THE ZECKENDORF FOLLIES

It's hard for those who love art to understand why some would seek it out only to destroy it. What is the motive of the vandal who slashes a painting or defaces a sculpture? Is he deranged?

It's different with architecture. No one would consider out-of-town hotel magnate Fred Kummer pathological, even though he aims to destroy one of the finest and best-known works of architecture in the Rocky Mountain West, I. M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza. No, the absentee owner leans toward this premeditated act of vandalism as a result of simple greed.

Kummer purchased the 1950s-era complex last fall for the sum of $37 million and immediately asked the city for 80 percent of that back in change by requesting a $30 million public subsidy from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority. Then the new landlord's in-house developer/designers, HBE, in consultation with Denver architect George Hoover (a designer hardly skilled at the art of historic preservation, as he proved with his inept proposal for the Central Library), suggested a set of additions and subtractions. The latter included the demolition of the famous hyperbolic paraboloid and its replacement with an "elegant glass box."

In response to the threat posed by Kummer's plans, Historic Denver asked the Denver Landmarks Commission to designate the plaza a historic district. At a public hearing held April 18, representatives of Denver's architecture and preservation community went to bat for the Pei-designed gem. The Modern Architecture Preservation League, the Colorado Historical Society, several chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation all endorsed the effort to save the plaza. So did a variety of neighborhood groups and individual citizens.

Then Kummer attorney Andy Loewi, from the Denver law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland, attempted to contradict the testimony presented by those groups. The first red herring Loewi produced was the already discredited story that the plaza was not the work of Pei. But herrings, even red ones, quickly start to smell when subjected to the heat and light of public scrutiny. Surely it must have taken courage--or should that be temerity?--for Loewi to call into question the eyewitness recall of former Pei associate Alan Gass while the fuming elderly architect sat only a few feet away. Especially since Gass was backed up by a statement from Henry Cobb, who has headed the Pei firm since the elderly master retired and who was intimately involved in the design of Zeckendorf Plaza. (So much so, in fact, that it is to the reluctant Cobb that Loewi has tried to give design credit.)

But as he continued his presentation, Loewi seemed to admit that even he knew Pei had designed the complex. The owner's lawyer suggested that Zeckendorf Plaza was not one of Pei's better efforts--and even underlined the point by citing a characteristically modest quote from Pei in which the architect called the work he did in the 1950s "merely adequate." It was hardly surprising that Loewi had trouble understanding what Pei meant: The concept of humility, so familiar to artists, is a foreign idea to most lawyers.

Loewi's testimony included every anti-preservation trick in the book, including the long-discredited idea that landmarking constitutes a "public taking." But the law in this area is clear. Since the famous Penn Central case hit the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978, the right of cities to identify and preserve historic properties has not been considered a "taking," and the principles of that case have been reaffirmed unanimously by the court as recently as 1993. Anyway, one does not need to be a legal scholar to see that what's happening at Zeckendorf Plaza is not so much a "public taking" as it is the public being taken.

Before testimony concluded at the April hearing, Kummer's position was bolstered by DURA and Downtown Denver Inc., which both oppose landmarking. Next came a rancorous discussion about convening a secret executive session, with strong objections from some members of the press leading the commission to vote to hold its deliberations in public on April 23. Before the meeting convened, commissioner Sharon Nunnally chided the owner's team for its relentless bashing of Historic Denver. At that point, Loewi said he hoped he hadn't unintentionally taken part in that kind of thing. Loewi's statement broke the heavy tension at the hearing, causing nearly everyone there to burst out laughing.

At the subsequent April 23 meeting, it became clear that by any objective measure, Zeckendorf Plaza is exactly the kind of architecture the Denver Landmark ordinance was created to protect. To be declared eligible for historic designation, a work of Denver architecture typically is required to meet at least two of ten criteria that have been set out by the Landmarks Commission. In the case of Zeckendorf Plaza, nine of the ten were met.

Commissioner Seth Rosenman led the criticism of Kummer's objections, which Loewi had submitted in a phone-book-sized document. Rosenman said it appeared that Kummer's hired guns had come to their conclusion first and then woven their evidence out of whole cloth, highlighting information that bolstered their claims and ignoring that which didn't. Before closing deliberations, the commission scheduled a vote on the issue at its next regular meeting on May 2. It was at that meeting that Zeckendorf Plaza cleared its first important hurdle, being named eligible for landmark protection by a unanimous vote of the commission.

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