Amid the high-rises and parking lots of downtown Denver, Trinity United Methodist Church (1820 Broadway) is one of the few surviving churches. Since 1888 it has played a major role in the city’s religious, political, civic, cultural, and architectural history. The finest design of Colorado’s first licensed architect, Robert S. Roeschlaub, Trinity was the largest church and tallest building in town when it opened. Sited on a prominent downtown corner, this exquisitely designed and particularly well-preserved church of Denver’s oldest religious congregation has superb acoustics and a large auditorium, making it a favorite site for public lectures, musical performances, theater, and other gatherings.
Trinity traces its roots to 1859, when two circuit-riding Methodist missionaries, Jacob Adriance and William H. Goode, founded Denver’s first religious organization, the Auraria and Denver City Methodist Episcopal Mission, on August 2. Thanks to Adriance, who had a fine singing voice, and prominent members such as Territorial Governor John Evans and Reverend John L. Dyer, the Methodists were not only the first but also one of the largest congregations in Colorado Territory. The congregation first met in homes and in saloon halls, such as the Criterion Saloon, until finding a regular meeting place in the cabin of Henry C. Brown (later of Brown Palace Hotel fame) at the northeast corner of Larimer Street and Cherry Creek. In November 1859, they organized Colorado’s first Sunday School with considerable help from Clara Brown, a former slave who did much good work for the Methodist Church in Denver and Central City.
The Methodists soon moved into the first Denver building for church services at the southeast corner of Fourteenth and Lawrence Streets. The imposing Lawrence Street Methodist Church opened in 1864. This $23,000 brick church had a distinctive three-story entry tower, making it the tallest building in town. That church and all subsequent Methodist houses of worship benefited from Denver’s Iliff School of Theology, which traces its roots to 1864. Initially a Methodist seminary partnered with the University of Denver, it has grown to accept anyone wanting religious education. The Lawrence Street structure served Denver Methodists until the 1888 construction of today’s Trinity United Methodist Church.
Henry Augustus Buchtel accepted the pastorate of the Lawrence Street Church in 1886. A charismatic minister leading the church during boom times, he helped raised $30,000 to hire an architect to design a new church at the corner of Broadway and Eighteenth Avenue. Robert S. Roeschlaub, assisted by Frederick Albert Hale, received the commission for what proved to be the masterpiece of his many fine designs, which include the Central City Opera House, Emerson School, Wyman School, Corona School, and University Hall and Chamberlin Observatory at the University of Denver.
Trinity was Roeschlaub’s greatest and most complex work. The cornerstone was laid on September 5, 1887, and the building finished on December 20, 1888. The towering steeple—more than 181 feet tall, topped by a bronze cross—made Trinity easy to find. Roeschlaub could build the spire and bell tower that high by using lightweight rhyolite (lava rock) from a Castle Rock quarry. The rhyolite’s gray, pink, and purple hues and rough texture further distinguish the building. The steeple features three horizontal contrasting stripes made from tooled purple Utah sandstone, which was also used for trim elsewhere in the building. This allusion to the Trinity is repeated in the triple-arched entry on Broadway and in Gothic windows arranged in sets of three throughout the building.
When built, Trinity was the largest church in Denver and was often used for public talks, lectures, concerts, theater, and other functions. The church’s 1,300-seat sanctuary is on the second floor at the east end of the cruciform floor plan. The elaborate bronze and oak pulpit was donated by the church’s most famous pastor, Henry Buchtel, who also served as chancellor of the University of Denver and governor of Colorado (1907–9).
The sanctuary resembles an opera house, with balconies on three sides and a forty-three-foot ceiling. A large proscenium arch frames a 4,202-pipe Roosevelt organ with pipes ranging from thirty-two feet to three-eighths of an inch in height. Designed by G. A. Audsley of London, it was built by New York City’s Hilborne Roosevelt, a cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt. It is one of only twelve-known Roosevelt pipe organs in the country and is now the largest functional American-built organ from the 1800s. With the organ as the centerpiece, Trinity has always had music central to its services. Featuring several different choirs and a brass ensemble, Trinity’s music program has been directed by nationally famous conductors Paul Whiteman and Antonia Brico.
Most of the church’s stained-glass windows are by Healy and Millet of Chicago, fabricators for famed architect Louis Sullivan. The most notable is the triple Tiffany “Resurrection” window on the west wall. Large rose windows adorn the north and south walls, each with twelve spokes commemorating the twelve apostles and the twelve tribes of Israel. Denver’s Watkins Stained Glass Company, headed by eighth-generation stained-glass expert Philip Watkins, has played a key role in replacing, repairing, and maintaining Trinity’s stained-glass artwork over the years.
A 1926 three-story addition on the north side of the church contains offices and classrooms. It is sheathed in rhyolite to match the rest of the church walls. In 2006 an electronic bell system replaced the original 1888 bells, whose parts had grown increasingly challenging to find.
Tough Times and Salvation
Despite its splendor, Trinity suffered after World War II. In 1970 the church was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but membership that decade fell to its lowest number in thirty years. Like much of downtown, the church looked hopeless, a casualty of urban blight and suburban flight. The building was in desperate need of repair and leaked through the roof, while the congregation faced financial challenges and disunity. Some wanted to sell the church for its very valuable site. The church was on the verge of closing.
To the rescue came Reverend James Barnes, who had given the Littleton United Methodist Church the largest attendance in the metro area with his dynamic preaching and ability to bring in new members and restore financial health. Starting in 1980, Barnes amazed his flock by speaking without notes and applying scripture to modern times. From the moment he arrived, the church turned around. By 1988, Trinity’s centennial, membership had climbed to more than 2,000.
Meanwhile, financial problems ended in 1982, when Trinity sold its air rights to a Toronto developer. The church got millions of dollars for an endowment as well as a major restoration and underground expansion by architects Seracuse Lawler & Partners, which included new subterranean offices, education areas, and parking. After the Colorado oil bust and financial crash of 1982, the developer never used the additional allowable height that the church transferred.
In 2002, after its remarkable turnaround, the church undertook a $2.5 million restoration of its badly deteriorating building. Crumbling stone endangered pedestrians at a very busy corner. Everything from the foundation to a leaky asbestos roof, from the organ to the bronze cross (which had two bullet holes) needed major repairs. Nearly 3,500 cubic feet of cut stone replaced unrepairable rhyolite and sandstone. The project won the 2006 Governor’s Award for Colorado’s best restoration.
Trinity has long helped the down and out. During the late 1800s, when the Chinese were the most persecuted people in town, the church opened a Chinese Sunday School. More recently, Trinity’s United Methodist Women have supported missions at home and abroad, notably in Latin America and Africa. Locally, the church partners with Habitat for Humanity to build housing for the poor, and its Turnabout Inc. construction-training program helps the unemployed, ex-offenders, and homeless learn job skills. Since 2003 Trinity has offered a free nutritious lunch at 11 am on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays in its Fellowship Hall.