Friday, February 09, 2007

Scrape-Offs - "New Urbanism" - The Gluttony of Property Rights - Part 1

In 1982, I was a computer operator, working at what was then still referred to as Denver General Hospital (now Denver Health). I worked the 11p.m. to 7a.m shift in the basement of a building (one of the oldest on the hospital's campus), called "Unit 9." And, yes, I was working when the Christmas snow storm of 1982 commenced. I was on the clock, I believe, more than forty hours because it was impossible for anyone else to get to work. The storm dropped more than two feet of snow; the city was unprepared to deal with it and, consequently, the sitting mayor (Bill McNichols, who had already served almost fourteen years in office), was a victim of the storm and was summarily voted out of office.

The point of this little history is relevant.

At one point during my 40+ hours in that dark, deserted, somewhat scary basement, I needed to get out; I needed to take a shower; I needed a break. A friend of mine lived not far away in the historic Baker neighborhood, just south of the hospital. The house my friend owned, by that time, had already been designated a historic landmark, being the childhood home of Mary Chase who wrote the play "Harvey," about a six-foot tall imaginary rabbit (Pooka). The play opened in 1944 and ran for more than 1,700 performances. The play was made into a movie that starred Jimmy Stewart.

I don't remember at what point (night or day), I grabbed my beeper, abandoned the basement of Unit 9 and headed for the Mary Chase house. Once there, I took a shower, ate microwaved pizza and took a nap in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Suffice it to say--even though Mary Chase didn't write "Harvey" in her childhood home--the seed of her imagination (the birth of her muse), was surely nurtured there, and I can tell you the presence of playful spirits--surely a Pooka or two included--whispered softly to me as I slept--their warm, comforting breath against my cheek as they studied my unusual presence in their sphere.

It is instructive to provide the current requirements for designation of a structure or site for preservation under "landmark" status. It may also be instructive to
correct Tom Noel's description of the Mary Chase house (see Mary Chase link, above). Mr. Noel, noted Denver historian, describes the house as a "...small, one-story cottage." Well, it's clearly small, but unless my eyes--and my memory of twenty-five years ago--deceive, it's at least a story-and-one half, if not two stories. No big deal, but I thought you ought to know.

From Chapter 30 of Denver's Revised Municipal Code:
Sec. 30-3. Criteria for designation of structures and districts for preservation.

A structure or district may be designated for preservation, if it meets at least one (1) criterion in two (2) or more of the following three (3) categories:
(1) History. To have historical significance, the structure or district shall be thirty (30) or more years old or have extraordinary importance to the historical development of Denver, and shall:
a. Have direct association with the historical development of the city, state, or nation;
b. Be the site of a significant historic event; or
c. Have direct and substantial association with a person or group of persons who had influence on society.
(2) Architecture. To have architectural significance, the structure or district shall have design quality and integrity, and shall:
a. Embody distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style or type;
b. Be a significant example of the work of a recognized architect or master builder;
c. Contain elements of architectural design, engineering, materials, craftsmanship, or artistic merit which represent a significant or influential innovation; or
d. Portray the environment of a group of people or physical development of an area in an era of history characterized by a distinctive architectural style.
(3) Geography. To have geographical significance, the structure or district shall:
a. Have a prominent location or be an established, familiar, and orienting visual feature of the contemporary city;
b. Promote understanding and appreciation of the urban environment by means of distinctive physical characteristics or rarity; or
c. Make a special contribution to Denver’s distinctive character.
Whether or not the Mary Chase house, under current requirements, would be categorized as a historical landmark is unsure. But, it is a historic landmark and, consequently, cannot be substantially altered or "scraped" without the completion of a labyrinthine bureaucratic process. I'll leave the details of that process to your inquisitiveness (or masochism!).

Now, to West Highlands (my little corner of the world).

Seems two gentlemen, John Locke and Keith Swanson, owned/own (the house is obviously vacant now), an 1886 Queen Anne or Victorian (even the architectural style is a point of contention), which was the former home of Elwin T. Webber, a Civil War veteran who, in 1886 platted the Highland Place subdivision; William F.R. Mills, Denver's 30th mayor (1918-1919, Wow! Short incumbency!) who, when he was the mayor, didn't live in the home. Spring Byington, a film and tv actress of the 1930s, '40s and '50s also lived in the home as a child, as well as one of Denver's first female doctors, Mary Ford who lived in the house between 1903-1951.

Well, Locke and Swanson, the two gentlemen who owned/own the house (they may still own it, given the chaos engendered with regard to historic landmark designation sought by the West Highlands Neighborhood Organization WITHOUT the knowledge of the two gentlemen who owned/own the home), wanted to sell it, most likely, to a developer whose intent was to "scrape" it and build condos on the land. The offer to the two gentlemen from the potential buyer was $719,000. When the landmark designation was filed by the neighborhood organization, the buyer/developer backed out of the deal. Locke and Swanson then had to knock at least $45,000 off the asking price.

