There’s a tower that looks over Denver’s western suburbs. You’ll be driving near Interstate 70, or walking in Arvada, and suddenly it’s there — watching you through a gap in the trees.
It’s not an office, not an apartment building. It stands alone on the ridge, a solitary outline against the silhouette of Denver’s southern mountains and occasionally Pikes Peak. It is 158 feet tall. And it is home to thousands of people’s remains.
The Tower of Memories, as it’s called, started construction more than 90 years ago. This Sunday, its owners will unveil a major renovation and open the colossal mausoleum to the public. (More details on that at the bottom.)
I only recently learned what the building was, and I’m terminally curious, so I headed over this week. Mike Skoulat, general manager of Olinger Crown Hill Mortuary & Cemetery, spent an hour showing me around.
The place was founded in 1907 by George Olinger, who also started the mortuary that now is home to the Linger restaurant near downtown Denver.
Construction started in 1926, although Olinger back then imagined a far more ornate and Gothic (and creepy, I’d say) design. The building’s $1 million budget was trumpeted in headlines, but the project fell into disarray as its builder hit bankruptcy in 1928.
By that point, remains had already been entombed in the building, so there was really no going back. Olinger brought on new architects — William and Arthur Fisher — who stripped away the gothic detailing from the plan.
Instead, the project became a rare Denver example of a monumental modernist structure. (The final design reminds me of the 1930s-looking Denver Wastewater Management fortress along Interstate 25, which is actually pretty modern.)
Construction was delayed again by World War II, stretching some 20 years to 1948 — but the unfinished building quickly became a landmark in every sense of the word.
“A lot of pilots would use it to line up for Stapleton airport,” Skoulat told me as we drove the half-mile esplanade toward the tower.
The recent renovation replaced the tower’s plexiglass windows with dark blue glass, repaired its tiled roof, repaired water damage and restored the front doors to their original gold color.
Opening those great gold doors, we stepped into a ground floor criss-crossed with broad marble halls. Some were lined with crypts and marked by family names. Beneath them were a few understated pieces of furniture for visitors.
The tower’s home to some 6,000 crypts — large enough to fit a person’s full remains. About 90 percent are sold, and 75 percent are occupied, Soulak said. They range from $25,000 to $50,000.
The mortuary also has about 5,000 niches for cremated remains, priced from $1,000 to $22,000, depending on how high up the wall you’d like to be. Of course, you could also choose one of the thousands of plots on the cemetery’s 240-acre grounds.
“There are those who want to be in the ground, and those who want to be above the ground,” my tour guide noted. Either way, his goal is to deliver perfection.
The second floor was a bit more dramatic.
“Mr. Olinger, he liked the red,” Soulak explained as we stepped off the elevator. Indeed, the carpets and the chapel windows are saturated with the color.
Then we returned to the elevator and Soulak turned a key to send us to a part of the tower that few people see: The upper floors, which remain unfinished.
The upper floors are cast in an icy blue from the frosted new windows. The old windows would light up in a burning red when the sun hit right.
We passed the filing cabinets and boxes, then took a slightly unnerving climb up four sets of original, poured-concrete stairs.
We stopped short of an absolutely unnerving ladder to the tower’s very highest floor. For a moment, I thought that might be the end.
But I got what I had really come for. Soulak led me out onto a balcony, and we suddenly had the view that had been hidden behind those semi-opaque windows: the land of the living.
Soulak and his staff will re-dedicate the tower on Sunday, May 27. They’ll lay a marker for a military veteran at 11, host a Memorial Day event for veterans at 11:30, and then rededicate the tower at 1 p.m.
I can’t promise you’ll get as much access as I did, but you’ll get to hear from the architect and project manager of the renovation. It’s a quiet and lovely place.
Crown Hill Mortuary is at 7777 W 29th Ave in Wheat Ridge.
Correction: This post originally misstated the construction date of the wastewater management building.