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Of Homes And History

Before Pearl Harbor, Ensign Thomas McClelland Owned The Fairfax Street House Now Slated For Demolition

By Bernadette Kelly, Zoning Chair, GPHC, Inc.

Navy Ensign Thomas A. McClelland died at Pearl Harbor.

Dec. 7, 2016 marked the 75th Anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Until the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, it was considered the worst attack on US soil. Twenty naval vessels and 300 airplanes were destroyed by the Japanese; 2,000 American soldiers and sailors died and 1,000 others were wounded.

In Pearl Harbor, on that day 75 years ago, we lost a Park Hill neighbor and significant member of the Denver community: Thomas Alfred McClelland.

McClelland, known to his family members as Tom, was born March 13, 1905 in Kansas City, Missouri. He grew up as the only son and oldest sibling with four younger sisters. After attending college in Kansas City, Tom enlisted in the navy as an apprentice seaman in September, 1924. He was honorably discharged four years later.

Navy Ensign Thomas A. McClelland’s old home, at 2858 Fairfax St., is slated for demolition.

In 1929 he married Lovelmae Leffel. The couple moved from Kansas City to Denver. He was the chief engineer of KLZ Radio in Denver in the mid to late 1930’s, and was the first to do a live coverage of a forest fire, in Rocky Mountain National Park. In 1937, the McClelland’s bought their home in Park Hill at 2858 Fairfax St. The one story, L-shaped home, was designed in an English Cottage style and had been recently constructed.

The following year, knowing that there was going to be a war, the navy offered to send McClelland to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. There, he completed his studies in communications in April 1941. He was assigned to the USS West Virginia, stationed in Bremerton, Washington before it was moved to Pearl Harbor that year.

Two bombs, six torpedoes

The events of what happened on Dec. 7, 1941, are described in detail on the website usswestvirginia.org, and originally published in 1959 in the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, United States Naval History and James L. Mooney.

“Shortly before 0800, Japanese planes, flying from a six-carrier task force, commenced their well-planned attack on the Fleet at Pearl Harbor. West Virginia took [six] 18-inch aircraft torpedoes in her port side and two bomb hits, those bombs being 15-inch armor-piercing shells fitted with fins. The first bomb penetrated the superstructure deck, wrecking the port casemates and causing that deck to collapse to the level of the galley deck below. Four casemates and the galley caught fire immediately, with the subsequent detonation of the ready-service projectiles stowed in the casemates.

“The second bomb hit further aft, wrecking one Vought OS2U Kingfisher floatplane atop the ‘high’ catapult on Turret III and pitching the second one on her top on the main deck below. The projectile penetrated the 4-inch turret roof, wrecking one gun in the turret itself. Although the bomb proved a dud, burning gasoline from the damaged aircraft caused some damage.”

According to the account, six torpedoes also struck the USS West Virginia. Records show that much later, workers “located 70 bodies of USS West Virginia sailors who had been trapped below when the ship sank. In one compartment, a calendar was found, the last scratch-off date being December 23” – which was more than two weeks after the bombing. Among the men who perished in the attack was Thomas Alfred McClelland.

Keeping his memory alive

After McClelland’s death in Pearl Harbor, his widow, Lovelmae, continued to live in the home on Fairfax Street until selling it in 1946.

Now, their former home has been run down for many years. It, along with all of the structures along the east side of the block of Fairfax Street between 28th and 29th avenues, was purchased last year by the developer HM Capital. The developer plans to demolish all the structures and build a two-story multi-use complex called Park Hill Commons (details about the project were reported in the Greater Park Hill News in November and in February).

On April 24, a notice of application for demolition was forwarded to Greater Park Hill Community, Inc. Along with this notice was the information that Denver Landmark staff had found the home to have potential for historic designation.

The criteria for historic designation are more than big beautiful old homes designed by famous architects. Such historic importance can also include the fact that a former resident made significant contributions to society and the surrounding community – such as McClelland with his time at KLZ Radio and by sacrificing his life in WWII in the service of the U.S. Navy. McClelland is also noted as the first casualty of WWII of the broadcast community.

