Monday, May 3, 2010

Denver's Crumbling History -- West Washington Park Neighborhood 's Abandoned Byers Junior High School

Over the past year, I have grown to form a sentimental connection to an abandoned school building near my home -- Byers Junior High School.  I'd like to share some of my research here.  This post is not an effort to try to "save" the building and fight to have it turned back into a school, because I understand the reality of the state of the economy and the demographics of the neighborhood.  I simply would just like to share this story.   Hopefully you will share this with others as well, to help honor the history that you'll read about below.  

Please keep in mind that this case study was intended to teach  me how to introduce place-based learning to my future elementary students. Not to cause a ruckus, make waves or to "stir the pot" amongst the members of my community.  Thanks for your understanding!
    Almost four years ago, my husband and I moved from Chicago to the West Washington Park Neighborhood of Denver.  Over time, we have grown to absolutely love it.  And for good reason...

We love the mismatched mix of apartment buildings, condos, duplexes and single family homes.  The hodge podge of single folk, married couples, seniors, dogs, and the like.  The proximity to Denver's beautiful Washington Park and the surprisingly serene mountain views.

We have noticed, however, that there aren't many children in our area.  I'm certainly a lover of little ones, so I tend to feel it in my bones when there is a significant absence of youngsters.  I get sort of a dull ache, perhaps due to the lack of roaring laughter echoing through the streets, or an overwhelming seriousness that looms on occasion.  In West Washington Park, that absence is intensified for me, due to its abandoned and run down school building -- the former Byers Junior High School.

 Byers Junior High School Today - Former Basketball Court
(Photo taken by Chrissy Richter)
The dilapidated tennis courts now serve as a makeshift dog park.  Our dog, Tucker, knows it well, which is one of the reasons why I have such a strong connection to the property, still owned by Denver Public Schools.  Last summer, I had the opportunity to do some place-based research for a graduate course on teaching science to elementary students.  I chose the old Byers building, and you'd be AMAZED at the history that I uncovered!

Below are a few excerpts from the case study that I wrote for my graduate course this summer:

Uncertain Future for Abandoned Byers Junior High School Building

Denver Public Schools (DPS) Seeks Developer Bids For Sale of Property

Main Entrance of Byers Junior High School Today
(Photo taken by Chrissy Richter)
        Denver Public Schools (DPS) announced that the sale of one of its ten empty and abandoned properties, Byers Junior High School, might happen as early as this winter.  Located at 150 S. Pearl Street in the West Washington Park neighborhood of Denver, the Byers building has been empty since 2004.  Many issues involving numerous stakeholders surround the pending sale of the property. The sentimental neighborhood constituency is determined to transform the building back into a functioning school, and on the other end of the spectrum is an astronomical price tag in the midst of a suffering economy for DPS to refurbish the building.  A meeting to discuss the pending sale was held in June, and one final, critical meeting involving DPS and concerned community members will take place this winter, where a decision is expected to be made. 

A Pioneer’s Pride and Joy

The History of Byers Junior High School

Photo retrieved from  (Western History and Genealogy)
William Newton Byers, founder of The Rocky Mountain News and influential Denver pioneer, was known for his remarkable accomplishments during Denver’s inaugural days.   In January, 1872, The American Phrenological Journal honored Byers and his resourceful demeanor by saying, “By no means a creature of circumstance, he has made opportunities and carved a future for himself, despite misfortunes and calamities.  He is one of the most industrious and upright men the Far West has to show,” (Stern, 1969).  He acquired the block bordered by Pearl, Bayaud, Washington and Cedar in the West Washington Park neighborhood in 1891.  He built his mansion with a spectacular view of the mountains, and beautifully landscaped the grounds with a unique arboretum containing thirty-five varieties of exotic trees.  The house featured distinctive ivy-covered walls and an elaborate interior of mahogany, oak and walnut wood (Melrose, 1984).

William Newton Byers' Mansion -- Torn Down to Make Room for New School Building
Photo retrieved from  (Western History and Genealogy)

 Interior of Byers' Mansion     
Photo retrieved from  (Western History and Genealogy)
       Shortly after Byers’ death in March of 1903, DPS targeted the land as the site for a new south High School and bought the half block between Pennsylvania and Pearl along the south side of Cedar for the proposed educational facility.  Nothing happened until 1918, when DPS rented the Byers Mansion from his wife, Mrs. Elizabeth Byers, and moved Broadway Junior High School, renamed as Logan Junior High School, into the house.  DPS then purchased the house and surrounding land on October 13, 1919, for $45,000 and hired architect William Norman Bowman to design a Gothic-style school there.   Byers Junior High School opened its doors in 1921 (Goodstein, 1991).

 Many trees surrounding the abandoned property are still marked with the name of the species.  If you're ever in the area, check them out!  Amazing!
(Photo taken by Chrissy Richter)
Distinguished Charm Meets Remarkable Character

School’s Soul Transcends Building Walls

Byers Junior High School
Photo retrieved from  (Western History and Genealogy)
A special wire-cut light buff brick and trimmed terra cotta mark the exterior of the $408,000 school building which Architectural Forum hailed as one of the most beautiful schools in the country shortly after it opened in 1921.  Simultaneously, a school commission in Moscow noted the charm of the structure and sent away to Bowman for information about the school, claiming the Russians wished to erect a comparable building in the Soviet Union (The Rocky Mountain News, 1920).

Byers Junior High School encompassed more than just a dazzling exterior.  Consider the variety of intriguing historical legends and facts connected to the school to discover a dynamic spirit – the core of what many in the neighborhood are currently fighting to save.  For instance, William Byers’ pet dog, a St. Bernard, is said to be buried by the Washington Street driveway.  Also, the trees of the Byers estate were carefully preserved and labeled by O.E. Cackey, the first custodian of the building, and another staff member, Louise A. Merrill, served as principal until her death on duty on January 16, 1940.  As a homage to William N. Byers, the weekly student newspaper, Byers Junior News, was carefully modeled after The Rocky Mountain News, whose first edition was prominently displayed in the school office.  Finally, on the day the school closed in 1982, the faculty and staff staged a mock funeral, complete with a fake casket holding a ruler, notebook and other educational items, on the front steps to place the spirit of Byers Junior High finally to rest (Goodstein, 1991).

All Good Things Must 
Come to an End

After 61 Years of Educating Denver’s Youth, Byers Junior High School Closes

       In 1982, DPS closed Byers Junior High School citing low enrollment as the cause, although the school had been suffering for quite some time.  By the late 1960’s, the school was suffering from the typical tensions of junior high schools.  Female students especially wanted to behave themselves since girl gangs were said to run around the neighborhood, ripping the earrings off of so-called “outside” junior high school girls they found in the area after school hours.  Then, with the coming of busing, Byers experienced some racial problems between Hispanics (brought from west of Broadway) and local students (1991).

DPS admitted that the school lacked a natural constituency since changing population patterns and busing had destroyed its neighborhood student base, and the faculty and staff agreed.  Gene Amole, a Byers alum, reported that “Byers was the victim of its own success.  Always staffed by people dedicated to solving problems, it never gained attention in the media.  The Byers staff handled things before they became crises, and media coverage seems often reserved for bad news,” (Amole, 1982).

Despite the school’s unfortunate end, the building managed to remain connected to the education world for the next 20 years.  In December 1983, DPS proposed to turn the building into an Alternative Learning Center as a form of “last chance school” for junior high and high school youth who had severe difficulties with the regular educational process.  Despite a good deal of local opposition, that feared that the school would only bring troublemaking youth into the area, the Alternative Learning Center opened on March 1, 1984, with a crew of volunteer teachers (Goodstein, 1991).

The building was also used for adult education classes, as offices, and as the home of the DPS’s Bilingual EsoL Education program.  In the early 1990’s, controversy surrounded the school when DPS announced its intention of using the building as a full-fledged alternative high school – Denver School of the Arts (DSA).  The building became then became DSA’s home until 2003, when it moved into the current location in Stapleton (1991).

The school building has been vacant since 2004.  It is designated as a Denver Landmark building, which means that exterior changes of any kind require approval by the Landmark Commission.  Despite its landmark status, the building is in desperate need of repair quickly before it is too late to be saved.

The Price of Preservation
Tough Economy Makes Restoration Seem Unfathomable

DPS is faced with a tough decision – sell the property and use the money toward current operating schools, or shell out an estimated $6 to $15 million or more to restore the building and grounds in a neighborhood with a low amount of school-aged children.  Necessary improvements include: major renovation and construction of code-complaint fire suppression; American Disabilities Act compliance; flooring; roofing; exterior restoration; windows; and grounds updating and maintenance (Disposition of Vacant Buildings Update, 2009).

Aside from the substantial cost of restoration, the issue of property value comes into play.  The building is currently dilapidated, run-down, and unsightly.  It attracts loitering, litter, graffiti and the homeless.  The property values in the community certainly are not benefiting from the building’s current state.  Will a refurbished school be the best option to increase property values, or would the alternative, condominium living, serve the community better? 


Anonymous said...

condos...definitely condos

Jean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jean said...

Chrissy, Thank you so much for this post! I graduated from Byers Junior High in 1954 and still have my last copy of the Byers Junior Newsweekly, containing class pictures of all eight sections of 9A. It was a thriving neighborhood school. I walked from our apartment at 130 Washington. I'm just now finding time to look for the history of various schools I attended (Peter Pan, Mountair, Edgewater, Teller, Stevens, Sherman, Byers, and East High). Your post was a great find! Jean Gibson Woolley, Ripon, WI

Zack said...

I just moved a block away from the school. I was wondering what the school's history was and what the plan was for it.

Trevor said...

Hey thanks so much for the info. Whats the exact adress so I can visit it for myself? Also is there easy access to inside the school?

JeremyP said...

Wow. Thank you so much I have lived in this neighborhood for 7 years now and always wondered the history of the "old school" as my kid and I have come to call it. Thank you so much if the conclusion to Byers is condo's I would definitely Become a resident.
Thanks again chrissy.

Anonymous said...

Are you still writing this blog? I grew up in Washington Park area and attended Byers Jr High. It was a fantastic place and I have many great memories. Sorry to see it has gone down hill. This all started with the great society busing in the 60s,which produced the white flight to the suburbs. Lots of people don't want to hear that, but I was there as a kid and lived it. South Denver High has suffered a similar reduction, with the "new" wing boarded up and abandoned due to reduced enrollment.

Anonymous said...

If you read this, please contact me about a historic pictorial book I am compiling on Wash Park & environs and would love to chat and try to contact the alums who posted. Thanks --Sarah

Vicki said...

I realize I'm a couple years late to this post. On that note, I've had an idea bouncing around my head for so long, but I doubt it will ever come to fruition. Now, this is romanticism at it's best, however, I would love to buy an old school and convert it to a party venue. My vision is that each section and room would be different themes for play. Parents could bring their kids or throw a birthday party, pay at the door or make a reservation, and release their children into the proverbial wild. Security would have to be considered of course. But, OH, it would be so cool! For instance, one large room converted into a cardboard maze. Another room built into a princess castle. A carnival room. A jungle. The possibilities are endless!! And to see the school still reverberating with children's laughter instead of tearing down to build another ugly apartment building would be the icing on the cake. Sigh. However, since I've seen schools being sold for millions of dollars, this dream will be always be just that. There's no way it would be fiscally possible. Sad face.

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