Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The owner of Tom’s Diner, a beloved local coffee shop, wants to sell to developers, but fans want to save his 1967 Googie building. Is there a win-win here?
Tom’s Diner is a classic establishment where Denver residents have been enjoying breakfast at any hour for decades. The building that houses the funky cafe dates back to 1967, and it bears a distinctive retro-futurist look that adds a dash of neon and nostalgia to one of the city’s more eclectic commercial corridors.
But when the diner’s current owner, Tom Messina, decided he’d flipped his last flapjack, he made plans to sell the building and finance his retirement with the proceeds. The diner’s location on East Colfax Avenue, the city’s colorful and fast-changing main drag, guarantees his future. Denver has been experiencing a serious population boom, and apartment buildings to house new residents are popping up across town. A Colorado developer offered Messina $4.8 million for the diner, ample reward after slinging omelettes for 20 years. In its place, an eight-story multi-use development would rise.
Denver residents, however, aren’t ready to see Tom’s Diner go. The building is a fine example of Googie architecture, a midcentury modernist style linked to roadside diners and motels. Its Jetsons flair tells a story about Denver’s history and growth, according to preservationists. So a group of local residents applied for an historic landmark designation for Tom’s Diner—against Tom’s wishes.
At first glance, the preservation battle brewing in Denver is a typical design kerfuffle, the story of a faceless developer’s greedy plans to emblanden the neighborhood by razing a charming local landmark. Or if you prefer, a telltale example of cultural elites parachuting in with the power of the state to wrest away a building owner’s property rights. Only this time, there’s a twist: Nobody has to walk away empty-handed. Everyone could come out as a winner. Denver’s approach to historic preservation is more than capable of making Tom a happy retiree and preserving his diner as a local landmark—if the two sides can come together in time.
That’s not the way the situation might look to Messina, or to observers. Reason cast the conflict as a showdown between a hardworking small business owner and bad-faith Denver NIMBYs who don’t want to see new construction in their downtown neighborhood. Preservationists say that the diner is a rare example of an important and popular style of design, and a nugget of Denver history.
“This was not a sleeper, in that people didn’t know it was significant,” says Annie Levinsky, executive director of Historic Denver, a local historic preservation nonprofit. “Some historians say it’s probably the best example of Googie in Colorado.”
Before it was Tom’s Diner, the building was part of a small local chain of coffee shops called White Spot. A Denver businessman who liked the Googie look tapped Armét and Davis, one of the foremost architecture firms associated with the style, to bring the design to the Mile High City. With its folded-plate butterfly roof and neon piping, the building is an eye-catching example of the playful, car-centric approach to modernism coming out of postwar California, where Googie originated in the late 1940s. And it’s a particularly well-preserved one, unlike others built during this era. (One former White Spot location later became a Hooters.)
Pull up the Googie page on History Colorado, the state’s historical agency, and the first image you’ll find is Tom’s Diner. Colorado was late to the Googie craze, so there are fewer examples of these old-school motels, car washes, and gas stations than you’ll find in California. Several of the survivors can be found along Denver’s lengthy Colfax strip, as this Googie driving tour devised by Modern in Denver magazine shows. Armét and Davis designed what is now Tom’s Diner in 1967; by the 1970s, big national restaurant groups were supplanting local chains, and they preferred cookie-cutter corporate over space-age moderne. Many other similar cafes in Denver and around Colorado were razed during the 1980s and ‘90s. The Googie style has far more admirers today.
About a decade ago, Messina, the diner’s owner, worked with state authorities on a nomination to put his building on the National Register of Historic Places. Then he changed his mind, withdrawing his consent for the designation. But his building was nevertheless deemed eligible for listing, even though it was not yet 50 years old at the time.
Fast-forward to this summer, when Messina, having elected to sell, and the developer applied for what’s called a certificate of non-historic status, which would allow them to demolish the building after 120 days. Hundreds of people called Historic Denver after the notice was made public, Levinsky says, hoping to stop the demolition. Five of those Googie admirers applied for landmark status with the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission, which recommended that the building be saved by a unanimous vote.
