February 17, 2017

Historic Denver Church Honored For LGBT Advocacy

First Unitarian church exterior

photo by: First Unitarian Society of Denver

First Unitarian's building was constructed in the 1890s.

When the Colorado Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2014, there was little question about where Eddy Carroll and Glenn Barrows would officially tie the knot.

Longtime members of the First Unitarian Society of Denver, the couple had waited and waited for the state’s ban on same-sex marriage to be overturned. Barrows, a fourth-generation Denverite, was insistent that they have a Colorado marriage license.

“When we met 29 years ago, he told me, ‘If this turns into anything, you’re going to have to move to Northwest Denver.’ He was neighborhood specific,” Carroll said. “So when we were committed to doing it in Colorado, there was never any doubt that we would have the ceremony at the [First Unitarian] building.”

Carroll and Barrows are two of about 400 members, and their pride in the church—derived from First Unitarian’s long history of fighting for social justice causes—is hardly unique. It isn’t even confined to the church’s congregation; in August, the City of Denver named the church building a historic landmark, making it the first Denver site to be awarded the status for its importance to the gay rights movement.

The city council determined that the church had significance in all three of the Landmarks Commission’s criteria: history, architecture, and geography. Originally constructed in the 1890s, the Romanesque Revival building first housed the Plymouth Congregational Church before being sold to First Unitarian in 1958.

The building is a Denver gem—its original, locally quarried Rhyolite stone a marker for the Capitol Hill and Cheesman Park neighborhoods. But First Unitarian is even more proud of its history as a hub for community activism.

Founded in 1871, the church has played a role in every progressive struggle from the fight for women’s suffrage to the Black Lives Matter movement. The Denver chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality—one of the leading civil rights groups in the 1960s—started in First Unitarian’s basement, and congregants went undercover to expose local redlining. They’ve also been on the forefront of the gay rights movement since the 1950s.

The church first pursued landmark status as a way to help with a major renovation project. The historic building’s facade is deteriorating in places, and the interior needs to be overhauled. The National Trust contributed to their ongoing fundraising drive with a $10,000 grant from the Peter Grant Fund for Colorado.

First Unitarian Peace Garden

photo by: Erica Minton/Flickr/CC BY-NC-2.0

The church has a peace garden outside.

But despite the large and growing congregation, its members are committed to remaining in the urban community where it’s been for generations.

The Landmarks Commission application process quickly became an education in the church’s past for some members.

“We were initially like, ‘Wow, this would be a great way to get some funds,” said Susan Bridges Robertson, a nine-year member of the church. “Over time the whole thing started to take on a life of its own. And it created a sense of pride that helped us to have ownership of the fact that we really do have a phenomenal history of social justice work that we should be very proud of and that deserves to be recognized in and of itself.”

Girl hits pinata at First Unitarian

photo by: First Unitarian Society of Denver

A young girl plays in front of the First Unitarian Society of Denver.

None of the congregation’s work engenders more pride than its involvement in the gay rights movement. Shortly after the church bought the Plymouth Congregational building, the Mattachine Society—one of the nation’s first gay advocacy groups—moved into one of the adjacent houses owned by First Unitarian. In the 1970s, the Gay and Lesbian Center (now called The Center) got its start in the church’s basement.

And as far back as 1975, when a defiant Boulder county clerk briefly issued same-sex marriage licenses because nothing in the law specifically forbade it, First Unitarian was the site of Richard Adams and Tony Sullivan’s wedding.

“As a gay man it meant so much to me that one of the reasons that so many people voted yes for the [historic landmark] designation, and with such excitement, was that long history of commitment to equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people,” Carroll said. “It just meant the world to me. And to celebrate that and talk about it in such a public setting was personally so enriching and so joyful.”

But the church hasn’t stopped in its push for social justice causes. The congregation is still working on environmental and mental health issues, providing shelter for some of the local homeless population, and working with Denver’s Black Lives Matter chapter, among other efforts.

And just this week, Jeanette Vizguera, a mother of four in the country illegally and facing deportation, declared sanctuary in First Unitarian.

“We have a set of principles that we promote. And the very first principle is that we promote the inherent dignity of each and every individual,” Carroll said. “So our faith calls us to reach out to the marginalized and to stand up for those who don’t have a voice.”

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

Jared Foretek enjoys historic train stations, old bars, and interesting public spaces, he was an editorial intern at the National Trust.

We believe all Americans deserve to see their history in the places that surround us. As a nation, we have work to do to fill in the gaps of our cultural heritage.

Let's Get to Work