Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

DeBoer property designated historic

DU is still deciding what to do with its recently rediscovered mural by pioneering Colorado painter John Edward Thompson, but the fates of Thompson’s former studio and the former office of famed planner S.R. DeBoer have been set.

On March 12, Denver City Council voted 8-2 to preserve the Tudor-style DeBoer office at 515 E. Iliff Ave., the former Thompson studio and a nearby building as part of a new historic district.

The designation follows a bitterly contested effort to preserve the DeBoer property over the objections of its owners. The lengthy dispute became so strained that one City Council member called the result “legalized claim jumping” and even the measure’s supporters acknowledged “residual bad feelings.”

The new status means the properties must conform to a sheaf of rules to ensure that the homes’ exteriors are not altered from their historic character or that the buildings are not razed.

A Dutch immigrant born in 1883, Saco DeBoer wrote Denver’s first zoning code and was instrumental in creating a wealth of public parks and planning projects, including Washington Park, Civic Center Park and Sunken Gardens. He was the force behind the Denver Botanic Gardens and the inspiration for a slew of prestigious Denver neighborhoods, including Bonnie Brae, Hilltop and East Seventh Avenue.

In 1920, DeBoer moved to a scraggly, 5-acre piece of land he bought on a city ditch from Warren to East Iliff avenues just east of what is now Our Lady of Lourdes school and church on South Logan Street.

The property had an old farmhouse but little more. DeBoer improved the 1876 farmhouse, converted a chicken house into his home office, landscaped the property and constructed an art studio for Thompson, his friend.

Initially, preservationists had proposed a much larger historic district that included five properties — three owned by DeBoer heirs. The plan became contentious because the heirs planned to sell the property and feared that historic designation might reduce its market value by as much as $1 million.

After months of costly wrangling, an unsteady compromise was reached.

“We’ve diminished the size of the district but not added anything that wasn’t determined to be historically significant,” District 7 City Councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie said in early March.

The compromise means supporters of the district are assured that the DeBoer home will not easily be torn down, and opponents avoid having their entire estate declared historic.

“We will consider this a preservation victory,” said Steve Turner of Historic Denver on behalf of the Landmark Preservation Commission.

DeBoer heirs say their battle to resist what they call “hostile designation” has cost them more than $100,000. Their cry resonated with Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz, who likened the compromise to a mugging, and with Planning Board member Rich Delanoy, who said it had been “forced down the throats” of the DeBoer family.

Supporters countered that preservation was a “gift” honoring the legacy of DeBoer and the artists he encouraged and that the district could undergo a “resurrection” not unlike the transformations of LoDo or Larimer Square.

“It’s nice to have some resolution,” district spearhead and studio resident Mark LaFon told the West University Community Association in the aftermath of the decision. “We’re happy.”

This article originally appeared in The Source, April 2007.

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