those condos thought that her building deserved landmark designation, too. She talked with Paul Cloyd, who’d worked on the successful landmark designation proposal for the nearby Packard’s Hill Historic District, and he got his WHNA committee involved.

A 1928 postcard from the Tilden Health School.EXPAND
A 1928 postcard from the Tilden Health School.
Historic Denver

“We started out focusing on that one building, then started moving forward on getting other parts,” Cloyd says. Ultimately, the Highland Park Apartments, which had housed patients a century ago, was also brought into the mix, and the application for landmark designation for the Tilden School for Teaching Health Historic District was submitted to the city this past June.

This wasn’t an entirely new idea: The entire Tilden School had already been added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. “So naively,” Cloyd says, “we thought we’d get it done in six months. Even so, it took years...it takes time to get it through the system.”

But on December 16, they got it done: Denver City Council approved creating the Tilden School for Teaching Health Historic District, the second landmark district approved by council this year, and Denver’s 56th overall. There’s no cure once a historic building becomes terminal. But at least for now, Denver continues to take a healthy interest in preserving the past.

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