For years, the low building on the corner of 22nd and California streets covered an entire half-block with a structure that barely warranted a second glance.
It was a bland mash-up of what used to be three distinct buildings, long since connected to create an 18,000-square-foot space while its exterior brick, devoid of identifying signs, was smothered in white paint, including the boarded-up windows. It crouched at the edge of downtown, a glum placeholder that could have been scraped without notice as Denver’s turbo-charged urban redevelopment sped into Five Points.
2200 California pre-renovation and on Oct. 9, 2018. Photo Credits: Arrow B Architecture / Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun
Architect Shane Martin’s job was to reimagine it. The building would be recast as multiple storefronts for developer VanWest Partners, which had recently bought the property from the man who owned it for roughly four decades. Once past the building’s ho-hum exterior, Martin found inspiration — not only for his design, but for preserving the spirit of the structure’s history while creating space for the exercise and entertainment tenants that now occupy it.
A local museum also became an unexpected beneficiary.
The corner building went up in 1915, and two adjacent structures on California Street were added in 1920. Their heritage is largely automotive. A Texaco service station once occupied the corner premises, and a Ryder truck rental location also made use of its garage doors, hydraulic hoists and mechanic’s pit carved through the concrete.
But even after the gas station closed and the truck rental moved on, the building’s auto bloodline continued, though it remained masked from the public’s prying eyes by an exterior that concealed the treasure within.
“It’s one of those buildings that for probably 40 years it’s been looked past,” said Martin, principal at Arrow B Architecture. “When we pulled up I wasn’t sure what to think of it. But the more we looked at it, the more we saw some of its details, some of its soul. We thought, OK, let’s see what we can bring to life. Then we got to go inside and see a lot of the previous owner’s belongings.”
By then, the dozens of vintage Porsches that had once filled its spacious interior already had been removed. But what the owner, retired Denver eye doctor and Porsche enthusiast Bill Jackson, had left behind — with no intention of retrieving — still seemed overwhelming. “I was getting tired of keeping the building going,” Jackson, 86, said of his reasons for selling. “I’m old, I have some medical issues, and was trying to simplify my life.”
Art, books, wooden skis, exercise machines, medical devices, photography equipment, even vintage, unopened bottles of wine — all of it spoke of an active life chronicled within the weathered masonry walls. In particular, the sheer scope of items reflecting an auto aficionado’s passion struck a chord: car parts, motor oil, an air compressor, leather-bound repair manuals with hand-drawn figures from the 1930s; film of a Porsche rally from Denver to Greeley in the 1950s; cataloged issues of Autocar magazine — a British publication dating to the late 19th century.
For years, Jackson’s Porsches were his “escape” from a very busy medical practice, and his fleet grew to about 70. Jacob Vanderslice, principal at VanWest, remembered driving past the building at 22nd and California on his way home from another project.
“Going home every day, we wondered what’s going on with that building,” he said. “It was buttoned up like an old bomb shelter — steel door, no windows. But (Jackson) is one of the more celebrated Porsche collectors in the country. You’d never guess, driving past that building, but the cars in there were almost priceless. They resold at auction for multi-millions.”
Calling the collection “quite valuable,” Jackson acknowledged that the building’s opaque, nondescript exterior was designed to deflect attention. Although he found it difficult to leave so many artifacts of his life behind after the sale, he simply didn’t have the wherewithal to find homes for everything.
“I just didn’t want to be bothered with it,” said Jackson, who still lives in Denver — and occasionally still drives the Porsche 356 that was his first, purchased back in 1962 when he was in the Army stationed in Fresno, California. “It’s someone else’s turn to enjoy it.”
Martin, who met Jackson a couple of times, came away feeling compelled to infuse his design with elements that, both subtly and quite obviously, paid homage not so much to the man as to the passionate regard for cars that permeated the building.
He said it was obvious that Jackson had hosted parties there for his fellow Porsche enthusiasts, and that joie de vivre was evident in what was left behind. (“Not frequent parties, but yes,” Jackson confirmed. “I tried to be under the radar.”)
“I particularly felt an affinity after seeing into his personal life and the love of cars he and everybody around that organization showed,” Martin said. “It was a celebration of life to see alcohol, books, motor oil — how immersive that life clearly is.”