The city council will decide later this month whether landmark status is warranted. That would put Tom of Tom’s Diner out of luck. However, Levinsky says that there are options for preserving the diner building while greenlighting a development that would both compensate Messina and add to housing density in the area. (Historic Denver isn’t a disinterested party, but it is not one of the parties applying for landmark status. Levinsky describes her organization’s role as a “resource to community members and in the conversations with the owner and developer.”)
For example, the city could tee up a property swap. Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, private owners in Denver successfully traded development rights in property swaps in downtown-adjacent areas involving landmarked properties. Planners have floated that concept for the Colfax corridor, but there’s nothing formal in place yet. Still, there are fewer than a dozen historic buildings surviving along East Colfax, Levinsky says, but hundreds of surface parking lots and fast food uses. It might be feasible to trade humdrum for historic.
Better still, an alternative could accommodate both new construction and historic preservation. The diner property includes a large surface parking lot that could be rezoned to be developed for greater density. If the city approved a surgical zoning alteration, the developer could still achieve the target density while also saving the historic Googie building. Historic Denver even engaged a local architect to draw up conceptual plans that would permit the same 113 apartment units on the site—hardly a NIMBY intervention.
The timing for this skirmish is unfortunate. Denver authorities are currently at work on an East Central Area Plan, which would revise some zoning priorities for Colfax and other neighborhoods east of downtown. The plan calls for new incentive overlays that would provide height and density bonuses for developments with certain public benefits—developments that promote historic preservation, publicly accessible open spaces, or affordable housing, for example. Colfax is known as a haven for small businesses, and local leaders want to keep them in place even as the city grows. Those options won’t be available in time to guide any resolution for Tom’s Diner (at least not formally).
“I think that’s something people in Denver are hungry for,” Levinsky says. “Development that can bring the old and new together.”
Her organization has had some success in this department. Back in 2015, a developer purchased a tavern with plans to replace it with an eight-story building, adding more than 300 new apartment units at 17th Avenue and Pearl Street. Historic Denver posted a petition to save the handsome, century-old brick building, originally a grocery store; within a week, the petition had 1,600 signatures. But Historic Denver never opposed new construction. Instead, the group worked with the developer to find a way to save the old while building the new. A crafty height-and-zoning solution enabled the developer to build the same number of units and keep the 19th-century building in place. Construction is currently underway.
With Tom’s Diner, the stakeholders will have to come to a decision quickly: The certificate of non-historic status application triggers a 120-day timer, at the end of which, demolition is permitted without any further ado. Time is up on August 31. The Denver City Council will hold a public hearing and vote on the landmark designation at its next meeting on August 26. Developers specifically sought out this tight rule so that NIMBYs couldn’t string out development decisions. But in this case, a speedy deliberation could cut against the building owner’s interest, since the city could grant the historic landmark designation before a better solution can be found.
The Denver Post’s editorial board has now weighed in, arguing that the city council should reject the landmark designation, on the sensible ground that seizing a building owner’s sweat equity is a deplorable outcome and on the more debatable ground that the building isn’t really all that historic. “We could imagine there are times when a piece of property is so significant to Denver’s history, or its architecture such a rare gem, that we would support a hostile taking of value from an owner with zero compensation,” the op-ed reads, resolving that this case isn’t the one.
But that all-or-nothing scenario doesn’t have to be the only way to save the building. There could be a wider range of choices. Denver might surprise everyone involved.
In recent years, adaptive-reuse developers in Denver successfully converted a 1930s Art Deco building into affordable housing for seniors and secured two historic hotels for low-income micro-units and apartments for chronically homeless people. So there’s precedent. The city has an interest in steering the parties fighting over Tom’s Diner to a mutually beneficial outcome. After all, the tether to Denver history and quirky Googie vibe are part of the charm that attracts residents (and developers) to East Colfax.
At the same time, the city has an interest in enabling dense multi-use developments along this corridor. Freezing the past in place will only lead the attractive and growing parts of the city to be more exclusive. In any case, preserving this building should not be a problem for the diner owner to solve: Why should Messina walk away with any less than what he’s due—much less nothing at all—after building his family’s future around the sale of his diner?
The decision over Tom’s Diner is ultimately a test of the Denver City Council’s creativity.
“How do we come up with compromises, or even just creative projects that might not be compromises?” Levinsky says. “They may end up with the same win–win scenario, but integrate a piece of architecture that has meaning.”