We were in Denver – my hometown – last week and saw, with horror, the results of the continuing teardown phenomenon that may have slowed somewhat nationally but is apparently still rampant in the Mile High City. In every neighborhood, there they were: overscaled, mostly terribly detailed Tuscan villas, French chateaux, phony Colonials. Spec houses for the most part, we surmised.
Obviously, Denver hasn’t gotten a grip on the practice yet. An ordinance passed a couple of years ago that gives neighbors a chance to respond to proposed teardowns, along with a period for potential designation by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, is coming under increasing fire from the crowd that cries “real estate terrorism”. In their sights this week: a terrific mid-century modern house in Belcaro Park, an upscale development of the 1950s and ’60s on Denver’s near east side. (Full disclosure: I grew up there.) Once a cohesive district of large ranches, Usonians and traditionals, most of them architect-designed, Belcaro is losing its sense of place at a dismaying rate. The area has avoided the scourge of overscaled replacements that plague other historic Denver neighborhoods only because the lots are positively vast to begin with. The permanent deed restrictions and strong neighborhood association that were counted on for decades to protect the character of the place have now apparently failed to stem the tide of scrape-offs.
The 1958 Wallbank House, designed by architects Tician Papachristou, a colleague and biographer of Marcel Breuer, and my old friend, prominent Denver designer Dan Havekost, is set to be replaced by a house just 400 square feet larger. So the landfill-enlarging teardown isn’t even justified by overheated expectations for ostentatious amounts of space. Just a lack of imagination and appreciation for a stunning mid-century design that could easily be adapted and expanded.
Like so many post World War II developments across the country, Belcaro hasn’t been formally surveyed to create an inventory of significant properties to justify the historic district it could have been. (Ironically, it was in suburban Denver where the first National Register district of mid-century modern houses in Arapaho Acres was listed a few years ago.) It’s time to do so. The shift of ownership in the neighborhood suggests an opportunity: a younger cadre of buyers are part of a generational trend toward appreciation for the architecture of the 1950s and ’60s. Places like Belcaro Park should learn, quickly, to capitalize on their architectural assets, educate residents and would-be buyers about the unique character and opportunities of the existing built environment and help realtors and investors to make informed, creative and environmentally sustainable decisions.
I hope it’s not too late for Belcaro. Other historic Denver neighborhoods – Hilltop, Bonnie Brae – may have lost too much. Sad. And here I thought northern New Jersey was the teardown capital.