Garden Pests

Unlike in many American cities, just about every tree, shrub, plant and vine in Denver has been planted and cared for by someone. As early as the 1880s, people were bringing blue spruce trees down from the mountains and planting them among the scrub bushes and prairie grasses, which are essentially the only things that grow here naturally.

It's remained that way for a century, with succeeding generations bringing plants in from elsewhere: those wonderful pines from the mountains; stately American elms from the Midwest; gorgeous maples and locusts from back East. But every once in a while, we are reminded that only those scrub bushes and those prairie grasses truly belong here. 1995 was such a year.

The devastating Tussock moth took out spruce after spruce last spring. Dutch Elm disease felled majestic giants all summer long. And the pesky pine beetle was ever at work killing entire groves. Then, as though Mother Nature hadn't thought of everything already, there was that heavy early snow that literally broke trees in half.

And how have we responded to such a chain of calamities? We're out there cleaning up and planting more. Gardeners in Denver need to be as relentless as those pine beetles. And so do preservationists.

Which brings us to the topic at hand--the infestation of institutional and architectural egotism that is at the heart of proposed changes to the spectacular Boettcher Conservatory, the Mitchell Auditorium and the gift shop at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Oh, there's one good thing about the proposed changes to the gift shop: At least the architect who designed the Botanic Gardens, Victor Hornbein, who died last summer, didn't live long enough to see this abomination perpetrated. And it's apparently just the beginning: Soon to be announced are additions to the education wing and plans to totally gut the conservatory to bring it in line with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Residents in one or another of the swank neighborhoods that surround the gardens, many of them rich and politically well-connected, have stridently opposed major expansion at the gardens. As a result, a new building, which would solve demands for a larger gift shop and more classroom space, likely is out of the question. But rather than putting a halt to enlargement plans, the neighbors' resistance has had the tragic effect of focusing all the expansion mania on the masterful main building.

The DBG that Hornbein designed in partnership with Denver architect Ed White and that he worked on right up until his retirement in the 1980s is without question one of the great works of art in the city's built environment. It is typically seen as Hornbein's greatest accomplishment; in fact, the DBG was listed as a Denver landmark nearly 25 years ago, at a time when the paint--or, more accurately, the concrete--was barely dry on the place.

As it exists today in its original form, the gift shop lies hard by the main entrance to the building. The conservatory can be seen above and behind it, and the auditorium sits in the opposite direction, to the right of the visitors' entrance.

Hornbein made the gift shop, which was originally an inviting tea room, a point of focus because he understood that it would need to visually compete with the spectacular drama of the still-futuristic-looking conservatory. As a result, Hornbein's shop is a light-filled pavilion meant to catch our eye and our gift dollars--and it does. (So, too, does the hideous nonfunctional awning that marks the gift shop's entrance--tacked on in later years, probably by some marketing nitwit.) The low exterior concrete walls that define the shop are capped with red sandstone blocks, above which is a wood-and-glass curtain wall; shading the concrete walls are overhanging eaves with coffers that are supported by flaring pillars.

The proposed changes, which provide for the addition of just a few hundred measly square feet to the gift shop, allegedly exist today only in the crudest of preliminary drawings. But they call for no less than the total annihilation of the character of this prominent element of the main building. Don't tell me how a corner of the original wall will be saved within the new interior of the shop--that's cold comfort, because this part of the building should not be touched at all. According to well-established standards set forth by the Department of the Interior, messing with a main entrance and its immediate surroundings while adding on to a historic building is a serious no-no.

That point should be clear to everyone, especially the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission, which incredibly approved this half-baked scheme a couple of weeks ago, even though the design is in the most nascent of stages. (The architectural firm of Anderson, Mason, Dale, along with architect John Prosser, who have designed the new addition, have not released a final elevation.)

Admirably, commissioner Barbara Sudler Hornby voted against the changes, finding herself, as she often does, alone on the right side of a preservation battle. Hornbein's former partner White, who also sits on the commission, appropriately abstained. And for reasons he did not reveal, so did commissioner Steven Leonard. But what's wrong with the rest of them?

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