Boulder landmarks Marpa House over objections of sexual abuse survivors


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The now-landmarked SAE-ZBT-Marpa House. (Courtesy City of Boulder)

Friday, May 8, 2020


Boulder on Tuesday night added its 201st individual historic landmark. City council voted 7-1 to designate 891 12th Street as an historic structure, preserving it from redevelopment or significant structural changes.

Landmarks are typically routine matters, but Marpa House from the beginning has been marked by controversy. The process was started over the objections of the property’s owners. Though he is now on board with the designation, other objections were raised: Notably, that Boulder recognizing the property as historically significant might be traumatic to the group of people who have accused Buddhist organization Shambhala of rampant sexual abuse of women and children.

A plaque that will eventually be placed on the property will reference Shambhala’s mixed legacy in some way — possibly the first such acknowledgement of a building’s “negative” history in the city, according to historic preservation staffers.

“As an historian, I think it’s important not to censor history by obliterating what is perhaps something you don’t want to acknowledge,” Senior Historic Preservation Planner James Hewat said in a Thursday interview. “These are sensitive and current issues. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge them and represent them as honestly and accurately as we can.”

Consideration is always given to past and present owners of potential historic properties, and homes are typically named after them. For example, last month 2440 Kohler Drive was landmarked as the McDonald Residence, in recognition of owners Don and Alice McDonald. Don was once chair of political group PLAN-Boulder County; Alice served on the library commission and helped raise $13 million to fund construction of the Arapahoe building.

Tuesday night, councilwoman Rachel Friend argued that past ownership of Marpa House should be considered as a reason not to landmark, given the “trauma” it might cause survivors.

“We’re not talking about a historical building that 100 years ago had bad things happen,” she said. “(It’s) possibly inflicting trauma on people today.”

Shambhala, whose founders are credited with spreading Buddhism to the United States, owned the property from 1977 until last year. Allegations of sexual abuse against the organization’s leaders and teachers surfaced in 2018; an internal investigation by law firm Wickwire Holm found that leader Mipham Rinpoche “likely” engaged in sexual misconduct. A teacher at the Mountain Center and another former member were arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a child; the latter pled guilty in March, the Daily Camera reported.

The resulting financial fallout led to the sale of Marpa to current owner John Kirkland. News of the impending sale sparked Historic Boulder to begin the landmarking process over Kirkland’s objections. The designation prevents redevelopment or significant structural changes. Kirkland is now on board with the landmarking, though he criticized the process Tuesday night.

“There was a very concentrated effort” from city council members and staff to “obstruct” the transaction via landmarking, Kirkland claimed, citing 2,000 pages of documents obtained in an open records request. “People were trying to stop the sale of this property,” he said, calling it an “abuse” of the city’s power.

Tuesday’s public hearing included a handful of neighbors who spoke in favor of landmarking. City council also received more than two dozen emails on the topic, the majority supportive of the designation.

Two former members of Shambhala wrote in opposition. Landmarking the building is a “slap in the face to survivors,” Justin Rezzonico wrote, many of whom he knows personally. They have been “burnt out” by the process, Rezzonico wrote in a followup email to Boulder Beat.

Leslie Hays, a survivor who also emailed council, said on Friday she was “very disappointed” by Tuesday’s discussion and vote. Testimony from neighbors disturbed her: they downplayed the accusations or questioned their validity, arguing that such behavior was at odds with their own experiences with and observations of Marpa House.

“It’s much more comfortable to remain in ignorance and think it’s some sort of peaceful, meditative community,” Hays said. “It’s just so absurd that people would think they would see things from across the street, like someone is going to get raped right on the lawn in front of you, and then maybe you’ll believe survivors.”

Council members spent a some time debating the designation given Shambhala’s complicated legacy. Though they wanted the allegations recognized in some way, the majority did not feel preservation should be derailed.

“There are many building across the country that are landmarked that have really ugly histories,” Mayor Sam Weaver said. “It’s not the building’s fault that people may have done bad things” there.

The vote to landmark was 7-1, with Friend dissenting and councilwoman Mirabai Nagle absent. Friend’s suggestion to have the name of the property honor survivors in some way was not discussed nor even acknowledged by her peers.

The property is now known as the SAE-ZBT-Marpa House, in recognition of Shambhala and the two fraternities who inhabited the home before it. A plaque will make reference in some way to assault allegations. Exactly how is to be determined. Hewat said staff  “should and will” consult advocates and/or survivors of sexual assault for guidance.

Though plaques typically enumerate the architectural qualities of a landmarked building, some have included comments on the cultural significance of a physical space. The Boulder County Courthouse on the Pearl Street Mall bears a reminder that Clela Rorex, then-county clerk and recorder, issued one of the nation’s first same-sex marriage licenses at the site in 1975.

“We are going a different direction now to be much more inclusive,” Hewat said. “A lot of under-represented history is being acknowledged in a way it hasn’t been in the past. 

“With preservation, it’s typically been rich, white people in big houses. That has changed.”

Hays said a plaque was “better than” nothing. But she wishes neighbors and officials were as passionate about rooting out violence against women in children in their community as they are about historic preservation: “I’m often bumping up against here’s this progressive city of Boulder, and they don’t care about a cult in their midst.”

She wishes she had never “gotten involved” in the landmarking process, never shared her experiences with council and the Landmarks Board, never opened herself up to the denial and dismissal of the worst experiences of her life.

“I thought it couldn’t hurt to speak up,” she said. “It hurts.”

View a thread of Tuesday’s discussion here.

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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