Commission recommends landmark status for shuttered Berkeley funeral home, against owner’s wishes

The funeral home is located at 4345 W. 46th Ave. in Denver. (Google Maps)

Efforts to save a shuttered funeral home in Berkeley stayed alive Tuesday.

Denver’s Landmark Preservation Commission voted unanimously at an afternoon meeting to recommend the former Olinger Moore Howard Chapel at 4345 W. 46th Ave. be designated a landmark.

The move sends the application to City Council, which makes the final decision on the matter.

The application is the latest in a string of landmark applications submitted in recent months without the support of the property owner. Houston-based Service Corporation International, which operated the funeral home prior to its closure in January, wants to sell the property to Denver-based Koelbel & Co., which wants to demolish the structure and redevelop the site.

Speaking to the commission Tuesday, Tom Simmons, a member of the Historic Berkeley Regis neighborhood group and one of three Denver residents who submitted the application, called for preservation “so that future generations can enjoy and be influenced by this beautiful building.”

“In weighing this property against existing Denver landmarks, we find it clearly meets the designation criteria in all three categories,” he said.

Those three categories are history, architecture and geography. The structure, at the corner of 46th Avenue and Tennyson Street, was built as a funeral home in 1960, and designed by J. Roger Musick, a local architect whose other work includes Bryant-Webster Elementary School and First Baptist Church, both of which are Denver landmarks and on the National Register of Historic Places.

Co-applicant Bill Killam said more than 600 people have signed a petition in favor of designating the structure a landmark.

“It seems like it’s a bridge between the early and current Berkeley architecture,” said Killam, who also noted that he and others attended funerals at the chapel.

More than a dozen members of the public, most nearby residents, spoke in favor of landmarking at the Tuesday meeting. One nearby resident spoke against it, saying the building is “pretty” but not historic, and “what I do not want is a historic dead landmark at the end of my block with a parking lot that is underutilized.”

In opposition

Employees of both SCI and Koelbel spoke against the designation Tuesday.

Dann Narveson, director of real estate for SCI, said the “outdated facility” closed due to a drop in demand, and maintaining the facility is costly. While marketing the property for sale, “We had numerous potential buyers, but not one was interested in saving the building.”

“The designation will create an immediate and lasting negative economic impact to us,” he said.

Carl Koelbel, of Koelbel & Co., said the real estate firm has done adaptive reuse projects, such as converting the Kuhlman building near Sloan’s Lake into income-restricted apartments and, in the near future, an Odell Brewing taproom.

But Koelbel said the design and condition of the funeral home don’t easily lend themselves to adaptive reuse. He said the building is “designed to limit light,” and “that really nice chapel ceiling is covered in asbestos.”

“The ideal scenario would be to save this building,” he said. “We just don’t see any way to do that given the design.”

Koelbel said that while some residents seem focused on preserving the building, “I think there is a larger swath of the community that’s really focused on what’s next as opposed to what’s there today.”

The developer originally proposed demolishing the funeral home and building 58 townhomes. But Koelbel said that, after hearing from nearby residents who wanted to see retail space on the corner, the company now wants to build about 40 townhomes along with 3,000 square feet of retail space.

The current version of the application requests the entire property be designed a landmark. Asked if the applicants would support development on the portion of the lot not covered by the structure, Simmons said his focus is on “keeping the building and having it repurposed and be reused.” But he also pushed back on characterization on the remainder of the site as a parking lot, and said it features lighting designed to complement the structure.

“It wasn’t just a parking lot,” he said. “It was a designed space.”

Asked after the meeting if Koelbel still would purchase the property if the funeral home were designed a landmark, Carl Koelbel said the firm is “still evaluating our options.” He noted that the adaptive reuse of the Kuhlman building involved a subsidy associated with the income-restricted housing.

And while residents at the meeting threw out ideas as to what could occupy the chapel, Koelbel said it’s not that simple.

“To find something viable is different than finding something,” he told a reporter.

The landmark commission has considered two other owner-opposed landmark applicants in the last month. In July, the commission denied an application for a home in Park Hill, but recommended designation of the Tom’s Diner building at 601 E. Colfax. The Tom’s Diner applicants withdrew their application last week, paving the way for demolition of the structure barring a change of heart from the developer that plans to buy it.

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