A symbolic fight: Jefferson Park scrape-off emblematic of Denver’s growth debate

Anderson House

The two-story Victorian on Eliot St. won’t soon be featured in the Parade of Homes. Foliage conceals much of its modest brick façade from the view of passers by. But in the nine months since a developer moved to demolish the house, it has become the symbol of a neighborhood struggling to keep its character in a time of rapid change.

Thanks to the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission, the grassroots effort to save the house can continue. In a contentious meeting on Tuesday, the commission recommended that the structure receive historic preservation status.

The Queen Anne-style, 1880s-era residence, located at 2329 Eliot St., was slated to be demolished earlier this year to make way for 18 townhouses under an agreement between the homeowner, Jim Sonnleitner, and local redeveloper Adams Development.

That reckoning was put on hold after four Jefferson Park neighbors, including then-City Councilman Elect Rafael Espinoza, filed a last-minute application with the Landmark Preservation Commission for historic protection in late May.

While redevelopment has brought new businesses, more housing options, and higher property values to Jefferson Park, some residents feel it has come at the cost of the quaint, quiet character that attracted them there in the first place.

The commission ruled Tuesday that 2329 Eliot St., also known as the William W. Anderson House, has architectural and historic significance, two of the three criteria required for landmark preservation status. A City Council subcommittee will take up the commission’s recommendation later this month, and if it is endorsed, it will be sent to the full Council.

The commissioners praised the Jefferson Park home as an example of the Queen Anne architectural style, complete with asymmetrical gables and a bay window. As Barbara Stocklin-Steely, Denver’s principal planner for historic preservation, noted, such late-1800s structures are a “diminishing resource” in Jefferson Park.

[pullquote]”If history isn’t stories, what else do we have?” asked Commissioner Kathy Corbett. “The history of Denver, this kind of rough-and-tumble Western mythos, is a lot what makes Denver what it is.”[/pullquote]

Much more salacious is 2329 Eliot Street’s place in Colorado history. From 1897 to 1902 and again from 1915 to 1930, the building was the residence of William W. Anderson, a prominent local attorney.

Anderson is known for briefly representing Alferd Packer, the infamous prospector charged with killing and cannibalizing his companions on a mining trip gone awry in 1874.

Through the attorney’s association with Packer, Anderson came into conflict with the then-publishers of The Denver Post, Harry Tammen and Frederick Bonfils, who were also seeking to exonerate the Colorado cannibal.

On January 13, 1900, after a meeting between Anderson, Tammen, and Bonfils at The Denver Post offices devolved into fisticuffs, Anderson allegedly shot each publisher twice with his pistol, making headlines in The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune.

Both survived, and Anderson was ultimately acquitted after two hung juries and a third trial that resulted in Tammen and Bonfils being convicted of jury tampering.

LPC Chair Martin Goldstein expressed some doubts that Anderson’s shooting saga was influential enough to Denver’s history to merit protecting the house he lived in, as is required by the city’s landmark preservation ordinance.

The commission ultimately disagreed, deciding that the historical requirement had been met, with only one opposition vote.

“If history isn’t stories, what else do we have?” asked Commissioner Kathy Corbett. “The history of Denver, this kind of rough-and-tumble Western mythos, is a lot what makes Denver what it is.”

Though the LPC’s recommendation turned on the force of events occurring over 100 years ago, the changes Jefferson Park has seen in the last 10 years loomed large in the proceedings. Many of the residents who spoke in support of the landmark designation on Tuesday expressed fears that the neighborhood’s historic character could soon be obliterated altogether.

Jefferson Park has yet to match the level of new residential construction seen in its trendy northern neighbor LoHi, but its relative affordability and proximity to downtown dictate a similar path.

Condo complexes have gradually replaced humble bungalows and cottages since the 1990s, guiding the median home sales price from $75,000 in 2000 to $388,000 today, according to Trulia. Once 80 percent Hispanic, the neighborhood is now 44 percent Hispanic and 45 percent white.

“I don’t believe every structure built in the last 150 years should be saved simply because it’s old,” said Northwest Denver resident Jan Stice at Tuesday’s meeting, “but neither do we have to lose all of our history to satisfy the great God greed and leave us with block after block of characterless cubes.”

To opponents of the Anderson House landmark application, these concerns reveal the political nature of the effort. “We have heard arguments about Anderson and architecture,” said Lisa Porter, a broker with Adams Development, “but one thing that the supporters of designation have pretty much clear—they are against development.”

For his part, Jefferson Park resident Jerry Olson, one of the four applicants behind the Anderson House petition, denies categorically opposing new development.

“We like sound development, in keeping with the character of the neighborhood,” said Olson, citing Zocalo Community Development and Allied Realty as two developers who have pursued such a vision in Jefferson Park.

Even if preventing all new development in Jefferson Park was the goal, designating individual structures as landmarks would be an clumsy way of doing so.

According to the city’s own professionals, the vast majority of the structures demolished in the city are not worthy of protection. Landmark Preservation staff review every demolition proposed in the city of Denver, and only around 30 of 1,000 each year are flagged as potential landmarks, according to Stocklin-Steely, the preservation planner.

Even if the City Council ultimately approves landmark status for the Anderson House, 10 other multi-unit developments are currently under review in Jefferson Park, according to Denver’s Community Planning and Development Department.

According to Olson, the deeper issue lies in the municipal zoning code, which was amended in 2010 to allow more residential density in growing neighborhoods like Jefferson Park. Until those changes are reversed, he said, no amount of history can save his neighborhood from an unrecognizable future.


Photo credit: Carlo Davis