Janice Thompson choked up for a moment.
“As many of you know, Fruitdale holds a special place in my heart,” Thompson said, pausing to compose herself while addressing a crowd at the Wheat Ridge Recreation Center. “...I started there in 1955 as a first grader.”
A few dozen city officials, former students and business partners for a new housing development gathered at the recreation center Thursday, Dec. 15, for the announcement that the former school building at 44th Avenue and Oak Street, next to Anderson Preschool, had officially cleared all the hurdles and red tape, allowing for construction on apartments to begin there, this month.
“This is a groundbreaking as well as a revitalization for the city,” Mayor Joyce Jay said.
Construction work will begin before the end of the year on 16 apartment units currently scheduled for opening by Oct. 2017, according to the investment firm.
Thanks to a slew of grants and tax credits, the units promise to be affordable and environmentally friendly.
The Fruitdale School, 10801 W. 44th Ave., was built in 1926-27 on designs by prominent Denver architect Temple H. Buell to replace the 1883 school building that burned down in 1926, according to the city of Wheat Ridge.
Fruitdale is the oldest remaining school structure designed by Buell, according to city officials.
When Buell laid out the plans for Fruitdale, he was just getting warmed up in his career. The Chicago-born man designed at least two other schools before Fruitdale, according to a biographical sketch by the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation found on historycolorado.org.
Buell’s other works can be seen in the Cherry Creek mall and the Paramount Theatre in Denver.
John Hartman of Boulder-based Hartman Ely Investments LLC helped draw up the initial plans. Hartman met Buell a few years before he died in 1990. Hartman was just 25 years old and a budding architect when they met.
“Temple Buell was one of the best architects this side of the Mississippi … and he turned into a philanthropist … to be able to preserve his oldest school building is just an incredible honor,” Hartman said.
Thompson also sent her oldest daughter to start school at Fruitdale before it closed and helped keep it from demolition in the late 1970s when elementary school education ceased there and other times when there was talk of tearing it down. It was used for adult education until 1991 then a preschool language development center until 2006, according to Historically Jeffco magazine.
“It’s seen better days … but now we get to see it revitalized and reused,” Thompson said. “It’s going from a destroyed school into a 16-unit, mixed income, loft-style housing units that are the very first of its kind here in Wheat Ridge.”
Many in attendance at the recreation center Thursday for the celebration announcement then went a few blocks down the road to Fruitdale for a group photo opportunity and a tour of the first floor. Vandals had broken in throughout the years, covering many walls in graffiti with everything from phrases unsuitable for publication to graphics like a snail.
Getting to the point of rebirth has been years in the making.
The Wheat Ridge Housing Authority bought the property in 2011.
The building was added to National Register of Historic Places in 2013, according to Historically Jeffco magazine.
In 2014, the housing authority issued a Request for Interest in the property that includes the 13,564-square-foot school building and 1,200-square-foot caretaker’s house.
The housing authority began talking to Hartman Ely Investments LLC in Feb. 2015, according to meeting minutes from the housing authority board meetings.
“The Fruitdale ... is really a living story,” Hartman suggested. “It’s been a building that has been inhabited by many, many, many people over the years … the living story continues today. This is just yet one other milestone event in that story.”
There will be 15 apartments in the main building plus an apartment in the adjacent caretaker’s house.
“Fruitdale has been saved for a time just like this,” Thompson said.
There will be two one-bedroom apartments, 12 two-bedroom apartments and two three-bedroom apartments ranging from 550 to 1,100 square feet, according to Hartman. While they will be renovated as modern loft-style apartments, some parts will be refurbished for historical significance. The gymnasium will be cut into two apartments, retaining the basketball goals in each. Chalkboards will be reused when and where they can.
“We take the best features that are there, like the windows and the basketball goals and the volume of the spaces is key,” Hartman said about designing space to make modern meet historic.
The building will also feature sustainability features, including several rows of ground-mounted solar panels on the north side of the property, made possible through credits with Xcel Energy.
“It’s green for the environment and it’s affordable in an energy use sense for the people who will live there,” Hartman said.
There will be no natural gas to the property — everything will be electric.
“The solar power system will produce an estimated 80 percent of the total energy use,” Hartman said.
In honor of the namesake, there will also be a fruit orchard. And in honor of the building’s original purpose, education will be incorporated.
“As a way to continue the educational legacy of the building, in a new way — for the 21st Century — we’re going to have a bunch of exhibits both on the outside on the site and on the inside that will help instruct folks what sustainability means, what preserving old buildings means and the importance of all of that to the community,” Hartman explained.
Jay said the project is coming full circle.
“Later, when we go to take a picture, we’ll all gather in front of the building, I’m sure,” Jay told attendees at the recreation center. “For me, I’ll be thinking about the fact that some 90 years ago a group of people had done just that. And perhaps Temple Buell was there.”
Jay said Fruitdale will be a catalyst for economic growth in the northwest quadrant of the city.
“This will be one of the best places to live in Wheat Ridge,” Hartman said.