LOOKING THROUGH A ROSE
Jim Clark moved into a Denver condo several
years agoónot an unusual occurrence unless you consider that his condo is
located inside an historic church. Heís been singing praises ever since.
"I almost missed it because I couldnít find it," he says about the
1889 stone church, "I looked at forty other places, but they didnít
compare. I walked in the front door and realized this was the place. I
put an offer on it the next day."
The imposing stone church on East 22nd Avenue, made of rhyolite stone from Castlewood Canyon and
Colorado red sandstone trim, originally housed a Methodist Episcopal
congregation in 1871. Once the tallest building in Denver, a wood spire signaled
a holy site, but by the 1990s the church fell on hard times.
masonry, smashed windows and a fire-damaged sanctuary, the church served as a
day labor business. "I live right around the corner and the church building
had been a neighborhood eyesore," says Norman Cable, an architect who
eventually helped to save the beleaguered building. A building once charged with
saving souls needed renewal and salvation.
Norman lives in a historic home with a
studio in the back. Clusters of grapes hang from vines covering a pergola in his
tiny backyard. A small table sits under a crabapple tree and red zinnias
staunchly bloom despite a nip in the air. When he moved into the neighborhood 18
years ago, it was big enough for him to set up an architectural studio and raise
a young daughter. It was close enough to enjoy the restaurants, shops or museums
of downtown Denver. Living in the city allowed his wife a short commute to work. Best of all, his
home was affordable.
The neighborhood had endured drug dealers
and boarded up homes as well as vagrancy from a day labor business that operated
out of the church. Norman stoically accepted the status quo until he discovered
the owner was hoping to change zoning laws to expand. "My wife talked to
the owner and told him his business was the major problem in this neighborhood.
We certainly wouldnít want to see it expand," he says. The owner
suggested that she find a buyer for the building and he would gladly sell.
inspected the church, pondering the possibilities and returned home with
sketchy ideas for a few condos. Converting the church into housing units would
lend stability to the neighborhood, he reasoned, and he could see enough tired
beauty in the masonry, stained-glass windows and wooden mezzanine to offset fire
damage, disrepair and neglect. A neighbor mentioned a developer, Joseph Palumbo,
who had renovated a series of row houses that proved to be a successful makeover
not too far away.
"I didnít even know Joe then," Norman says, but approached him
with a series of sketches for a church renovation into condos. "I was
looking for a new project," Joseph says, and saw the potential immediately.
But finding financing for such a perilous venture wasnít easy. "This was
before the revitalization of the neighborhood was in full swing. Denver has more
experience with this now, although itís never easy," he says. And the
only possibilities were to pre-sell some units and ask the Colorado Historical
Society for help.
Joseph pointed to empty space and a
damaged interior and asked potential
homeowners to use their imaginations. Lofts, and exposed wood beams,
stained-glass windows and unique spaces, skylightsóhe rattled off all the
improvements he could muster with enthusiasm. Several told him they could see
those attributes, too, and plunked down money. So he set to work.
"The city was pretty good about it," Norman says, "because we
were saving an historic church. We did need to pay attention to fire access, so
we did. Itís just different because so much of this didnít fit anybodyís
code. We were breaking new ground. Eventually, we got gaming money to replace
and repair glass and the roof. Also, we had to repair the stonework. Itís been
one of the only times Iíve been glad we had gaming money," Norman says,
about the proceeds from gaming that flow into historic renovation.
That money is distributed through the Colorado Historical Society. "We
have to do everything through the Society because this is an historic
building," Jim says, "and they provided some money for restoration
work, such as windows. But we pay for paint and general maintenance."
Once past the imposing exterior, the church looks much like any large urban
warehouse reconfigured for loftsówith one exception. Stained glass windows
cast warm glows of color. With turn of the century art nouveau styling, these
windows were never designed with Biblical themes. Instead, the parishioners
chose floral designs in tune with their times. The soft colors, elegant graphics
and exquisite craftsmanship bathe interior rooms in kaleidoscope hues.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Jimís loft. He owns a portion of the
Rose Window, a circular window of glass that dominates his living room. "Iíve
seen all the condos and not one is the same," Jim says. "They all have
different countertops. All the bath fixtures are different. Thereís no way to
have ten of the same shape. On the first level, everyone has one level. The
second floor has two levels. The third floor has three levels."
Jimís third-floor loft is open, with exposed beams, skylights and modern
countertops. Like many lofts, the living room also is the kitchen and dining
room. Itís a perfect place for a bachelor or couple, Jim says. Thereís not
enough privacy for a family. "And no backyard," Norman echoes, which
he considers essential for a family. Still, only one owner has moved out and
that was the result of a job transfer. Jim bought their condo. He knows every
resident in the church building and says all are either single or a couple.
Thatís in keeping with loft living, where large spaces
shape unconventional space. Lofts claim a history of turning manufacturing or
warehouse spaces into living quarters. Rather than chopping a large space into
smaller rooms, most architects like to embrace the entire width and height, giving
city dwellers an expanse not easily available in conventional homes or
apartments. Where an old building is sound and well built, it makes economic
sense to preserve the shell, and the interior space sparks the imagination of
architects. Norman arrived with detailed drawings. Even so, plans changed daily.
"By code, we had to have a formula to have fire exits. So we had to go
diagonally across the building. It was more a code and access puzzle than
anything else at that point. It was a puzzle that kept coming apart."
Norman walked across giant wooden trusses that were truly structural and not
visible in the main sanctuary. "My heart went out to them. I wanted that
space for myself," he says plaintively. But those trusses had to be covered
since they separate the condos and can only be uncovered if someone buys two
adjacent condos and combines them.
For a building that came close to being derelict, the stone church is now studded
with sprinklers, has a new fire code and is stable and strong. And with the
change in appearance, came a change on the street. Abandoned homes just across
the road have been purchased and renovated. The presence of construction trucks
indicates that more homes are being claimed and cherished.
And although Joseph has moved to Eldorado Springs, he still owns one church
condo that now is rented. Heís renovated a building that serves as an art
center for Eldorado Springs, which he uses as a sculpture studio. Joseph
describes himself as someone who is most comfortable in an urban or mountain
setting, but not suburbia. "Human nature is to go toward sameness. People
feel a safety in sameness. But you only live once. Youíve got to be able to
have that vision of what it could become and what the neighborhood could become.
And you have to surround yourself with good people. It was a very highpoint in
my career to do those projects. We took a lot of pride in it and itís great to
see people still appreciating it."
Norman believes the neighborhood has changed forever. And while he never
wants to see homes boarded up or derelict again, he worries that some of the
older residents may be pushed out: "Iíd hate to lose any more people
because of age or economics. Some have lived here for 40 years or more. Thereís
a lot of history here. If you talk with them, they are full of stories."
Most likely those stories recall good and bad times. Like most neighborhoods,
this series of Victorian blocks hangs in a delicate balance. But sometimes a
single project, when approached with determination and hope, can maintain a balance
for years to come.
Historic Denver provides a program called FaithAction. Several churches
have been renovated for new purposes, without sacrificing the exquisite beauty
and workmanship that originally went into their construction. Religious
buildings that continue to be used by a congregation may need help, too. For
more information: www.historicdenver.org