By Kathryn White
Community members gathered recently to hear about a proposed West Colfax Jewish Historic Cultural District. The public meeting, the first in a series that will continue in 2023, took place at VFW Post 501 on W. Colfax Avenue at Wolff Street, within blocks of the nearby area encompassing the 220 properties that would make up the new historic district.
The proposed area—and a much larger swath along West Colfax that surrounds it—holds significance in Denver history because of Eastern European Jews who settled there as early as the 1870s. For West Denver Jews in the late 19th century and early 20th, the West Colfax corridor served as a hub for religious and cultural life. It was home to a close-knit community and numerous small synagogues, religious schools, mom-and-pop grocery stores, and a host of other businesses. The area holds continuing significance to Orthodox Jews who live, study, and worship in the area today.
Councilwoman Amanda P. Sandoval opened the meeting by recounting a call she received from a constituent, Pam Smith, when a demolition permit request was filed for a home at 1565 Winona St. she knew had been the residence of a Jewish baker and business owner significant to the area’s history. Sandoval went on to provide an overview of the proposed district and introduce people who have participated in research leading up to the community input process.
Historic Denver, Inc. was represented by director of preservation action Michael Flowers and board member Molly Urbina. Ron Sladek, a historian and historic preservation consultant, has been hired to inform the project. Previously, Historic Denver collaborated with Denver’s Community Planning and Development department (CPD) to develop Discover Denver’s 2021 “Survey Report: West Colfax.”
Discover Denver is, according to its website, “a multi-year project intended to develop a comprehensive inventory of Denver’s historic and architecturally significant resources.” Its 2021 report on the West Colfax area identified eight areas of significance and 18 specific buildings that together, the report states, convey the rich history of the area.
According to the report, “While West Colfax has seen extensive redevelopment at several points in its history, pockets of buildings still exist that have seen little change and that have the ability to convey the neighborhood’s story. Additionally, a number of individual buildings remain, scattered throughout the neighborhood, that have significance in their own right as well as collectively.”
The proposed Jewish Historic Cultural District contains four of the areas of significance and three of the specific buildings identified in the Discover Denver report. One such building is the current synagogue of Congregation Zera Abraham at 1560 Winona Court. Founded in 1887, Zera Abraham was the first organized congregation west of the South Platte River.
As Sandoval, Smith, and Sladek provided information and history, residents and descendants of former residents chimed in with additional details and clarifications.
Denver City Council President Jamie Torres, who represents District 3, shared about the process of seeking historic cultural district designation for La Alma Lincoln Park, a neighborhood with important connections to events and leaders in the Chicano Movement.
The La Alma Lincoln Park Historic Cultural District was unanimously approved by City Council in August 2021.
The proposed West Colfax Jewish Cultural Historic District will be in Torres’ Council District 3 after redistricting maps take effect in 2023. Smith has been instrumental in gathering community members for input.
For Intermountain Jewish News’ Oct. 20 coverage, Smith said, “We’re going to have a series of meetings, every month for a year, to help people understand the nature of a historic district and how it will affect them and their homes.”
As with other historic districts, a property owner can address any building interior issues without review. But exterior changes would be subject to the guidelines of the district. A parallel process facilitated by Denver’s Landmark Commission would establish design guidelines for the new district.
Torres emphasized that, as was the case with the La Alma Lincoln Park district, community input will be incorporated into design guidelines. Beyond the structures that tell the story of Denver Jewry along West Colfax, many at the meeting looked forward to hearing and sharing stories from today’s Denverites with connections to this rich past.
“The Denver Office of Storytelling hopes to partner with the Office of Councilwoman Amanda P. Sandoval to record and preserve the history and voices of Denver’s West Colfax Jewish community in an #IAmDenver film project,” said Denver’s Chief Storyteller Rowena Alegría. “Details of a possible collaboration are still in the works.”
A second community meeting is planned for 6-7:30 p.m. Jan 11 at VFW Post 501, 4747 W. Colfax Ave. Residents in the proposed historic district will receive a flier on their doorstep. For updates on the process, visit mailchi.mp/mailchimp/wcjd.
This story begins The Denver North Star’s ongoing coverage of a proposed West Colfax Jewish Historic Cultural District.