From Pillar to Post

Downtown Denver has been home to nearly all of the largest, most expensive and most important buildings constructed in the Rocky Mountain region over the past 100 years. It's a history book written in stone. But there are some missing chapters.

The buildings still standing in the central business district tell many stories. They illustrate the cycles of boom and bust that have characterized the city's on-again, off-again destiny. We know, for example, that the early 1890s were a time of growth and prosperity because important, national-class buildings were constructed then. These include the Brown Palace Hotel, at 17th and Broadway, by Frank Edbrooke, and the Denver Athletic Club, at 1325 Glenarm Place, by the firm of Varian and Sterner. Both the hotel and the club are elegant examples of the Richardsonian-Romanesque style, then popular for the design of high-status buildings.

Unfortunately, most of the wonderful buildings erected in downtown Denver in the 1890s have fallen victim to the wrecking ball over the last several decades. This is another story that downtown Denver tells us: that the city hasn't provided adequate protection for its historic buildings.

The problem got so out of hand by the 1990s that even the Webb administration recognized it. The mayor assembled a series of summit meetings at which the various players interested in downtown development met to address issues in the B-5 zone (the city planning commission's name for the downtown core, which doesn't include LoDo and the Civic Center, both landmark districts with strict controls over demolition and new construction).

The B-5 zone meetings dragged on for years, and regulations were slowly hammered out--at times rancorously--regarding future development. These included a proviso that there be no additional surface parking--a profitable and low-maintenance land use that already occupies nearly a fourth of the B-5 zone. Implicit in this moratorium on surface parking was that no building in the B-5 zone could be demolished unless there were firm plans to replace it with another building.

What brings all of this to mind is the current threat to the old Denver Post building, now known as Temple Court, which sits vacant and neglected at 650 15th Street. The back of the building, on 14th Street, sits across from the Colorado Convention Center, a location that has put it on the hot seat. That's because the site is seen by many as the perfect place to build a convention-center hotel. Not that there are any plans to do that right now. But that hasn't prevented prospective owner and Denver developer Bruce Berger from calling for the old Post building to be scrapped.

Berger has the building under contract for a price rumored to be substantially less than current owner Times Mirror Co.'s $8.5 million asking price. The Los Angeles media giant, which once owned the Post, retained the valuable downtown property after it dumped the newspaper to MediaNews Group in 1988. A year later, the newspaper's editorial and advertising departments moved to rented space in the ugly 1980s office building at 1560 Broadway. Berger wants to demolish the old building and use the site for--you guessed it--surface parking. Which, of course, flies in the face of the B-5 regulations.

In the current issue of Historic Denver News, Kathleen Brooker, president of Historic Denver, serves Berger with a warning. Citing the B-5 regulations, she says the preservation group "will vigorously oppose any effort to demolish the existing structure for interim parking." But despite this saber-rattling, Historic Denver hasn't brought forward an application for protection of the building to the Denver Landmarks Commission--and neither has anyone else.

Nonetheless, the landmarks commission, acting independently, recently held an informal meeting on the crisis. And a couple of weeks ago, the city's planning board formally registered its objection to Berger's interim-parking plan. Preservationists, always the 98-pound weaklings of the process, have gained a few other unlikely allies. One owner of several downtown properties who asks not to be identified says he and other owners are opposed to Berger's parking-lot scheme. "Anybody would have paid $6 million [the rumored sale price] for the Post if they knew it was possible to level the building for interim parking," he says. "As a cleared site, the land's worth more like $20 million."

However, as the Zeckendorf Plaza fiasco of a few years ago made clear, neither the landmarks commission nor the planning board has much real power to save important buildings. And a concerted effort on the part of property owners who may one day want to tear down their own buildings is a long shot at best. The last piece of bad news is that the final decision on the Post building will be left to the Denver City Council. And guess who's likely to win there? Even if the B-5 regulations hold--an unlikely event given the desperate quest by the Webb administration for a convention-center hotel, which Berger is promising will come later--there's simply no plan, or even the will, to preserve the venerable building. That means a parking lot will likely soon replace the Post. So yet another chapter will be erased from downtown's history book.

The Post building, completed in 1950, was the first major post-war commercial development downtown. The building was commissioned by Helen Bonfils, then the newspaper's majority owner. Affectionately called "Miss Helen" in the society pages of the day, Bonfils inherited the paper in 1933 from her father, Frederick Bonfils. Until her death in 1972, she helped run the Post at the board level and remained the majority stockholder.

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