Aug 23, 2016
The First Unitarian Society of Denver building at 1400 Lafayette St., which served as a gathering place in the advancement of social justice issues in Colorado, became a local historic landmark via a vote of Denver City Council last night. The site, whose architecture and geography also meet the city’s designation criteria, is the first in Colorado to be recognized at the local, state or national level for its importance in the history of the LGBT rights movement.
The First Unitarian congregation has a long history of social justice work, including involvement with women’s rights and suffrage, civil rights and immigration justice. Over the years, it has welcomed social justice organizations that could find no other public venue for their meetings or presentations.
The congregation’s involvement in the LGBT rights movement began as early as the 1950s. At a time when few were willing to open their doors to the gay community, First Unitarian offered support to the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights groups in the United States, by providing space to organize. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Unitarian building was a de facto headquarters of the Gay Coalition of Denver, which is known today as The Center, an LGBT nonprofit located one block away from First Unitarian, on Colfax Ave.
The building itself has been occupied by the First Unitarian Society of Denver since 1958. The Richardsonian Romanesque style building, constructed in the 1890s, has retained its architectural integrity over the years. It features wide rounded arches, recessed entryways, a dramatic rose window, and rough surface stone quarried in Castle Rock, Colorado. Its architecture and its prominent location at the corner of 14th Avenue and Lafayette Street makes it a unique orienting feature in Capitol Hill.
To be eligible for historic preservation in Denver, a site must demonstrate significance in at least two of three categories: history, architecture and geography. Denver’s Landmark Preservation Commission found that the church building was eligible for designation, meeting designation criteria in all three categories.
“Preserving sites like this helps us tell our city’s story – the whole story,” said Brad Buchanan, executive director of Denver Community Planning and Development. “While Denver’s landmarks include buildings originally built by and for those with wealth and social status, they also include equally important places linked to people who may have been left out of the history textbooks.”
What Preservation Means for Property Owners
Historic designation preserves a site while accommodating change in a way that’s sensitive to the historic context of a building or district. Historic buildings undergo city design review prior to making exterior alterations, so that they may be altered and modernized in ways that keep them useful and relevant, and that respect their character and integrity. Interior remodels are not subject to design review. Local historic landmarks and districts are eligible for grants from the Colorado State Historical Fund, as well as state tax credits.
How Designation Works
In Denver, historic preservation is a grassroots effort. Denver’s city government doesn’t typically pursue designations; they are brought forth by the people. An application to designate a structure as historic may be submitted by the property owner or by at least three members of the community.
The building at 1400 Lafayette is Denver’s fifth historic designation in 2016; whereas Denver has averaged one new landmark per year in the last five years. Earlier this year the National Western Stock Show Stadium Arena, the Emily Griffith Opportunity School, the South Lincoln Street Historic District and the house at 1899 York St. were all brought forth by their owners and designated as historic.
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