From a Rocky Mountain News story about this little imbroglio over in our little neighborhood, it was reported that the twenty-two page application for landmark designation of this home noted, among other things, that it "...meets the required two of three criteria -- architectural and historic significance -- for landmark designation. It's called a model of the Queen Anne-style..."

During a meeting of the Landmark Preservation Committee that took up the application for landmark status for this structure, the Committee staff noted that, "The application for landmark found to be complete. The period of significance is 1886. The applicant is the West Highlands Neighborhood Association. The Webber/Mills/Ford House meets the criteria for designation in the following categories: History, 1a, and c, and; Architecture, 2a."

Now, before we move ahead, let me provide a shot of what a real Queen Anne style home in the West Highlands neighborhood looks like. Note the flourishes, the spindles, towers, the irregular roof, classical columns, the asymmetrical shape of the house

Now, compare this excellent representation of the Queen Anne style with the house in question. Can we really buy the assertion in the landmark designation application that the house in question is in the style of Queen Anne? I can't. You are left to your own conclusion.

As usual, I do go on...

I did not anticipate this post would become a multi-series extravaganza. But, knowing your time is limited (and, maybe, your attention, also, unless you're involved in this particular issue or happen to live in the neighborhood), let me end this initial dip into the controversial subject as provided by the title of this post and, with the best of intentions, I hope to continue it in the not too distant future.

By the way, across the street from the house in question, is this monstrosity, rising from the good West Highlands earth along the 3900 block of West 32nd Avenue. What does this--the proverbial, "a picture is worth a thousand words"--have to say about the albeit noble, but most likely--in this case--misdirected argument that raising the house in question would encroach upon the the maintenance of the character of areas of stability (read neighborhoods) of West Highlands? Methinks "encroachment" has already occurred.


Anonymous said...

I generally agree with your comments, but on this issue I totally disagree. The Ford House is a fine example of Queen Anne style. The photograph of the Herman Heiser House that you include is also Queen Anne. Your view of what should be preserved is out-dated. Today we understand that the history of the working and middle classes is just as important as that of the wealthy. Please do a little reading on historic preservation before writing about it in the future. You sound like the editor of the North Denver Tribune in this posting. If the house hadn't been saved, we would have two monstrocities like the one that is pictured.

George said...

Anon: Thanks for your comment. Let me disagree with you on the "Ford House" being a "fine example" of the Queen Anne style. It ain't. It's either decidedly Victorican or a very poor example of Queen Anne.

By the way, I've made no conclusions about what should or shouldn't be preserved in West Highlands. I'm educating myself as I write these posts. Conclusions don't come until the posts are, um, concluded.

If you missed what my conclusion will most likely be about the Mary Chase house, you may want to read the post again...carefully.

Stay tuned!

George said...

P.S. Anon: You may wish to do a little reading yourself before you come to such knee-jerk assumptions about what I believe should be preserved (see link). I think we all begin our journey into this particular issue starting from a particular philosophical and/or gut perspective, from which the intellectual argument flows. My intellectual argument on this subject is, thus, evolving as I post.

Anonymous said...

George, You are right, I should have waited until you completed your second installment, because I don't really understand what your position is. In regard to the Mary Chase house, are you indicating that it doesn't really meet two criteria as specified in the current landmark ordinance because it's architecture is not high style?

In regard to the Ford and Heiser houses, I respectfully disagree with your evaluation. The Heiser house is one of the best examples of Queen Anne in North Denver. The Ford house is not high style, but is also an expression of the Queen Anne--you may disagree, but the Denver Landmarks Commission and other professionals in the field do not. So we will leave it there...

One minor correction. Attempts were made to contact the two gentlemen who owned the Ford house, but they did not respond to messages until after the process got underway.

In regard to the building being erected next to the restaurant on W. 32nd Ave., we would have liked to save the Victorian house that stood there, but recognized that it was not as significant as the Ford House, in terms of either architecture or history. Both houses were threatened at the same time. We can't save everything, obviously. Thus, sadly, you see what replaces our neighborhood's historic fabric.

I look forward to your conclusions. And I really have enjoyed reading you during the past few months.

George said...

Thanks, Anon.

With regard to the Mary Chase house, I'm really not sure what would be forthcoming from the Landmark Commission under today's standards. The style is "charming Victorian bungalow," which--since I live in the same style home, albeit a wee bit larger than the Chase house--I'd suggest it is architectually significant under the current standards.

With the Chase house, however (and this is, of course, something the Landmark Commission cannot evaluate), the bumps in the night; the hot breath against your neck from what is certainly a very tall furry creature (unseen, but nevertheless there, smiling from the dark corner of the front bedroom); the still-thriving leavings of the creatures conjured from Irish lore by Mary's very Irish mamma; all of that and more (after having slept under that little roof), would be enough for me to affix that landmark designation on the front of that special little house.

As to Queen Anne... Yes, we can leave it at that. Far be it from me to disagree with professionals. ; - ]

Anonymous said...

Well, perhaps we can reach a compromise here. The Queen Anne style is generally included under the larger category "Victorian." And your description of the Chase House is brilliant. Please continue to question!