Sacred Spaces Resurrected: Denver Churches Finding New Life

Denver developers have saved a number of the city's historic churches and converted them into lofts, nightclubs and other landmarks of adaptive reuse. It's a win for historic preservation, but it's also pretty good business.
Denver's growth over the past few decades has changed the faces of many of its historic neighborhoods. Century-old low redbricks became parking lots, which are now being filled in for high-rise developments.

But not all developments consist of scraping and starting from scratch. Developers with a belief in adaptive reuse and an appreciation for Denver's history have saved some of the city's churches and other sacred spaces from the wrecking ball.

Denver architect Norman Cable has been involved in the redesign of two churches in the San Rafael Historic District in Five Points, including Sanctuary Lofts. Cable has had projects with more funding and more design leeway, but the redesigns of these churches were some of his favorite projects.

"It's more fun to work with something that’s sort of a challenge and find a new use for it," says Cable. "To make something out of something old that was never intended to be anything else."

Urban SanctuaryScott Methodist Church was deconsecrated, put up for sale and converted to condos in the 1990s.

Jamie Van Leeuwen bought his Sanctuary Lofts condo in December 2012. When the towering stone and stained glass structure that comprises the 12 condos was built in 1889, it was know as Scott Methodist Church. Like many other late-19th century neighborhood churches scattered across Denver, Scott Methodist had lost most of its congregation to the suburbs by the second half of the 20th century. The church was deconsecrated, put up for sale and converted to condos in the 1990s.

When Van Leeuwen and his friend and roommate Andrew Freedman were house hunting, they visited this property in early afternoon. The stained glass window that makes up the entire south-facing living room wall was glowing with the afternoon light. Van Leeuwen and Freedman were sold.

Adaptive reuse is simply the process of finding a new purpose for an old building. Renovating old buildings is always a challenge, but the conversion of an old church comes with a unique set of challenges all its own. In addition to making heating and plumbing updates that often haven't been made in years, developers have to worry about things like correcting floors that used to slope down toward an alter. Stained glass is often saved whenever possible, but developers have to decide when to include some formerly holy decorative elements (like statues and holy water fonts) and when to relocate them.

The urban sanctuary Van Leeuwen shares with his partner, Andrei Parvan, and their friend and roommate, Freedman, features preserved elements of the church, such as exposed rafters and stained glass. These are mixed with newer, loft-style renovation: an open three-level open floor plan and skylights that compliment the rosy stained glass with natural light.

Van Leeuwen loves living in such a unique space. The window is still one of Van Leeuwen's favorite features of the condo. It changes color throughout the day depending on the light. "I wanted to find a place that had character and personality. . . . This one makes me so happy when I walk in," Van Leeuwen says. It's a great space for entertaining.

Most people don't find it offensive that the trio lives in an old church. "My mom was a little bit weirded out by it," says Van Leeuwen, but though his mother thought it strange at first, she eventually came around to it. "Now I get to tell my mom I go to church every day."

Van Leeuwen believes it is important to preserve these buildings. "Thinking about how we use our space is so important," he says. The days of the kind of construction that went into building the former church have passed; Van Leeuwen points out how cost-prohibitive it would be today to build something with the kind of details this church has: woodwork, stonework, stained glass.

When Sanctuary Lofts was Scott Methodist, it was a focal point in the neighborhood, and it's still a focal point now. As Denver changes and its neighborhoods change, Van Leeuwen believes it is important to celebrate the history of a community but also allow that community to grow. Finding new purposes for old churches is one way of doing this.

It's also good business, especially in this market. In West Washington Park, there are currently a pair of former churches for sale at 400 S. Logan St. and 501 S. Pearl St.  The former, built 1893, was sold for $480,000 in 2013 and converted into a four-bedroom house that's now on the market for $1.9 million. The latter, the yet-to-be-reused Mt. Cavalry Apostolic Church, is 12,000 square feet, zero bedrooms, eight baths and one belltower. It's currently under contract; the asking price was $1.2 million.

Not everyone's a convertDenver developers have saved a number of the city's historic churches and converted them into lofts, nightclubs and other templates of adaptive reuse.

