Last-Minute Miracle in Denver

Efforts to Save a Colorado School Pay Off

 

A construction fence was up and demolition crews were on site last month in the Denver suburb of Wheat Ridge when city officials and preservation groups saved the historic Fruitdale School. The City of Wheat Ridge Housing Authority officially acquired the 1927 red brick building in the first week of May for a total cost of $112,604, after negotiating a deal with the Jefferson County School District.

Renowned local architect Temple Buell, known for Denver landmarks such as the Paramount Theater and the original Cherry Creek Shopping Center, designed the two-story structure early in his career after an earlier school on site burned down in 1926.

"This building is really important to show the evolution of his career and his design aesthetic because there's some really interesting brick work," says Colorado Preservation's Endangered Places Program Manager Patrick Eidman.

Fruitdale operated as an elementary school until 1978 and a preschool until 2007 when the Norma Anderson Preschool opened next door. In 2008 the housing authority, in cooperation with Wheat Ridge Mayor Jerry DiTullio, drew up plans to convert the vacant building into affordable residential lofts, and in 2010 they conducted a marketing analysis; but both times the project was determined financially unfeasible.

"The numbers got to a point where it was getting out of the range to be considered affordable," says senior planner and housing authority deputy director Sally Payne. "So the building has just sat empty the last couple of years."

In March, the Denver Post brought attention to the school district's decision to raze Fruitdale with a front-page article in its "Denver & the West" section, sparking a last ditch effort to save the historic building. Colorado Preservation reached out to DiTullio and set up a meeting to convince the school district to delay demolition until a solution could be reached.

"Nobody really thought the school district would move forward to demolish the building right away," DiTullio says. "[But] with their budget crunch and expenditures, they needed to reduce their inventory and not have that on their books anymore."

The district eventually agreed to sell the building to the housing authority for $1 plus the cost of already completed asbestos abatement, significantly less than earlier asking prices. Eidman is now helping the housing authority apply for structural assessment grants that will also study reuse options. A deed restriction requiring that the property be used for educational purposes (or revert to the heirs of the original land donor) would allow for possible uses such as a library or youth arts center, but lawyers are working to allow for possible residential or community use as well. Eidman says the assessment process will likely take about six months.

"It's really tragic to tear down a building that's perfectly capable of being reused in a community that can use the square footage and needs those community landmarks for its sense of place and history," Eidman says. "I don't know if ultimately it was the looming threat of demolition that finally snapped everything into place, but it really was about building partnerships and building them really quickly, to pull this off."

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