SIDE STREETS: Century-old Colorado Springs house remains condemned 40 years later

Staff reports Updated: August 5, 2013 at 2:54 pm • Published: August 3, 2013 | 12:00 am 0

Remember 1973?

Richard Nixon was president of the United States, barely. The U.S. pulled out of Vietnam and stopped bombing Cambodia, ending 12 years of war in Southeast Asia.

That year, Watergate became synonymous with corruption and scandal in Washington D.C. as an attempt to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters, orchestrated from the White House, slowly began to bring down the Nixon administration.

And 1973 was the year a little house on North 24th Street on the west side of Colorado Springs was condemned.

It has been deemed unfit for human habitation ever since.

This house, owned by Joseph O'Brien, 84, even became the rallying cry for a blight ordinance in 2006 that gave city code enforcers limited power to demand dilapidated properties be improved or face possible removal.

To make the case for a blight ordinance, Ken Lewis, the Police Department's code enforcement administrator, pointed to the house at 715 N. 24th St., which has been in the O'Brien family since it was built in 1905. It's one of 10 westside properties owned by O'Brien, who also owned a longtime printing company on 19th Street.

In the past, O'Brien blamed financial trouble and health problems for his failure to repair the house. The last time the family spoke to me in 2007, his wife, Mary, declined to discuss why the house had spent decades on the city's dilapidated building list.

"We're working on it," she said before hanging up. "That's all I can tell you."

The family made it clear they didn't want me calling them again. So I have respected their wishes.

The reason it remains on the list, even after enactment of the blight ordinance, is because the City Council was reluctant to make it too easy to take private property. So it allowed owners to hold onto property as long as they could show progress was being made.

I doubt they ever imagined how slow the pace of progress could be. Which brings us to O'Brien's 54-year-old son, Glenn, who is responsible for renovating the house.

Lewis said Glenn has been slowly making repairs.

"It's getting better one window at a time," Lewis said.

In fact, Glenn gave me a tour of the house in July 2002 for the very first Side Streets column. Before I entered, he chained up two vicous junkyard dogs that were the only tenants of the building.

We picked our way through the interior, which was stuffed with old boards and building materials.

Glenn told me of his grand plans for the house, which he was transforming from a bungalow into a large two-story house with wide decks and amenities. But work was on indefinite hold due to his back injury and financial problems.

"It's probably going to take another year, maybe longer," Glenn O'Brien said in 2002.

I mentioned to him that several neighbors were frustrated with the house. They were tired of looking at the rotting mess. They didn't like hearing construction equipment at odd hours. And they were puzzled by the lurching, stop-and-go pace of construction followed by long stretches of inactivity.

"I don't know why one vacant house would worry the neighbors," O'Brien said. "It's still probably better than 80 percent of the houses in the neighborhood.

"It's just a bunch of nosy damn neighbors."

At the time, he had it jacked up to allow pouring of a concrete basement. Large piles of dirt, overgrown with weeds and small trees, were piled in the yard.

That's about how it still looks although fewer weeds are visible. And clearly O'Brien has made some progress. But it is nowhere near being ready for the Parade of Homes.

"We haven't let the pressure off him and he's moving in the right direction," Lewis said. "But he works in slow motion."

Lewis said he had inspectors from the Regional Building department over there and "they said it's not bad enough to condemn it as a dangerous building."

Lewis has negotiated a work plan with Glenn O'Brien and he has an officer visit every couple weeks to ensure progress is being made. Otherwise, Lewis said he will write a summons to the elderly owner and begin the process of going to court to ask a judge to strip the owners of possession and control of the house.

Actually, all that work pouring a basement a decade ago is preventing significant improvement now, Lewis said. That's because the concrete foundation piers don't align property with the building support beams. It needs to be fixed before a basement floor can be poured, Lewis said. And he said O'Brien doesn't have the money for the work.

"I've suggested to them several times to sell some of the land they own and hire someone to finish this house," Lewis said. "But they won't do it."

The family owns the house next door and lots across the street among property amassed when the family operated O'Brien Typesetting and Printing on 19th Street.

In fact, it was at the junk-strewn print shop property that Glenn was arrested Feb. 18 on charges of felony menacing and felony discharge of a firearm.

According to police reports, O'Brien was arrested after allegedly confronting people he believed were stealing scrap metal from the property and shooting at their vehicle with a shotgun as they fled. A jury trial in the case is scheduled in October, according to prosecution spokeswoman Lee Richards.

As a result, Lewis has ordered O'Brien to clean up the wooded lot.

"We're keeping the pressure on them to slowly work on the house and to clean up the property on 19th Street," Lewis said. "We're working on both properties."

Still, Lewis is not confident the house will be livable any time soon.

"I've tried being mean and being nice," Lewis said. "We're getting some progress even though it's slow."

Then he wondered at the length of time the house has been on the condemned list.

"That year, 1973, is the year I came onto the Police Department," Lewis said. "It should never have been on the list 40 years."

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Read my blog updates at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets

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