Preservation win for a Googie-style building in Denver


Shannon Stage


Historic Denver


Preservation, Regional Spotlight, Colorado
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Rocky Mountain Modern Part Five
Preservation Win for a Googie-style building in Denver

History of the White Spot Restaurant

Tom’s Diner was built in 1967 as part of a Denver-based diner chain known as the White Spot restaurants. The building is closely associated with post-World War II commercial development along Colfax Avenue, which had transitioned from main street to an interstate highway and was a big draw for tourists making their way west to Colorado’s mountains. Located at 601 E. Colfax, the building’s unusual architecture is an expression of the Googie style, an architectural type popular in the mid-1960s. The style originated in Los Angeles, first used at a Hollywood coffee shop called Googies. The term was coined by Douglas Haskell of House and Home magazine when he saw the L.A. coffee shop. The style was associated with car culture and related uses such as motels, coffee houses, gas stations and diners. It played on the interest in the “Space Age” and futurism, displaying features such as cantilevered and tilting roofs, walls, and windows, as well as geometric shapes and acute angles. The style often deployed expanses of glass, metal, plastic panels, and stone veneers.


Colorado native William F. Clements, inspired by Los Angeles’ diner boom, founded the White Spot chain in 1947. The first White Spot restaurant moved into an existing Denver storefront at 22 S. Broadway that year. Over time, Clements created 29 restaurants, using existing buildings or hiring various architects to design new buildings, including Armet and Davis of Los Angeles (considered the preeminent designers of the Googie style).

The firm of Armet and Davis were accomplished designers responsible for many different product types beyond restaurants. The firm’s bread and butter at their peak were churches, facilitating a deep understanding of the experience of space. This approach when applied to restaurants became a symphony of sophisticated architectural ideas used to open up smaller spaces and fashion a community gathering space. They began to receive commissions for countless restaurants including Denny’s and Big Boys, mainly in Los Angeles, and many of their prototype designs for national chains would carry their work across the country, including the White Spot chains in Colorado.  

Armet and Davis created buildings that could be reduced to an iconic roof shape that not only crafted space underneath, but also provided an icon for restaurant recognition. The rest was a combination of art, interiors and landscape architecture, all of which they were responsible for. The thermal envelope reduced to a glassy enclosure, the entire ground plane blurring indoors and out. The dining experience often became that of being in a garden, with a giant roof floating overhead. This roof-as-icon strategy would later be generalized and adopted by others and used on countless restaurant chains, especially fast food restaurants such as McDonalds, Burger King and Pizza Hut, among others. The massive roof designs created the special interior gathering spaces of Armet and Davis diners. This community gathering attribute was among the most significant drivers for those hoping to save Tom’s Diner from demolition, as it had fostered community and a sense of inclusion for generations of young people.

Armet and Davis designed seven White Spot locations in Colorado between 1961 and 1969. At least four were demolished and of the three remaining, Tom’s Diner was the most intact. The building incorporates many Googie elements, including a hexagonal footprint and prominent boomerang-shaped structural trusses that follow the slopes of the roof and project beyond the eaves, as well as the material pallet, including the stone veneer walls.

Seeking a Win-Win Save

Tom’s Diner operated as White Spot until the mid-1980s. A series of restaurants followed in the space, but none achieved long-term success until Tom Messina began serving his food there in 1999, purchasing the building several years later. Messina owned and operated the restaurant until 2019, when he put the building up for sale and applied for a Certificate of Non-Historic Status from the City of Denver, a status which is typically used to clear the way for demolition. Due to the building’s eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places, the city of Denver provided community notice of the Certificate of Non-Historic Status, which sparked a community effort to find a preservation-solution.

Members of “Team Tom’s” – the community group formed to save the diner -- contacted Historic Denver, a local preservation non-profit and advocate for historic places, and discussions among the parties ensued as debate in the community intensified. As required in Denver’s demolition review process, community members submitted a landmark application to extend the consideration period, which provided a short window of time to seek a win-win outcome in advance of any final decision regarding designation or demolition. Historic Denver was ultimately able to connect Messina with the GBX Group, a preservation-minded developer, and the community members withdrew the designation application in the hopes that a more collaborative path to preservation had opened.

The Future of Tom’s Diner

Six months after the debate began, GBX Group announced that the former White Spot had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and would be saved from demolition and reinvented through a partnership between GBX Group and the long-time owner. The National Register listing made the building eligible for preservation incentive programs, including state and federal rehabilitation tax credits and conservation easement programs, which will support the building’s reopening in 2021.

The design plans will be reviewed and approved by the Colorado Historical Foundation, which now holds a protective easement on the structure, and by the State Historic Preservation Office and History Colorado as part of the tax credit program. GBX Group and Messina are working with KEPHART Architects creating the design. Josh Robinson, President of the newly formed Docomomo US/Colorado chapter is the lead project designer with KEPHART. Robinson will be utilizing Armet and Davis’s approach to design as a vehicle for adaptive reuse, respecting the original elements of the building while simultaneously bringing it into the 21st century. KEPHARTand team will provide a new experience for Denver, while providing an honest link to its past. The architect and owners are working on the design now and look forward to providing a deeper dive into the plans and new use for the building later this year.



Simmons, R. Laurie and Thomas H. Simmons. “White Spot Restaurant National Register Nomination 5DV.10388.” May 22, 2009. On file at State Historic Preservation Office, History Colorado.

Stage, S.S., (2019, Summer). “Seeking a Save for Tom’s Diner.” Historic Denver News, Volume 48 (No. 3), p. 2.

About the Author

Shannon Stage studied Historic Preservation at Savannah College of Art and Design, receiving an MFA in Historic Preservation and MFA in Photography, during which she completed her Thesis project, The Modern Story of Drayton Tower, documenting the unique International building in Savannah, GA. She is the Preservation Coordinator at Historic Denver, assisting their advocacy mission, managing community Action Fund projects including creation of Historic Districts, Design Overlays, as well as securing History Colorado State Historical Fund grants for historic properties in Denver along with managing those grant preservation projects. Historic Denver is the city’s leading community-driven voice for historic places, seeking to safeguard the soul of the city through education and engagement.


Josh Robinson is the lead designer at KEPHART Architects working on the rehabilitation of this Armet and Davis building. Josh is the President of the newly formed Colorado chapter of Docomomo US. He contributed to this article and looks forward to sharing more of the project later this year.

Rocky Mountain Modern is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series, which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country without leaving your home. Previous spotlights include Chicago, MississippiMidland, MichiganHouston and Las Vegas. Have a region you'd like to see highlighted? Submit an article.

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Rocky Mountain Modern Part Six
The Denver Art Museum: Gio Ponti's [American] “Dream come True”