Some felt that the property would be best developed by scraping the old building. But Vanderslice and his partners decided to go another direction.
“We looked at all our options on it and thought the location plus the look and feel when it was completed would be far better for the neighborhood and for investment, rather than building something new,” he said. “Once you take those down, you can never get them back. It’s nice to add new life to this one.”
The immediate challenge was what to do with all that stuff.
Jackson removed the cars and a lot of other valuables. But finally, he told the new owners to pitch the rest. As they culled through the content, though, it quickly became obvious that there was too much of value — intrinsic, if not monetary — to relegate to some roll-off trash bin.
Certainly from a design standpoint, there were hidden gems not often found in old properties designated for revitalization.
“Never anything like that,” Martin said. “Usually it’s filled with broken pool table lights and old Jose Cuervo posters. As architects and designers, we’re taught to honor the past and try to save a piece. You try, in giving it new life, to keep some of its legacy.”
With the project on a tight timeline, the process of deciding what to do with so many items moved quickly. Some things the developer kept. A lot of it was hauled back to the architect’s Centennial headquarters — so much that the entire office took on a musty aroma. Many of the items they took on faith that, somewhere down the line, their rightful place would become apparent.
“Some of it was trial and error, some of it just evolved,” Martin said. “The project took about a year from beginning to end. There were several opportunities to say, ‘Oh wait, remember that thing? Let’s use that over here.’”
But before the design phase of the project, there was one other beneficiary of what got left behind. The sheer volume of items — particularly automotive magazines — had made it difficult to find willing takers, so Martin’s office turned to another strategy.
“It wasn’t practical to have an auction,” he said. “At some point, you’re paying points on a loan, you can’t have the building not moving forward. There was no practical way to find that one or 30 buyers of a portion of it. So we were talking one day and said, ‘Why not call the Forney Museum?’”
The response, Martin recalled, was best described as “tepid.”
In fairness, the Forney Museum of Transportation, Denver’s 60-year-old collection of all things conveyance-related, frequently fielded offers of donations of popular automotive magazines. Usually, they were duplicates of what the museum already housed in its small library across the parking lot from the main exhibition hall.
But the museum told Arrow B project manager Ally Frueauf to bring the donation by and they would take a look. So she loaded up her SUV and delivered a collection of magazines that proved to be a little different. Once museum workers took note of the contents, Martin said, they immediately headed to the property.
Bill Fleming, the Forney museum’s auto archivist, soon was seated on the building’s concrete floor, surrounded by small mountains of automotive publications. That marked the start of what became a two-day treasure hunt.
“By the time we got in there, all the shelves had been taken out, so it was all piled on the floor,” Fleming recalled. “So often, though, we get duplicates of what we already have. The thing about this is, there wasn’t near the number of duplicates. It was a big time deal.”
And in addition to Jackson’s own collection, which filled in a lot of gaps in the museum’s periodicals, there was an unexpected bonus: In 1978, Jackson had purchased a collection from Denver businessman and car enthusiast Arthur Rippey, who had closed down his Veteran Car Museum that used to occupy a space near the old Gates Rubber factory.
Fleming always wondered what happened to that museum’s library.
“So Jackson is the one who bought all this stuff from Rippey and preserved it,” Fleming said.
“You’ve got to say, for him to keep it alive is pretty neat.”
The Forney museum ended up with about seven pallets of material, piled 2- to 3-feet high. The magazines filled some enormous gaps in the museum’s library, which is available to the public for research (though with less demand since the advent of the internet). Where they once had perhaps 20 percent of a publication’s issues, they now had 90 to 95 percent, Fleming said.
They also collected an air compressor that now serves in the museum’s garage, plus waxes, cleaning chemicals, industrial shelving and even a few aircraft-related items that haven’t been unboxed yet.
“Give Jackson credit for preserving all that stuff that came from Rippey,” Fleming said. “And then the guys from the architect, that whole firm was helping us doing the grunt work of carrying it over here. That’s a lot of work.”
