Moorish, Classical, and Modern: A Tour of Denver Houses of Worship

[Was Denver Sacred Sites Tour]

David R. Bains, Samford University
Daniel Sack, Washington, D.C.

American Academy of Religion, Annual Meeting
November 21, 2022, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.


Gold prospectors founded Denver in 1858. It quickly became a commercial center. In 1867 it was named the capital of the territory of Colorado and three years later was linked by rail to the rest of the nation. This secured its place as a prosperous city that attracted people from across the United States and the world. Its population grew from 36,000 in 1880 to 134,000 in 1900.

Denver’s religious landscape soon included many handsome houses of worship in popular medieval-revival styles. Surviving examples include: Sacred Heart Catholic Church (1880, 2760 Larimer St.); Temple Emanuel (1882), now residences (24 Curtis St.); Trinity United Methodist Church (1888, 1820 Broadway); St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (1889), now The Church nightclub (1160 Lincoln St.); Christ Methodist Episcopal Church (1889), now the Sanctuary Lofts (999 E 22nd Ave.); and Central Presbyterian Church (1892, 1660 Sherman St.). The financial panic of 1893 and its depression of the silver industry brought to an end to this first phase of religious building.

Construction resumed about a decade later, but the tendency was toward more academically “correct” versions of revival styles. The dominant movement in urban planning and architecture at the beginning of the twentieth century was the City Beautiful Movement. In Denver it was championed by mayor Robert Speer. This movement favored neoclassical styles for public buildings and emphasized the importance of urban planning and parks, particularly parks that would set off public buildings. Denver’s Civic Center is excellent example of the movement’s work.

The government did not integrate religious buildings into the Civic Center, but many located themselves near the Colorado State Capitol (opened 1894). Major surviving buildings in the Capitol Hill neighborhood include Temple Emanuel’s second building (1899), now Denver Community Church (1595 Pearl Street); First Church of Christ, Scientist, (1901–06, 1415 Logan Street); the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (1902–11); and the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John in the Wilderness (1909–11). On our previous AAR Denver we began with the two cathedrals. This time we will begin with Denver Community Church (the former synagogue) before journeying west and south to another former synagogue Church in the City and Central Christian Church. On our return to the convention center we will drive by two Lutheran churches now used for other purposes.

Anticipated Schedule

1:10 PMDepart Colorado Convention Center via bus
1:20 PMArrive Denver Community Church
Tour Denver Community Church
2:10 PMDepart Denver Community Church
2:20 PMArrive Church in the City
Tour Church in the City
3:10 PMDepart Church in the City
3:25 PMArrive Central Christian Church
Tour Central Christian Church
4:15 PMDepart Central Christian Church
4:30 PMDrive past International Church of Cannabis
4:45 PMDrive past Four Winds American Indian Council
5:00 PMArrive Colorado Convention Center

Map of tour sites

Denver Community Church

1595 Pearl Streett

Designed by Denver architect John J. Humphreys, this was the third home of Temple Emmanuel, Colorado’s first Jewish congregation founded in 1874. Part of the Reform movement in American Judaism, the congregation relocated here in 1898 after a fire destroyed its 1882 building at 24 Curtis Street. The building was expanded in 1924, giving its interior a unique double-barrel vault interior. The congregation relocated in 1953 about four miles away to Grape Street in Denver’s Hilltop neighborhood, about 4 miles away.

Since Temple Emanuel departed, the building has served a series of Christian congregations: First Southern Baptist Church (beginning in 1957), LovingWay Pentecostal Church (beginning in 1977), PathWays Church (2005-2013), and Denver Community Church (2013-present). The City of Denver purchased the building in 1986 when it was under forclosure and the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

Like many synagogues erected in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the building uses architectural features from the Islamic world to evoke Judaism’s middle eastern and Mediterranean origins. This distinguished synagogues from Christian churches of the time which typically employed Romanesque or Gothic features, while providing an equally monumental and evocative building. Minarets and Moorish arches became signs of Jewish presence when supplemented by the Star of David and Hebrew letters in stained glass. Many more of these Eastern-Moorish buildings were erected than survive today. Other examples include the Plum Street Synagogue or Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Central Synagogue in New York City. After its 1922 expansion, the synagogue’s interior took a distinctive form with the bema (or platform) placed between two parallel arched spaces.

William S. Friedman, the rabbi of Temple Emanuel at the time the congregation was built, was one of the founders of the United Way which began as the Charity Organization Society in 1887 to coordinate the efforts of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish chairities.

