Six for Eight

This weekend Denver will be paralyzed by the Summit of the Eight, this year's version of the Group of Seven conferences that have been held for years. These meetings bring together the leaders of the richest countries on earth--the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Japan--and serve mostly to enrich the lives of caterers and provide a nearly infinite number of photo opportunities for the world leaders. Surely nothing of real substance could possibly result from the endless round of social events that will take up most of the agenda.

Host Bill Clinton has invited Russia's Boris Yeltsin to formally join the club this year, turning the international confab to be held at the Denver Public Library into an elite eight. The invitation is the result of Russia's troublesomeness more than its wealth, since it is hardly the eighth-richest country in the world--more like the richest Third World country, and one with atomic weapons. Russia is clearly the odd nation out in this wealthy group; I wonder how the other delegations felt when Clinton sprung this surprise invitation to make Yeltsin an official member of the club.

I wonder, too, what they'll think of the built and cultural environment of Denver. City officials might want to consider the following Summit of the Eight sightseeing tour to help fill the delegates' downtime with memories of home.

We won't need to worry about impressing the Canadians, since the cultural exchange has almost always gone from south to north, turning Canada into something of an arctic version of the U.S. with a really big French Quarter. But the Canadians did make their mark on Denver during the oil boom of the 1970s and '80s by erecting some of the ugliest and most cheaply built office buildings in the city, so they should feel right at home. Standing out like a sore thumb, for example, is the tacky and formless skyscraper at 410 17th Street that was built with Canadian dollars. Lucky for us, these carpetbaggers from the north woods decamped a decade ago, their coffers empty. Well, most of them. Pat Bowlen is still here.

One of the reasons we're so much like Canada is that both cultures are arguably spinoffs from Britain. The British influence in Denver is palpable, and not just because the traffic signs are in English. Think of all those Tudor-style houses in Park Hill. And what about St. John's Cathedral, at 1313 Clarkson Street on Capitol Hill? That 1908 English gothic revival style building by the New York firm of Gordon, Tracy and Swarthwout is worthy of the Cotswolds.

The French will also find a pied-e-terre to remind them of home: another Capitol Hill cathedral, this one looking like it stepped right out of a French guidebook. It's the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, at 1530 Logan Street, a 1900 design by Detroit's Leon Coquard, who chose the French gothic style as his architectural vocabulary. Not even the nearby McDonald's destroys the Gallic mood--they've got those all over France now, too. The delegates may also want to visit the Denver Art Museum, right next door to the Summit's headquarters in the library, and take in some of the fine French paintings and sculptures from artists such as Renoir, Monet and Maillol. The rest of us will have to wait, though--the DAM is closed to the public during the summit.

The DAM should provide hometown memories for the Italians, as well, since the sleek building itself is the work of Milanese modern master Gio Ponti, in collaboration with Denver's James Sudler. The DAM is the only example of Ponti's sublime architecture in North America, and it's one of only two buildings by the great designer in the entire hemisphere. Other Denver buildings by homegrown architects also conjure up bella Italia. Fisher and Fisher's 1925 South High School, for instance, is a noble example of the Italian Renaissance revival style, though on an American scale--it's not the size of an Italian building but rather of a whole hilltop village in Tuscany.

German immigrants were very important to the development of Denver at the turn of the century. And none more so than the Baron von Richthofen, who in 1883 had German-American architect Alexander Cazin build him a castle at 7020 East 12th Avenue that was designed in the German manner--all towers and battlements, some of them added later by the Denver firm of Biscoe and Benedict. Roll out the barrels. Another bit of the fatherland may be found on Capitol Hill in the form of that stucco bundt cake the Denver Turnverein, at 1570 Clarkson Street. This hall, built in 1921 to a design by George Bettcher, originally housed a German-American club that focused on calisthenics--and socialism. On second thought, maybe the conservatives who run Germany now won't want to check out the Turnverein after all.

Japanese delegates might enjoy a drive through the Hilltop, Belcaro and Crestmoor neighborhoods, where for decades armies of Japanese gardeners have tortured evergreens into magnificent sakai, the outdoor version of bonsai. The Denver Botanic Gardens also features Japanese landscaping around its traditional teahouse. But perhaps the best example of the Japanese influence in Denver is the engaging formalist-style Colorado National Bank Tower of 1972, by Japanese-born American architect Minoru Yamasaki. The building, at 950 17th Street, has recently been sold, and owing to the ravages of nature, the concrete piers are currently being stripped of their marble cladding, which had begun to spall. With any luck, the building will be restored to its former glory shortly.

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