On a cold and rainy afternoon last week, Martin pulled open the door to Solutions Lounge and Restaurant that also serves the Escapology escape game franchise. On closer inspection, the door handle is a camshaft, a design touch inspired by the building’s heritage — and the first hint of the interior’s “steampunk” aesthetic that melds anachronistic technology with art.
Another example: A large communal table near the bar is supported by a thick steel cylinder that once served as the base of a hydraulic lift.
Most of the several garage doors remain, either indoors or on the exterior. One cordons off a private room. Its hinges have been embellished with distressed leather straps that Martin had made by a saddler to replicate the distinctive leather hood straps for a Porsche 356 — that first Porsche that Jackson ever purchased. Martin spent weekends and evenings with wire brushes, alcohol and saddle oil, working to give the leather its distressed look.
Part of the success in incorporating so much of the old building’s remnants into the new design depended on buy-in from the tenants. Some of them embraced a past that, as an added bonus, dovetailed with their establishment’s new motif.
“Incorporating the mechanical into the artistic is what the venue is all about,” said Tina Ronder, who owns Solutions and the Escapology franchise with her husband. “What better way to do that than keep the nuance of a building that was built in the early 1900s?”
Many non-automotive items pulled from the old building — things like medical textbooks — became props for the game rooms, each with a different theme. But even the bathrooms, with what Martin calls “oil slick tiles” and auto parts on the wall, blend the industrial feel with elements of car culture.
Some of the detail could easily escape notice. The main room’s vaulted ceiling is supported by steel trusses, but a close look also reveals wood rafters scorched black from fire. The wood is structurally sound, but the black hints at a building that has seen a few things in its lifetime. Although the burns are authentic, Ronder so likes the look that, “I would’ve done it on purpose.”
A row of dusty wine and liquor bottles elevated behind the bar at Solutions stands too far away to read the labels. But some of them, found amid the things left behind, are rare vintages. Ronder had her wine and spirits rep check them out. Although the contents had spoiled, some of the bottles would have gone for $10,000 intact.
“We kept the bottles for decor,” she added. “And Shane said, ‘Don’t even clean the dust off.’ So we didn’t. We wanted authentic.”
Next door in Woods Boss Brewing Company, original yellow paint on the concrete floor hints at the automotive past. Here, too, elements of the building’s prior contents — in this case, some wood saws — are mounted on the walls, more evidence of putting as much as possible to effective use.
The restrooms in a rear common area serving multiple storefronts have an unabashed sports car motif, with classic hood numbers and racing stripes reminiscent of Jackson’s old 1959 Porsche RSK lining the walls. Similarly, the addresses of the still-under-construction Carbon After Dark restaurant and Kickboxing.com and others are printed in the same distinctive Porsche font to speak to the structure’s racing past.
In another common hallway, a racing stripe runs along painted brick — a feature that Martin says was difficult for the painters to accomplish, given the uneven texture that made it hard to achieve a sharp, straight edge. But this was part of the homage.
“So there was a certain drama that this was (Jackson’s) legacy,” Martin said. “He had auctioned his cars, made his money, kept some engines and cars, but he’d acquired all these things, all the stuff there. I felt the need to memorialize or honor that. On a personal level, that drove me to let some of this live on.”
Speaking of living on, Jackson hasn’t by any means totally abandoned his passion for Porsches. In a couple of weeks, he’ll be on a plane for Atlanta to take part in The Porsche 70th Anniversary Auction. So far, he’s not sure if he’ll be a buyer or a seller.
“It’s going to be fun to see what they do there,” he said.
As for what’s been done to his former property and its contents, Jackson said “that’s OK,” to the idea of incorporating his belongings into the design and “that’s appropriate” to the donation of much of his library to the museum. He has not been back to the site since he sold.
Meanwhile, Martin said he was notified a few weeks ago that the work done on the old building won one of Historic Denver’s Community Preservation Awards. The news came as a surprise, he added, because he had no idea anyone even nominated the project.
While he considers the design and execution “some of the best work I’ve ever done,” he also acknowledges his firm’s role as “accidental preservationists.”
“Pragmatically, there’s a fiscal benefit even in this competitive market, in saving things,” Martin said. “People care about them. There’s a difference between going into an old building and something brand new. You can feel it.”