Denver Community Church (DCC) was formed in 2001. The congregation currently holds one weekly worship service on Sundays at 10 a.m. Its worship team describes its mission as creating “not another source of input to be consumed, but an invitation into a posture of humility and rest.” The congregation’s lead pastor is Michael Hidalgo. It defines its identity as “a courageous community of lifelong learners rooted in God’s love for us” that finds “joy in discovering the depths of God’s heart alongside others.” Perhaps best described as a “post-evangelical” congregation, in January 2017, the congregation moved to full inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals.

DCC operated as a multi-site congregation until 2022 when it sold its 18,155-square-foot location at 1101 S. Washington St to Restoration Church. In November 2022 it purchased a former basketball practice facility at 333 & 375 S. Zuni Street.

Church in the City – Beth Abraham

1580 Gaylord Street

Church in the City–Beth Abraham from RMCTN  –  Blog, July 17, 2019.

By the 1910s, both Jewish and Protestant congregations were erecting buildings in the Classical Revival style made popular by the “White City” at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The cornerstone for the building that now serves Church in the City — Beth Abraham was laid by the Orthodox congregation Beth HaMedrosh Hagodol in 1916.

Beth HaMedrosh Hagodol Congregation (“Great House of Study”) was establsihed in 1892 above co-founder Henry Plonsky’s shoe and boot store on Larimer Street in Denver, Colorado. It was officially incorporated in 1897 and grew to become Denver’s largest modern Orthodox Jewish congregation. The brick neo-classical Gaylord Street building was erected under the leadership of the congregation’s first rabbi, Charles Eliezar Hillel Kauvar. In 1969, the congregation relocated to its present location which is about a five-mile drive to the southwest at 560 S. Monaco Parkway. As a result of a 1996 (2007) merger it is now known as Beth HaMedrosh Hagodol-Beth Joseph (BMH-BJ).

The community has had both Orthodox and Conservative affiliations. In was a founding member, in 1913, of the United Synagogue of America (sine 1991 known as the United Synagogue of Conservatives Judaism), but it left this organization in 1955 and hired an Orthodox rabbi in 1956. In 1972 it formally joined the Orthodox Union, but left the union in 2015. It now describes itself as an “independent orthodox congregation.”

The Church in the City–Beth Abraham describes itself as beginning as a small group outreach to the poor in the city in the 1980s. It was formally organized as Church In The City in 1991 and has been led throughout its history by senior pastors Michael and Brenda Walker. “Racially and economically diverse” it professes a “a passion to reflect Christ to our community and throughout the world.”

The Church in the City moved into the former BMH building in 2008 and began to include both a Messianic Jewish expression of worship on Saturday morning and a contemporary Christian service on Sundays. it was named Beth Abraham after the Orthodox synagogue in New York City of which Michael Walker’s grandfather was rabbi. The congregation describes itself as a “dual expression” congregation and as a “one new man church.” The later phrase taken from Ephesians 2:15b “that [Christ] might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (ESV). The building had fallen into disrepair in the decades after BHM’s departure and has been restored by the Church in the City–Beth Abraham. New stained glass windows patterned after the original, damaged, windows were installed.

Screenshot from Beth Abraham Shabbat Service, October 29, 2022.

The congregation practices immersion baptism, affirms the “present ministry of the Holy Spirit and in the exercise of all biblical gifts of the Spirit,” and teaches that the “Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, fully inspired, without error in the original manuscripts.”

Photo of Sunday morning service posted to Yelp by Justin W. September 30, 2015.

Central Christian Church

3690 Cherry Creek S Drive

Founded in 1873, one year before Temple Emanuel, Central Christian Church is the oldest congregation on this tour. Opened in 1973, its building is the newest. The congregation is part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the most progressive of the denominations stemming from the Restoration Movement started by Barton Warren Stone and Alexander Campbell in the early nineteenth-century Ohio Valley. Disciples practice baptism by immersion (but recognize baptism by other means), celebrate the Lord’s supper weekly, affirm the ministerial responsibilities of the laity, and have ordained women since as early as 1810.

The congregation occupied three sites downtown before moving. From 1902 to 1969 it was located at 16th Street and Lincoln, just two blocks east of the Sheraton Denver and five blocks west of Denver Community Church. A domed classical revival structure served the congregation until 1952 when a new building with Gothic features was begun.