Like Scott Methodist, many former churches in the Denver Metro area were deconsecrated in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, and put up for sale -- some infamously, like St. Mark's Episcopal Church at East 12th Avenue and Lincoln Street. St. Mark's might have been razed if it weren't for renovations that turned it into a nightclub aptly named The Church.

While some people felt uneasy about the conversion of former churches to less sacred uses (like condos and restaurants), a few folks were downright scandalized by the conversion of St. Mark's. Protesters held prayer vigils hoping to get club owner Regas Christou to repent. Christou crusaded on.

After four and a half years of renovation, the protests of Denver's more pious citizens and even a fire three days before opening -- that some called an act of God -- the Church opened on New Year's Eve, 1996. Twenty- and thirty-somethings flocked to the club in the late 1990s, when it drew celebrities such as Prince, U2 and Johnny Depp. Though the novelty has faded, it's still going strong as an entertainment spot today.

More recently, Cathedral High School and Convent at 19th Avenue and Grant Street in Uptown has been saved from demolition. Cathedral High School, which was built in 1921 in the Spanish Renaissance Revival style, was close to being demolished when CHUN, Historic Denver, and Colorado Preservation, Inc. stepped in.  

St. Charles Town Company is currently renovating the old school and convent for Shift Boutique Workspaces. The building will be resurrected as a shared workspace, artists' studios and possible retail and restaurant space on the ground floor.

Cathedral High School has quite the holy history. It was used as a school and convent until the school closed in 1982 due to lack of enrollment. After a visit to Denver in 1989, Mother Theresa herself decided to open a mission in the former school. In the '90s the building was known as the Seton House, and was a sanctuary for hundreds of AIDs patients, many of whom were homeless. Most recently, the Grant Streets Arts Studios has called the space home.

New life for a dead block

Though the former Olinger Mortuary buildings never had the officially sacred status the churches had, they were the site of thousands of funerals. When the buildings were up for sale in the early 2000s, a few different developers had them under contract, and everyone wanted to tear them down. Then Paul Tamburello and Stephanie Garcia stepped in.

Tamburello, a Denver native, thought the buildings were an important part of the neighborhood's history. Buffalo Bill's body rested there while Colorado and Wyoming fought over it. A still-living Elvis also visited the mortuary chapel.

Tamburello believes all buildings with history are sacred places -- in that they're all sacred to someone, or house someone's memories. As he pointed out, the site was "a sacred space to someone whose grandmother's funeral was held there."

While other blocks in LoHi are barely recognizable after development, Tamburello develops spaces for adaptive reuse. He loves being able to repurpose old buildings, keeping the character of a neighborhood and preserving its history, and he knew he wanted to keep the Olinger buildings. Not everyone was convinced, though. Some people found the plans to revitalize the space a little creepy.

"People felt like, 'Oh gosh, you're going to put a restaurant in a mortuary?'" says Tamburello. "We talk all the time about sustainability, but we tear down old buildings all day long."

Like St. Mark's and Scott Methodist, the conversion of the Olinger buildings came with their own unique challenges. Many logistical changes had to happen to bring the spaces up to code. Then there were the decisions about which historical elements to preserve. Tamburello says they knew from day one they were keeping the old Olinger sign.

The reincarnation of the buildings has been hugely successful. What used to be a fairly large chapel and a crypt is now home to Lola, Anna Bé and Scarlet Salon. There are subtle touches throughout the buildings hinting at what they used to be. The sacred art in the entryway of Lola covers the old crypt where ashes were once kept. Linger, the restaurant and bar occupying the old parking garage, uses what look like old formaldehyde bottles to serve water. The space underneath Linger, which now houses a gym, was the old mortuary's embalming space.

Tamburello thinks Denver has already lost too many great historical buildings, and he's happy to be able to save the ones he can. "What happened downtown during the urban renewal period was horrible," says Tamburello, though he knows some people might argue that construction in the 1960s and '70s helped the city grow. "I think a great city preserves its history. We're becoming a better great city."

"I feel like every old building has a story and is a sacred space," says Tamburello.
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Read more articles by Sarah Harvey.

Sarah Harvey is a Denver-based writer and editor. She is currently editor of the Denver VOICE.
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