Colorado History

Owner of Tom's Diner Prepares for Historic Fight

Owner of Tom's Diner Prepares for Historic Fight
Brandon Johnson
Tom Messina is hotter than a griddle at his namesake restaurant. On Tuesday, August 6, he appeared at Denver City Council's Land Use committee meeting to argue against Tom's Diner being named a historic landmark.

Back in May, Messina submitted an application for a certificate of non-historic status for the building to Denver's Community Planning and Development department; if approved, it would have allowed the circa 1967 coffee house at 601 East Colfax Avenue to be demolished. And that would have allowed an already-arranged deal to go through: Messina has a $4.8 million offer for the building and surrounding property, which he bought for $800,000 in 2004.

But at the last second, fans of Colfax and classic ’60s architecture filed an application to have the structure declared a landmark. And at their July 23 meeting, members of the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission voted unanimously to recommend that Tom's Diner be declared historic and given landmark protection; the matter then moved on to Denver City Council, with the first stop this committee meeting.

After a staffer presented the reasoning behind the commission's vote, outlining the building's historic and architectural pedigree, the council reps on the committee talked about the balance between design and development.

"To delay this process has really been taxing," Messina told the committee. "I don't see any advantage to postpone it."

The developer who wants to buy the property is "a serious buyer," he added. "He's ready to break ground. I don't want to lose what I have on what ifs."

Those what ifs include whether it would be possible to incorporate the building, designed by the legendary Los Angeles firm of Armet & Davis as the ninth link in the White Spot chain, into the development, which currently calls for an eight-story apartment building with 130 units at market value. Would the project still be feasible if the Tom's Diner structure remains, and the apartment complex is built around it?

"It's really just essentially a taking of their property rights," Councilmember Kendra Black said of a potential landmark designation.

Even so, the committee voted unanimously to move the matter on to the full Denver City Council, which will have the final say on historic designation...and must issue its decision before the end of August or the building will automatically be declared non-historic under the 120-day timeline the original filing set in motion.

Don't expect the controversy to cool off before then.
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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