In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was very strong in Denver. The governor and both U.S. Senators were members. While the Klan in Colorado targeted Roman Catholics with most of its ire, Central’s pastor James E. Davis, was also among its targets. In 1926, the congregation upheld the right of its board to expel members who rejected the pastor’s leadership (Harris 2013, 33). The congregation continued to grow, numbering some 4,000 individuals around 1950.

Central Christian began worshiping in a chapel on its present site in 1971. Its current hexagonal sanctuary takes advantage of modern construction methods to create a very tall welcoming space. Donald Helseth, the pastor at the time described it as achieving the ideal space for Disciples worship bringing “the minster and congregation together with the communion table at the center” (Harris 2013, 56-57). While the exterior evokes the architectural brutalism popular at the time, the interior is richly lined with oak.

The bell tower outside the church was dedicated on June 22, 1986. The current pastor, Rev. Canaan Harris, assumed his duties in 2012.

International Church of Cannabis

400 S Logan St. (Erected as Barnitz Memorial Lutheran Church)

International Church of Cannabis, January 2018, Jeffrey Beall [CC BY 4.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons

Erected as Barnitz Memorial Lutheran Church in 1904, this building later served a Mount Calvary Apostolic Church before being reopened in 2017 as the International Church of Cannabis with an interior painted by Spanish muralist Okuda San Miguel. Bright geometric patterns and mythological creatures provide an environment for church members, known as Elevationists, to partake of cannabis in order to become “a better version” of themselves. The exterior of the church features a graffiti mural by Los Angeles-based artist Kenny Scharf. This site is not included on this tour but may be seen at

The church currently offers the BEYOND light show every twenty minutes on Fridays through Mondays from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. and on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Each show starts promptly at 20 minutes past the hour.

Ceiling and rear wall, Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Four Winds American Indian Council

201 W 5th Avenue (erected as Bethany Lutheran Church)

A group of unhoused Native Americans outside of the Four Winds American Indian Council are preparing for a sweep of their camp on August 31, 2021. Rocky Mountain PBS

The area now known as central Colorado was originally the territories of the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Ute nations. The land had been designated for the Arapahoe in Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851), but gold was discovered in 1858. The treaty was broken in 1861 and the Arapahoe were forced off their land to territory in southwestern Colorado. Many were killed in the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864.

European settlers came to Colorado, seeking gold and land. As Terra Brockman explained in a March 2020 article in The Christian Century, a community of Danish Lutherans arrived a decade after the massacre; they established Bethany Lutheran Church in Denver in 1879, erecting the current building in 1918.

Urbanization and the attraction of new suburbs led the congregation’s members to leave the area in the post-World War II era and Bethany Lutheran closed its doors in 1973 leaving it in the possession of the American Lutheran Church. In 1986, George Tinker an Osage Nation elder, professor at Iliff School of Theology, and Lutheran pastor led the denomination to allow the Four Winds American Indian Council to use the building as a community center and sacred space. He led the native community in reviving its embrace of Native spirituality

As the neighborhood gentrified, the Rocky Mountain Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (formed by the Lutheran denominational union of 1988) began to receive lucrative offers for the church by developers. But the synod opted to maintain its relationship with the council and offered to transfer ownership of the building to the Native community. The Council was ambivalent about owning land, an alien concept for the Native community, but in 2014 it created a non-profit organization to receive the land and building from the synod. The transfer was completed in 2015.

The former Lutheran church is now a center for spiritual practice, community, and organizing. It is the site of funerals, celebrations, and other rituals. At this “liberated” property, the council aims to turn the church’s work of conversion and assimilation to liberation and self-determination, where Native people can speak their languages and participate in their ceremonies. Tinker writes, “To give the land back to the Four Winds American Indian Council . . . it was a stunning thing. And that becomes a role model to the rest of the euro-colonial world, the colonizer world. What churches in the United States are not on Indian land? What universities are not on Indian land? What homes are not on Indian land?” (Brockman 2020, 24).


Brockman, Tessa. 2022. “Decolonized Sacred Land: How a Church Became the Home of an American Indian Organization.” Christian Century, March 11, 22-25.

“Denver Community Church Acquires Former Basketball Practice Facility.” Mile High CRE. November 9.

“Denver Community Church Seeks New Location.” 2022. Mile High CRE. January 25.

Harris, Canaan. 2013. A Brief History of Central Congregational Church, Denver Colorado. N.p.: Epangelia.

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