Old school

One of Boulder’s oldest buildings turns 150

The current owners of the property at 1902 Walnut St. are “reevaluating” its future. Credit: Will Matuska

It took me a while to notice the building that sits quietly on 19th and Walnut. 

I walked, biked and jogged past it countless times before the brick Italianate structure with a two-tiered front porch and red door caught my attention. Or maybe it was the contrasting plyboard over the windows, padlocked front door or paint chipping from window sills. 

It’s a place that feels like it holds secrets — a history. 

Boulderite Kate Hise knew the space when it wasn’t as quiet.

“I think about it with its teal-painted porch, with the quirkiness of the whole thing, all of us sitting out on the flagstone out in front and knowing that it was such a calm, safe, beautiful space for us,” says Hise, who was a high school student at the September School, a private school that once owned the building. “To see it boarded up and in disrepair is hard.”

The building, which is about to turn 150 years old, is estimated to be the 12th-oldest remaining in Boulder, according to a landmark presentation in 2022. It has hosted notable Boulderites over the years and is a designated historic landmark by the City of Boulder. But its disheveled look is the cost of being left unoccupied for the last seven years — and there currently aren’t any plans for that to change. 

September School is also in the midst of an anniversary: its 50th. It was founded in 1973 and owned the property at 1902 Walnut from 1977 to 2016. Hise says going to school there in the early ’90s was a unique experience. 

“You felt like you were walking into a house that you had known forever,” she remembers. 

Old plastered walls splashed with vibrant colors were interrupted by creaky wood floors. There was a wide staircase leading up to the second level, which had four or five classrooms. Balconies off those rooms gave students space to admire the courtyard’s gardens and lawn sprinkled with mature trees. 

September School in 1987. Credit: Boulder Daily Camera

Some classrooms had couches and chairs. Some were tidy and minimalist. Others held artifacts from travels or hung student art and poetry. Each unique space embodied the spirit of September School’s non-traditional take on education that highlighted relationship-based learning, small classrooms and Socratic teaching styles

“It was like an amalgamation of everybody’s personality in one building,” says Hise, who is now the school’s executive director. Even though September School sold the building in 2016 and moved to new locations at 96 Arapahoe and 525 Canyon, Hise says the two entities are intimately connected. 

“The experiences we had in that 1902 building became part of the fabric of that building,” says Hise. “I think every person who has been there, every teacher, every student, is embedded in that space. We all left our imprint and vice versa.”

The past

Notable and wealthy Boulderites have owned the property. Records show the earliest portion was finished by February of 1874 for A.R. Stewart, who operated a grocery store on Pearl Street, served as the Boulder County Treasurer and was involved in the mining industry. 

In the early days of Boulder, which was founded in 1871, many of the new town’s prominent citizens lived in the Whittier neighborhood. One article from Boulder County News about the building read, “The walls will be laid of the finest brick, and the establishment is altogether, one of the choicest in location, and most thorough in construction.”

The pattern of wealth continued with the following property owner, Eben Smith, who was called the “dean of mining in Colorado” by The Denver Post and Denver Times. He died with an estate of over $1 million in 1908 between Colorado and California, worth an estimated $33.3 million today

Harriet E. Foote owned the property from 1899 to 1921. Foote’s mother, Mary E. Miller, who was known as a “strict Prohibitionist,” helped establish Lafayette as a coal mining town in 1888 and named it after her late husband, DeLafayette Miller. 

After being converted to an apartment building (the Donaven Apartments) by 1946 and then to the September School in the late 1970s, it was purchased by September Schools 1, LLC in 2016. The company is not affiliated with the school and is partially owned by Michael Bosma. 

The structure was designated as a historic landmark by the Boulder City Council on Jan. 4, 2022, because of its historical and architectural significance. In addition to preserving and protecting the building, the designation also means certain changes to the structure require a Landmark Alteration Certificate.

The City did not respond to multiple interview requests.  

The future

Not much has happened with the building since the September School left its halls. 

Boulder’s Planning Board in July 2021 approved redeveloping the property to a 52-bed group home for a residential drug rehabilitation facility, but the process fell through after the operating partner backed out. High construction costs and general market conditions also played a role, according to Bosma. He says the company’s ownership is now “reevaluating” the future of the property.

“It’s taken longer than we anticipated to get this property redeveloped, but we’re exploring all avenues and we want to move forward with the restoration of this building,” he says. “Our ultimate goal is to create a project that restores that building.”

A classroom scene in 1983 with teacher Paul Weidig (left). Credit: Boulder Daily Camera

The School and the building are connected in more ways than one — including their futures. 

Hise says the pandemic hit September School hard. Decreased enrollment is making budgets tighter. She says they lost the community visibility after moving from 1902 Walnut because people associated the school with the building — some even thought the school closed down when they moved locations. 

When an alumnus asked if she was interested in leading the school, Hise didn’t hesitate. She still sees herself in the cohort of students that might not fit the norm: artists, singers or maybe “a little quirky.” 

“Years change, and our trends, our ways that we learn, all of these things change on the outside,” she says. “The essence of September School still is, and I see myself in them and I know they see themselves in me.”

The building, like September School, is still full of life. It just needs time for its next iteration. 


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