Roots

Cherry Creek has been in the news lately--and not just because of that dreadful "We have a whole district" advertising campaign. Even more prominent than that awkward attempt at self-promotion has been the hoopla surrounding the destruction of an ancient elm tree to make way for a duplex in Cherry Creek North.

The drama captured the imagination of many. A doomed-from-the-start rescue effort by the ad-hoc citizens' group Eye on the Elm got a lot of play in the media. And the chain of events didn't end with the midnight girdling and subsequent destruction of the tree. Instead we had to suffer through a turgid defense of property rights that appeared the next day on the Rocky Mountain News editorial page. But if the gray, faceless men in the editorial offices of the News didn't root for the tree, the rest of us surely did.

It's hard to say what's planned for two other "old growth" assets in Cherry Creek North--the Sears department store and the Archdiocese of Denver's Chancery Building. Just like the tree, both may wind up in the way of somebody's development plans. But unlike the tree, it's not too late for either of them.

If everything had gone according to plan, the 1954 Sears store on the corner of First Avenue and University Boulevard would already be gone. A dreadful redevelopment of the site was proposed in 1993 by Homart Communities Centers, Inc., then a Sears-owned subsidiary. Homart is known to Denverites for its redevelopment, along with the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, of the Broadway Marketplace south of Alameda Avenue on South Broadway. It would have been hard to imagine anything that could have made this portion of South Denver uglier than it was. But somehow Homart and DURA were able to do just that.

The collection of big-box retailers and fast-food purveyors that now fills the forty-acre Broadway Marketplace site is worse than the blandest suburban shopping center--worse even than the ponderous and goofy Park Meadows. The brutal style of architecture at the Marketplace is more typically associated with corrections facilities than it is with retailing.

Homart's plan for the Cherry Creek Sears site was little different--the company would have filled the block with a jumble of ugly little boxes arrayed around a parking lot. But a stroke of luck--Sears divested itself of Homart in 1994--placed the redevelopment on the back burner. Of course, Denver's planning and community-development office hasn't given up on the project. But that office hadn't given up on the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center staying in East Denver, either--right up to the announcement that CU was moving to Aurora. So there's still hope for the Sears.

The Sears building dates from a time when department stores were still taken seriously as works of architecture. A sleek and exaggeratedly horizontal structure, it was constructed of substantial materials--unlike most stores today, which instead commonly employ the cheap stucco substitutes seen throughout the rest of Cherry Creek. By contrast, the Sears store is made of brick and stone, with flashy metal trim reminiscent of a 1950s Cadillac. The detailing on the large building is particularly nice, especially the implied pedestal in cast stone that runs along the base.

All this careful attention to architectural and design values comes as no surprise when one learns that the building is the work of Temple Buell, one of the great Denver architects of the twentieth century. Buell's name is more familiar to modern-day Denverites as the name of a theater than as the name of an architect. And that's a pity, because before he died in 1990, he contributed six decades of fine buildings to this city--many of which are sadly on the way out or already gone.

Born in Chicago in 1895, Buell came to Denver in 1921 to convalesce from a bout of tuberculosis. He recovered quickly, and in 1923 he launched his architectural firm. Before coming to Denver, he had studied architecture at the University of Illinois and at Columbia University and had worked for a variety of architects in Chicago. Like most of the architects of his generation, Buell began his career as a traditionalist, designing buildings in any number of historical revival styles. But by 1930 he had embraced modernism, as demonstrated by one of his proudest accomplishments, the periodically endangered Paramount Theatre, at 1621 Glenarm Place, an art-deco masterpiece. Another downtown building by Buell, one in more imminent danger, is the 1949 moderne-style Denver Post Building, at 650 15th Street.

Buell worked his way through the modern styles: deco in the 1930s, moderne in the 1940s and the international style in the 1950s. It was during the Eisenhower decade that he designed the Sears store and the Cherry Creek shopping center across First Avenue, which is now covered in stucco and pseudo-postmodern excesses.

In the opposite direction from Sears, across Second Avenue, is the Archdiocese of Denver's Chancery Building. What brings this building to mind and what links it to the Sears, aside from geography, is that the Chancery is apparently about to be sold to a Tucson-based developer and turned into a luxury hotel and high-end shopping center.

The early word on this redevelopment is pretty good. According to the developer, Keith Pochter, who has signed a letter of intent to purchase the building, he will "absolutely not tear it down."

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