Central Presbyterian founders prevented a murder and started a tradition

The church continues to ‘make Denver a better place’

Kirsten Dahl Collins
Special to Colorado Community Media
Posted 12/1/22

In the summer of 1860, four armed desperadoes invaded the offices of the newly-launched Rocky Mountain News in Denver, gunning for editor William N. Byers. Luckily for the journalist, two …

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Central Presbyterian founders prevented a murder and started a tradition

The church continues to ‘make Denver a better place’

Posted

In the summer of 1860, four armed desperadoes invaded the offices of the newly-launched Rocky Mountain News in Denver, gunning for editor William N. Byers. Luckily for the journalist, two Presbyterians walked in.

Gen. William Larimer, Jr. and Rev. A.T. Rankin merely wanted to place an ad to attract worshippers to a new church. They ended up in a classic Wild West brawl, during which the preacher and the general managed to get Byers “out of the clutches” of his attackers, according to Rankin’s letters. One villain was shot, two escaped and the fourth was tried and convicted of attempted murder. The resulting publicity got Denver’s Central Presbyterian Church off to a rousing start.

That was the beginning of Central Presbyterian’s effort to “make Denver a better place,” said Rev. Louise Westfall.

The historic church, at 1660 Sherman St. in North Capitol Hill, has just upgraded itself with a $5.2 million renovation. Most of the remodeling will support Central Presbyterian’s long tradition of community service, which includes the 1916 founding of Presbyterian Hospital — subsequently St. Lukes Presbyterian, then HealthOne.

Ordained in 1981, Westfall is carrying on a family tradition — her sister and father both served in Presbyterian ministries before her.

“After 40 years, I still love it,” she said.

Westfall has led Central Presbyterian’s congregation since 2011, which might have earned the disapproval of John Knox, who founded the sect during the 16th century Scottish Reformation. The thundering Scottish preacher was no fan of women in leadership roles — but he did introduce the concepts of equality and democracy in worship. Taking Knox at his word, women have been serving as pastors in Presbyterian congregations since 1954.

An architect’s masterpiece

Central Presbyterian was designed in 1892 by architect Frank E. Edbrooke and is “counted among (his) masterpieces,” according to the Denver Architecture Foundation’s website. The red sandstone building bears a strong resemblance to the Brown Palace Hotel a few blocks away, which dates from the same year. Both buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and both feature spectacular stained glass. Abstract patterns of amber and violet shed golden light over the church interior, reminiscent of the glow from the hotel’s famous stained-glass atrium.

Begun in 2020, during the quiet days of the pandemic, the church’s renovation has restored some original features and added 21st century improvements. Westfall points to multiple new restrooms, a new elevator, a new children’s playroom and a remodeled annex from the 1950s, which will soon become a coffee bar. In a small chapel off the narthex — also known as the lobby — dark paneling was stripped away to reveal more of those amber stained-glass windows. A re-imagined basement level includes rehearsal space and the Heritage Center, a small museum of church and Denver history, which are closely intertwined.

A beehive of community service

The modernization was crucial because Central Presbyterian is no empty monument to the past. The 60,000-square-foot building has long been home to a collection of busy nonprofits. New Genesis, which occupies part of the vast basement and has a separate entrance, provides transitional housing and other services to people experiencing homelessness. On an upper floor, the Central Visitation Program offers a safe, supervised place for non-custodial parents to meet with their children. The church sanctuary, a 1,000-seat hall lit by luminous stained-glass windows, is home to the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, a 75-year-old semi-professional group. In the church’s Sherman Street annex, Purple Door Coffee will soon open its doors to the public. The coffee roaster provides on-the-job training and support to unhoused young people. And the arrival of Purple Door brings an added benefit.

“Finally, no more church basement coffee,” Westfall said.

Interiors inspired by a grand Denver theater

It’s no accident that performing artists feel at home at Central Presbyterian: the interior design was heavily influenced by Denver’s long-vanished Broadway Theater, where artists such as Sarah Bernhardt once performed. According to the Denver Architecture Foundation, the grand old theater — which provided a temporary home to Central Presbyterian’s swelling congregation during the 1880s — inspired such features as “banked curved seating, box seats and side balconies, corner fireplaces, theater-quality acoustics and sightlines.” Even the narthex with its long curving wooden bar suggests a touch of showbiz.

In 2016, Denver Philharmonic made Central Presbyterian even more theatrical when it helped build an expansive stage in the sanctuary. These days, all types of music fill the hall, with 20 different musical groups performing 40 concerts there every year.

“Most churches will have a flat surface for the pews but …. these are banked up so you can see the stage from all of the seats,” said Denver Philharmonic’s executive director, Valerie Clausen. “It’s just the right feel for our audience. We play serious classical music, but we want more of a casual, warm and welcoming feel.”

Other groups that regularly make music at Central Presbyterian include the Denver Women’s Chorus, the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus and the East High School choirs.

During December, there will be many holiday concerts at the church, including Voice Rock Winter Concert on Dec. 11 and the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Merry Little Christmas” concert on Dec. 16 and 17.

It’s a busy time of year, but the pastor is accustomed to hubbub.

“Providing community space is part of Central’s mission,” Westfall said.

Central Presbyterian Church, historic churches, Denver, Capitol Hill Denver

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