Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Debate Over Tom's Diner Historic Designation Hotter Than Its Coffee

Debate Over Tom's Diner Historic Designation Hotter Than Its Coffee
Brandon Johnson
Denver's new city council could soon be splattered with its first hot issue: a property-rights question stirred up by a greasy spoon.

On July 23, the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission voted unanimously to recommend that Tom's Diner, the circa 1967 coffee shop at 601 East Colfax Avenue, be declared historic and given landmark protection. The property's owner, Tom Messina, vehemently disagrees. But then, he has a deal to sell the property he bought for $800,000 in 2004, after already running his namesake restaurant there for several years, for $4.8 million to a developer who wants to build an eight-story apartment building there...if the building can be demolished.

A landmark designation would stop that. So in May, Messina and the would-be buyers filed an application for a certificate of non-historic status for the building, which, if granted, would have allowed it to be wiped off the map. In response, a group of community members filed an application to have Tom's Diner declared a landmark, a move that led to the July 23 hearing.

To be considered for historic designation, a building is assessed in three areas, essentially its architecture, its geographic setting, and its history. The landmark commission's staff determined that Tom's Diner qualified in all three. After all, the building is a classic example of Googie architecture, designed by the firm of Armet & Davis in Los Angeles. It opened as a link in the homegrown White Spot chain founded by William Fleming in 1946, which eventually grew to nine locations. By 1967, the 24-hour restaurants were billed as spots "where everybody meets and everybody eats." And for decades, that was true in Denver.

National Register of Historic Places
What eventually evolved into Tom's Diner was an unofficial landmark on East Colfax from the minute it opened; a decade ago, it was determined that the building would even qualify for the National Register of Historic Places, although that deal was never sealed. Now the landmark commission has issued a time-out on its demolition.

Historic Denver, which got its start saving the Molly Brown House and has worked to find solutions on many of the city's stickier property issues, stepped in here, too, suggesting that the landmark area be reduced to just the building, allowing the surrounding parking lot to be developed, perhaps incorporating the historic structure. The commission accepted that amendment.

But it still represents a major reduction in the value of the property, and after the commission issued its recommendation, Messina said he felt like he'd "been kicked in the gut."

Soon Denver City Council members will be able to do their own gut check, since they make the ultimate decision.

In the meantime, expect this issue to get hotter than a cup of Tom's Diner coffee at 3 a.m. Should an owner be able to determine the fate of his own property? Do the residents of a city have a right to preserve what makes their city unique?

We could be looking at a landmark decision.
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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun