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Grants help preserve, restore downtown Denver’s St. Joseph Church

Deterioration over its 134-year history was putting the venerable landmark at risk.

The red brick Victorian-Gothic façade of Denver’s St. Joseph Church has been a dignified landmark at the corner of West Sixth Avenue and Galapago Street since 1888. Due to its architectural significance, the educational role it played for more than a century, and its ongoing spiritual and social mission, the church is on the National Register of Historic Places.

That designation, awarded in 1982, recently helped the working-class parish get two grants from History Colorado’s State Historical Fund for critical repairs to preserve and restore the exterior of this architectural gem. In gratitude, the parish held an April 9 talk by experts sharing how the funds are being used, offering tips on how to care for older buildings and explaining the benefits of preservation.

“Preservation tells stories, protects architecture, inspires creativity, promotes reuse, and makes our communities unique,” Shannon Stage, preservation coordinator at Historic Denver Inc., told the audience gathered in the parish gym. “It ensures that the places and stories of our past remain part of our future.”

This is the South Elevation where most of the grant work was done. The gutters and repointed masonry were along this elevation. The South facing skylight is visible as well. (Photo courtesy of St. Joseph Church)

Significant deterioration at 134-year-old St. Joseph’s was putting the building at risk, said architect Jim Paull, CEO of JP Architecture PC, who serves as a consultant for St. Joseph’s. The church’s exterior features two square towers and lancet windows. Beautiful late 1800s stained-glass graces the interior, which showcases a light-filled apse crowned with three triangle-shaped stained-glass windows depicting the Ascension. In 2019, exterior skylights meant to protect the Ascension windows were found to be leaking water. The leaky skylights were causing the stained-glass windows to sag and were allowing water to drip into the sanctuary.

“The skylights…were near collapse,” Paull said. “The caulk wasn’t going to make it another year.”

A $50,000 State Historical Fund grant came to the rescue in 2020, enabling the parish to replace the skylights. The grant was also used to repair exterior gutters, masonry, and stonework. (On religious buildings, State Historical Fund grants are typically limited to exterior repairs.)

One of three skylights replaced. BEFORE (L) photo shows excessive caulk between panes, AFTER (R) photo shows only one metal separator. BEFORE (L) photo shows ugly visible vents, AFTER (R) photo has invisible venting tape within. BEFORE (L) photo shows significant damage to the plexiglass, AFTER (R) photo shows the new surface glass to protect from the weather. (Photos courtesy of St. Joseph Church)
These photos show the damage to the mortar below gutter seams that was repaired after the gutters were lined. BEFORE (L) photo  shows how much mortar had decayed and was visibly missing below the seam. AFTER (R) photo shows the renewed mortar joints after repointing. (Photos courtesy of St Joseph Church)

The parish membership, which is 90 percent Hispanic and of slim to modest means, also contributed thousands more to repair deteriorating wooden frames on 28 religious stained-glass windows that could not be funded by the state, administrators said.

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A second State Historical Fund grant, in the amount of $229,211, was awarded last December. It is being used to repair serious damage to the two towers of the church building.

“The damage to the towers was not very noticeable until a crisis occurred during heavy winds (in January 2021),” Bishop Jorge Rodriguez, St. Joseph pastor since last July, told the Denver Catholic. “A large piece of sheet metal fell to the sidewalk and pulled loose another piece of metal, which was threatening to fall. Fortunately, no one was hurt…but the dangling piece remained a great threat to pedestrians entering the church directly below it.”

The parish paid to have the broken piece removed and subsequently learned that water infiltration had caused the wood of the towers to rot and the metal soffits to rust. Additionally, the towers are full of pigeon waste.

The hole in the soffit resulted from a piece of metal falling to the sidewalk in early January 2021. It had rusted enough at the points of attachment that the wind dislodged it. And in the process it upped out part of another piece that you see dangling and threatening to fall. The contractors found so much damage on the interior side of the remaining soffit. They determined that the entire soffit had to be removed on the west elevation of the tower to prevent more pieces from falling. The concern remains that the other three sides of the tower soffit are also in danger of a similar failure. The grant funding will replace the soffit and repair or replace trim all around both towers to remove the rusted elements and thereby prevent future danger. (Photos courtesy of St Joseph Church)

“The first step is to clean out the water and pigeon waste and close off access to the pigeons,” MaryAnne Hand, the parish’s grant coordinator, told the Denver Catholic. “Then, at summer’s end, they will rebuild the towers’ damaged areas. The repairs will be rustproof and historically accurate.”

Maintaining the historical character of a building enhances its value as well as its beauty, the experts told the April 9 gathering. Home and business owners should be aware that preservation can offer economic benefits in the form of tax credits for restoration costs to buildings with national, state, or local historic designations, Stage said. (Only nonprofits are eligible for State Historical Fund grants.)

Kara Hahn, a principal planner with Denver Landmark Preservation, shared common criteria on what makes a site historic whether one is seeking national, state, or local designation.

“(Is the site) associated with historic events or trends, or is it associated with a significant person,” she said, “or does it embody distinctive materials or a distinctive architectural style?”

These photos show the north face of the same stone finial above the south church entry on Galapago. BEFORE (L) photo shows serious cracks on the north side of the finial running completely from back to front. AFTER (R) photo shows the reconstructed finial no longer having any cracks. (Photos courtesy of St Joseph Church)

Preservation architect Melanie Short, a senior project manager with the City and County of Denver, offered preservation tips. She recounted removing paint from the brick exterior of St. Joseph’s Church in a previous preservation effort in 2001.

“Do not paint brick. It changes the way the brick wall breathes and lives—and it traps moisture behind it,” she explained, recommending chemical paint removal over sandblasting.

Paint, however, does protect natural wood, Short said. And if a building has wood frame windows, she urged restoring them over replacing them with frames made of materials that once damaged will need to be replaced again, asserting, “A wood window is almost repeatably fixable…for hundreds of years.”

Historic preservation is a labor of love, Paull said. “It is well worth saving the architecture we have in our neighborhoods.”

Being the recipient of generous state grants as well as good advice from preservation experts impelled St. Joseph’s to share the expertise it has benefited from with others, Hand told the Denver Catholic.

“The parish is so blessed to have this State Historical Fund support which came at a very critical time,” affirmed Bishop Rodriguez.

“It has been a miracle,” Hand said.

Roxanne King
Roxanne King
Roxanne King is the former editor of the Denver Catholic Register and a freelance writer in the Denver area.

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