EMW Carpets & Furniture closed after century on South Broadway in Denver

Eric and J.C. Helmstaedter have a trove of stories about EMW Carpets & Furniture, naturally.

The brothers were the third generation to run the family business that operated on Broadway just south of Evans Avenue for almost a century. EMW was their grandmother, Elizabeth Mary Wagenblast, the family and company matriarch who once joked in a Denver Post article that her initials stood for “every minute work.”

The most dramatic story comes from June 15, 1988, when the intersection of Evans and Broadway was the epicenter for a rare Denver tornado. The funnel came down through the roof of the EMW building twice and hit the family-owned warehouse space next door, at that time home to a Sysco restaurant supply retail store, according to the brothers.

“We watched the tornado come over Ruby Hill,” Eric said. “The closer it got, that’s when we had to run for cover.”

Claudia Helmstaedter, Eric’s wife who came to work at the business in the years after the storm, remembered that when he got home in the early hours of the next morning dirt and bits of glass were in his hair.

After surviving the tornado, the end of the line finally came for EMW on Nov. 30 after the last pieces of unsold furniture were donated and the doors were locked for good.

After 98 years in business, the Helmstaedters sold the furniture showroom building, attached warehouse and 10 homes they owned behind the business along Acoma Street to Trammell Crow Residential. The developer plans to demolish the buildings to make way for a five-story, 366-unit apartment complex. The $20 million sale closed on Dec. 10, city records show.

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t influence the decision. With more people staying home and investing in updates and renovations to their homes, 2020 was good for the business even if it did impact some of the orders from suppliers, J.C. said

EMW may have continued selling furniture and installing flooring if a fourth generation of the family –Eric’s son– had wanted to run it, but after working there for years he was ready to move on, his dad said.

“We think it’s the right offer,” Eric said in early November. “We have been getting hit by developers for the last 10 years, I’ll bet.”

The sale provided an opportunity to look back on EMW’s legacy in south Denver, not just for the Helmstaedters, but for neighbors and members of the city’s community planning and development staff.

Before the sale, the brothers applied for a certificate of demolition eligibility for the store property, triggering its review as a potential historic landmark. No one filed paperwork to designate the building landmark, clearing the way for redevelopment, but city staffers found plenty that was historic about EMW.

EMW is “among the longest operating family businesses in Denver and certainly the longest operating along this stretch of S. Broadway,” city staffers wrote in a report in October.

Of particular interest to city researchers was Elizabeth Wagenblast’s efforts to sustain and grow the business. She co-founded it with her husband, Eric and J.C.’s grandfather Englebert Wagenblast. Originally, the couple had space near the Daniels and Fisher tower downtown, Eric said, but in 1923 they started selling carpets out of the front room of the family home on South Broadway, at the time the only paved street in the neighborhood with little in the way of commercial activity. Englebert struggled with poor health, meaning Elizabeth handled much of the workload in the early days before her son, Jack, and son-in-law, Eric and J.C.’s dad Al Helmstaedter, got involved.

“We really didn’t know much about carpets, and I don’t suppose we were very business-like in the early days. If a customer rang the bell, I’d park the kids someplace, unlock the door and sell a carpet,” Elizabeth was quoted as saying in the city report. “When I’d sell a rug, I was the one who went out and delivered it, sewed it and put it down. The sign of a woman wrestling a rug must have impressed people because our customers kept coming back.”

The report calls Elizabeth “significant in Denver history as a successful female entrepreneur and business owner,” particularly in the 1920s and particularly in an industry that required physical labor. Under Elizabeth’s watchful eye and Al Helmstaedter’s management, EMW kept growing to the point that by 1970 its installers were carpeting 35 homes a week in Denver’s fast-growing suburbs.

Selling carpets was only a piece of what Elizabeth and Englebert did to make money in the early days of the business. They poured concrete sidewalks, sold caskets, even hosted boxing matches on their property, Eric said. Used furniture was part of the early offerings, blossoming as the business — and its idiosyncratic building — grew.

EMW opened in the family home and never left. Additions and updates over the year meant the house was eventually swallowed up and incorporated into what ultimately became a roughly 55,000 square-foot structure with a large showroom fronting onto Broadway, office space and a warehouse with a custom conveyor-belt that helped carry merchandise and materials between the first and second floors. Until the day it closed down, the family kitchen remained the company breakroom.

“It’s no cookie cutter here,” J.C. said in November. “It’s very organic how it grew.”

That organic growth allowed Elizabeth to stay close to the business, where her heart was. A later renovation installed a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment on the second floor of the building overlooking Broadway. Elizabeth lived there with her sister in her later years. It had an ornate fireplace and was originally adorned with green and gold wallpaper, hallmarks, the Helmstaedter brothers said, of the grandmother’s Italian heritage. Elizabeth, maiden name Bollo, died in 1984.

“She always wanted to be here. She had total control that way,” J.C. said. “We’d come in to work and she would be at the front sidewalk sweeping the entryway. Nobody got any work done until she was satisfied things were clean and ready.”

Trammel Crow Residential doesn’t have a firm time line for when demolition and construction will begin on the corner of Broadway and Evans, Jarvie Worcester, the company’s mountain state managing director, said in an email. The project, which is also expected to bring 7,500 square feet of retail space and 390 parking spaces in an integrated garage to the block, is part of a wave of dense new residential development near the Evans Station light rail stop a few blocks to the west.

“The Evans and Broadway site is an extremely attractive location between two bustling business centers in a growing submarket,” Worcester said. “Denver is a great place to live and one of the most resilient markets in the country that desperately needs more quality rental housing to meet growing demand.”

The Overland Park Neighborhood Association is expecting to hear from the developer at its Jan. 28 meeting, co-president Amy Razzaque said. She said she will miss J.C. Helmstaedter and the rest of the family.

“It would be nice to stay in neighborly contact with them because they are such a staple for the Overland Park neighborhood,” she said.

Tom Montoya, 67, grew up in southwest Denver and said EMW has been a neighborhood fixture his whole life. The president of the Rosedale Harvard Gulch Neighborhood Association, which represents the area just across Broadway from the store, Montoya said the forthcoming apartments should be a positive for nearby businesses, bringing more foot traffic. But it will also bring more vehicle traffic and the general unease that comes with change.

“People were going to miss (EMW) as an icon in neighborhood,” he said. “We’re kind of sad to see it going away, but we understand that change is kind of inevitable.”

With retail in his blood, even after the store closed Eric Helmstaedter emphasized how much EMW customers, especially the return customers who supported the business for decades, meant to him and his family.

“They’re the lifeline of every business,” he said. “The good ones and the tough ones and everyone in between. The tough ones made us better.”

“It was just a really good run with really great customers,” Claudia Helmstaedter added.

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