Demolition of 1888 Lakewood farm is sought to make way for new homes
LAKEWOOD — Schnell Farm, tucked away in a shady grove of trees off of busy Wadsworth Boulevard, contains some of the oldest remaining buildings in this city — if not the entire metro area.
The farm, established just a dozen years after Colorado received statehood in 1876, was awarded a place on the National Register of Historic Places more than 20 years ago.
And soon it may be gone.
Homebuilder Richmond American Homes wants to put 77 single-family houses on the 11-acre site at the southeast corner of the Bear Creek Greenbelt. And there isn’t room to keep the farmhouse, barn and other outbuildings that Fred Schnell established in 1888, when he received a one-eighth interest in the Hodgson Ditch that helped grow the vast farm fields west of Denver.
The looming loss of the area’s agrarian past — which once produced wheat, oats, barley, potatoes and sugar beets — has neighbors worked up and David Wiechman, president of the Lakewood Historical Society, worried.
“If you don’t preserve your history, you have no future,” he said.
Wiechman and fellow Lakewood residents will get the chance to push for historic preservation Monday when the proposal goes before the City Council, which is tasked with considering a property rezoning Richmond American has requested to move ahead with its project.
“It’s not just about knocking down a structure from 100 years ago — it’s about destroying the life of this community,” said Jiayi Liu, a neighbor who lives just a few hundred feet west of the Schnell property. “This is a farm that has life.”
The brewing battle in Lakewood echoes recent faceoffs that have been waged over the future of historic properties in Denver, notably the 1960s-era Tom’s Diner on Colfax Avenue and the Olinger Moore Howard-Berkeley Park Funeral Chapel, which has stood at the northeast corner of Tennyson Street and West 46th Avenue for nearly 60 years but could soon be turned into 58 townhomes.
Both have been proposed for demolition, though it’s not yet clear if either will ultimately have a meeting with the wrecking ball.
The future of those mid-century properties evoked emotionally charged discussions over the intersection of historic preservation with private property rights. In the Tom’s Diner case, owner Tom Messina said the sale of his Googie-style building at 601 E. Colfax to a developer for $4.8 million is key to securing his retirement.
The Lakewood farm is more than twice as old as either Tom’s or Olinger. But unlike Denver, where any resident can apply for landmark status for a building in order to try and save it, Lakewood only permits a historic building to be salvaged if the owner consents to giving it a landmark designation.
Numerous attempts last week to contact members of the Schnell family, who still own the farm, were unsuccessful. Requests to speak with representatives from Richmond American went unreturned.
In a presentation the homebuilder gave to city officials in June, Richmond American said it would dial back its proposal from more than 90 homes to 77 as a concession to those worried about density. It also agreed to deed more than 2 acres of open space to the city at the west end of the parcel.
But Liu and his neighbor, Howard Kumpf, say there is a better way to proceed than with the construction of another collection of homes in a city that fewer than two months ago voted to put strict limits on new residential construction.
Why not turn the farm into an agri-tourist and or agri-educational center, Kumpf asked?
“You could bring in elementary kids to get steeped in the agricultural history of this area,” he said. “We’ve had plenty of density construction here — we’re inundated with infill.”
Liu said he is exploring whether investors might be willing to pony up money to save the Schnell Farm. The historical society’s Wiechman wonders if the city could purchase the property with excess tax revenues that voters in 2018 gave it permission to keep. One of the stipulations of that ballot measure was that formerly TABOR-restricted revenues could be used to buy open space.
But since an offer from Richmond American to the Schnell family hasn’t been disclosed, it’s not easy to know how much it would take to dissuade the family from selling to the homebuilder.
In the meantime, the application to place the Schnell Farm on the National Register of Historic Places, which was granted on Valentine’s Day 1997, is clear about the historical importance of the tucked-away farmstead unwittingly passed by thousands traveling Wadsworth Boulevard each day.
“Established in 1888, the farm retains much of the character it had 100 years ago and has remained in the same family for over 100 years,” it reads. “It … is the last remaining example of early farms in the Bear Creek Valley area of Jefferson County, Colorado.”