Jim Clark moved into a Denver condo several years ago—not an unusual occurrence unless you consider that his condo is located inside an historic church. He’s been singing praises ever since. “I almost missed it because I couldn’t find it,” he says about the 1889 stone church, “I looked at forty other places, but they didn’t 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.
Despite crumbling 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 wouldn’t want to see it expand,” he says. The owner suggested that she find a buyer for the building and he would gladly sell.
Norman 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t easy. “This was before the revitalization of the neighborhood was in full swing. Denver has more experience with this now, although it’s 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, skylights—he 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. It’s just different because so much of this didn’t fit anybody’s 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. It’s been one of the only times I’ve 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 lofts—with 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 Jim’s loft. He owns a portion of the Rose Window, a circular window of glass that dominates his living room. “I’ve seen all the condos and not one is the same,” Jim says. “They all have different countertops. All the bath fixtures are different. There’s 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.”
Jim’s 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. It’s a perfect place for a bachelor or couple, Jim says. There’s 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.
That’s 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. He’s 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. You’ve 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 it’s 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: “I’d hate to lose any more people because of age or economics. Some have lived here for 40 years or more. There’s 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