The latest Denver preservation battle is just like the Tom’s Diner debate, except with a mortuary

The owner wants to sell the building. Berkeley locals have other ideas.

The Olinger Moore Howard Chapel mortuary, Berkeley, July 10, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Olinger Moore Howard Chapel mortuary, Berkeley, July 10, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

The city’s Landmark Preservation Commission on Tuesday unanimously recommended preserving the Olinger Moore Howard Chapel in Berkeley as a historic structure — against the owner’s wishes.

It’s an important step for preservationists looking to essentially freeze the building at 4345 W. 46th Ave. in time. Historic Berkeley Regis, the local neighborhood organization, asked the city to step in and designate the mortuary historic after getting wind of the owner’s plan to sell it to a developer who wants to build townhomes on the site.

Historically known as Howard Berkeley Park Chapel, the mortuary was built in 1960 and designed by local architect J. Roger Musick.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the commission agreed that the building met the threshold for landmark designation, citing its architecture and its established location in the city. The issue will head to the Denver City Council’s land use committee next, which will decide whether to send it to the full Council for consideration.

Owner SCI Colorado Funeral Services vigorously opposes the landmark designation. The company is under contract with Koelbel & Co. to sell the property, which would be razed for residences.

The debate between historic preservation and individual property rights echoes the months-long battle for Tom’s Diner that ended last week with locals rescinding their application to safeguard the greasy spoon from development.

The commission received 17 comments, including 15 in favor of the designation and two against it. During Tuesday’s meeting, 12 people spoke in favor of the designation and one person spoke against it.

Bill Killam, who submitted the application with two others, wants to see the building reused for something else. He suggested turning it into a school or a wedding venue.

Carl Koelbel, vice president of acquisitions and development at Koelbel & Co., said he wants to focus “on what’s next as opposed to what is there today.” While he’s open to potential adaptive reuse, he said it would be difficult. Some of the design features, like limited lighting in several areas inside the building, pose challenges, he said. Redevelopment would likely mean altering the features that make the building interesting.

“We do not see any way that this building can be saved,” Koelbel said.

Killam and others have been gathering signatures and spreading the word about the site since July. He and others noted how the building elicits memories for many residents, including himself. He recalled being a pallbearer for a friend during a service at that mortuary.

He called the site a “bridge” between generations in the changing area.

“As the neighborhood continues its rapid changes, we need this bridge more than ever,” Killam said.

City Council has to decide on the designation by Sept. 26, according to documents provided by the city’s planning department.

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