Karen Christiansen wanted to spend the rest of her years in her historic Capitol Hill mansion. But first she had to get approval to even live in it.

Christiansen’s home, called the Hart-McCourt House, was built in 1898.
6 min. read
Karen Christiensen stands in the dining room of her big, old home in Capitol Hill. Feb. 18, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

If you've ever walked past the white mansion on the corner of East 8th Avenue and Pearl Street, you might have paused to admire it. The architecture style, with its prominent columns supporting a rounded porch, is what's called Classical Revival, a popular form between 1895 and 1950. The elegant house sits next to blocky apartment and condo buildings in Cap Hill.

Its owner, Karen Christiansen, 76, currently lives about an hour away in Gilpin County. Built in 1898, Christiansen's home was designed by local architectural firm Varian and Sterner, according to city documents. Back then, it housed prominent Denverites of the day, including accomplished doctor Charles Hart and later, Emma McCourt, a successful businesswoman and socialite. The home is referred to as the Hart-McCourt House in city documents.

Karen Christiensen's big, old home in Capitol Hill. Feb. 18, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Christiansen wants to make it her permanent residence, a plan she's had ever since she purchased the property in 2015. While she spends some time there during the week when she's not in Gilpin County, her plan to move in permanently required one major change: rezoning it so that she could legally live there, returning the home to its intended use.

Before Denver City Council unanimously voted earlier this month to approve a rezoning request allowing for residential use, the mansion at 555th East 8th Ave. was only legally allowed to house office space.

"I feel very blessed to have this [home], and very conscious of my responsibility to keep it, to not let any of the things that maybe I can't work with [be removed] because there's so much to do," she said.

Stepping inside the home feels like stepping into another era, with the occasional modern fixture.

A wine cooler is behind the bar area, and when I visited recently an electric guitar was on one of the sofas (it belongs to her son). The oak flooring comes from England, she said, and there are original lighting fixtures around the home. The dining area is surrounded by ornate cabinets holding even more ornate dinnerware. The ceiling beams have small, painted designs she initially thought were inlay. It's got a fireplace on the first floor and another on the second floor.

Karen Christiensen steps into a sun room in her big, old home in Capitol Hill. Feb. 18, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Christiansen grew up in Denver, working at Morgan's Pharmacy (it's now a liquor store with a similar name) and graduating from South High School, before attending the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Denver. She had aspirations of being a music teacher but wound up in real estate.

She intends to keep the home's first floor as her home. The floor includes a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen and two living room spaces. She wants to rent out spaces on every other floor, and is currently repainting certain areas and considering renovations or modifications to others.

She thinks she can add a lift when she reaches the age where walking upstairs won't be as easy as it used to be. And she fully intends to reach her 90s. Three of her four grandparents lived into their 90s, she said, so she figures she has a longevity gene. She said she's in good health now.

"I am 76. I'm dealing with aging," Christiansen said. "There's a perfect place to put an elevator out there for when I'm really old."

Raul Villalba finishes an electric hookup inside Karen Christiensen's big, old home in Capitol Hill. Feb. 18, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Perla Gheiler, director of the city's Office on Aging, called Christiansen's situation "amazing," since she has a comfortable home she can spend the rest of her years in. Since 2019, Gheiler's office has connected thousands of seniors to services with DenverConnect and said people still call and ask for things like clearing snow or mowing a lawn.

"We really try to be that connector to helping older adults live in their home longer, function independently and live with dignity and respect," Gheiler said. "That is what's really important to our older adults, who have given so much to our community."

Christiansen's long-term vision includes some very ambitious plans. She wants to build affordable units where a parking lot now sits, directly next to the house and across a carriage house that sits on the lot.

In addition to rezoning, Christiansen applied for landmark status.

Senior City Planner Jennifer L. Buddenborg said concurrent rezoning and historic applications don't happen very often. The home's landmark status was approved the same night its rezoning was confirmed. Making the building a landmark effectively preserves it.

"It represents over 120 years of Capitol Hill history and evolution," Principal City Planner Kara Hahn said when discussing the property during the council's Feb. 7 meeting.

Annie Levinsky, executive director at Historic Denver, said it was common in the 1970s for homes similar to Christiansen's to be rezoned to allow them to operate businesses; Christiansen believes the home was rezoned for office use during the 1980s. Doing this helped preserve historic homes.

Levinsky, who supported the landmark designation, said there are other examples in the city of old churches and even former hospitals being reused for housing.

Karen Christiensen sits in the dining room of her big, old home in Capitol Hill. Feb. 18, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

"We think that it's really important to show how our historic buildings can be flexible and can adapt to serve the community," Levinsky said.

The pretty white mansion can now house people and claim a historic connection to the city.

Not that the latter wasn't already evident: You can see the Governor's Mansion from the front porch, and directly across the street sits the John Porter House, whose namesake built the home for one of Adolph Coors' daughters, Louise Coors Porter. Both are also city landmarks.

"I don't want to leave," Christiansen said, standing on the porch. "I want to stay here."

Cocoa, Karen Christiensen's companion, sits in an armchair in their big, old home in Capitol Hill. Feb. 18, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

You power Denverite!

If you love what we do, donate today to support our essential and delightful local news.

Recent Stories