It is unreasonable to consider that the developer would preserve the home and incorporate it into the design after much money and time have been spent on plans for all new construction. Without owner consent, landmark designation is termed “hostile” – and of three hostile designations recently brought before Denver City Council, none have been approved.

The McClellands’ former home is in the very spot where the developer is planning to install a public park. What the developer has in mind is a land swap with the City of Denver. Currently, Denver Parks and Recreation owns the former Xcel substation across the street from the planned development, on the west side of the block. The substation property was sold to the City and County of Denver by Public Service Company in December, 2015 for $50,000. Shortly thereafter, Scott Gilmore, the assistant director of the city’s Parks and Recreation department, informed GPHC that it was designated as parkland.

HM Capital is now proposing building a public park, with the same area as the Xcel substation, across the street instead, within its planned development. The Xcel sub-station would be converted to surface parking in the short term.

Rather than throw a wrench in the works, I have approached Ben Maxwell, the principle at HM Capital, with the idea of naming that park in honor of Thomas McClelland. I also requested that the park include a memorial to McClelland and others who perished at Pearl Harbor.

Maxwell responded that a donor for the park, who has contributed $750,000, has another name in mind. Therefore, at this time, the public park will not be named after McClelland, though Maxwell has expressed he is “more than willing to do some sort of memorial plaque and area in the park at minimum at our expense.”

“If the family wants something more, we are open to it, but would have to be at their expense,” he wrote.

If you are interested in supporting the public park naming/memorial for Thomas McClelland, please contact the GPHC office at 303-388-0918 or director@greaterparkhill.org.

Sidebar: The Family Tree

When digging in on this story about Thomas McClelland and his ties to Park Hill, I unearthed some fascinating tidbits about his widow, Lovelmae Leffel, surviving family members – and some interesting characters from the past.

At 46 inches tall, Col. Joe Leffel was known as the “World’s Smallest Mayor.” Photo courtesy the family of Lovelmae McClelland.

Leffel was born July 26, 1903 in Illinois. She had two younger sisters and one older brother. Sometime in the early 1950s, many years after McClelland perished at Pearl Harbor, Leffel remarried Armin George Barteldes of the Barteldes Seed Company family. The company was started in 1875 by Armin’s father, Frederick, in Lawrence, Kansas. As the business grew, he expanded the company to Denver and Oklahoma City. In Denver the Barteldes Seed Co. warehouse was on 16th and Wynkoop downtown – now the site of luxury lofts. The company also had a storefront on 16th and Champa.

Jill Clancy, granddaughter of Thomas and Lovelmae, laughed remembering that Armin sold the warehouse because of the rats that had moved in from the Platte River nearby. Clancy also recalled visiting her grandparents when they lived at 2833 Forest St., and cutting through yards to get to the grocery store on Fairfax Street.

At that time, 2858 Fairfax was a drycleaners and Jill thought it was odd that her grandmother had earlier lived in a drycleaner shop. Jill Clancy was born and raised in Denver and is a longtime resident of southeast Denver.

Along with Clancy, other living relatives of Thomas and Lovelmae have been located. Mel Disney is a nephew of Lovelmae, born in 1931 and living in Clayton, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. Kay Clancy, Jill’s sister, is married and living in Michigan. Russell Leffel, another nephew of Lovelmae, was born in 1948 and lives in Mission Hills, Kansas.

Lovelmae Leffel herself came from a colorful line. Her uncle, Ernest Frank Leffel, was born in Jefferson County, Texas in 1878 and later lived in Queens, New York, working as a Vaudeville actor around the time of WWI. He toured in Cuba and several South American countries. Two decades later, he was living in Baltimore, Maryland and running his own magic school.

Another distant relative, Col. Joseph Leffel, was a very successful businessman and became Mayor of Springfield, Ohio at the end of the 19th Century. Purported to measure only 46 inches tall and weighing 60 pounds, there are many accounts identifying him as the “World’s Smallest Businessman” and the “World’s Smallest Mayor.”                         – Bernadette Kelly


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