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.

Bonfils entrusted the design of the paper's new home to Temple Buell, the premier Denver architect of the period and, along with Bonfils, one of the people instrumental in the development of Denver as a modern city. And the conservative yet luxurious building he gave her reflected both of their tastes. When it opened, it was heralded as a state-of-the-art publishing facility. There was a five-story office block for editorial and advertising connected to a two-story printing plant. The paper was so proud of its new digs that it lauded the structure with a special supplement and organized daily guided tours.

Born into a wealthy Chicago family, Buell came to Denver, as many others did, to recuperate from tuberculosis. In 1921 he entered the Oakes Home Sanitarium in north Denver. Throughout his life, he frequently said that getting TB was a lucky break because it led him to Denver, where he gained both fame and fortune. Apparently, the disease had no lasting effect on Buell's health; he died in 1990 at the age of 95.

Buell established his Denver architectural firm in 1923 and became known for traditional architecture in the Tudor revival style. In the late 1920s, though, he really came into his own when he embraced modernism--in particular, the art deco style. Buell designed two of the city's greatest art deco treasures: the Paramount Theatre on Glenarm Place downtown and the Katherine Mullen Memorial, part of St. Joseph's Hospital, at East 19th Avenue and Franklin Street.

The Great Depression left the glitzy art deco style in the dust. But austerity is the mother of invention, and the art moderne style gained fans, among them Buell. During the Depression, Buell was awarded many federal commissions, including Public Works Administration jobs for the design of low-income housing projects. Buell designed scores of them throughout the West; one of the finest was his terra-cotta-clad art moderne-style Lincoln Park Homes across West Colfax Avenue from the Auraria campus. This handsome cycle of buildings was torn down recently to make way for new public-housing units. If you want a quick lesson in how not to replace a landmark, check out the sorry Highlands Ranch-style substitutes currently nearing completion on the site.

By the time he designed the Post building, Buell's interest in the art moderne style had reached its apex. And unlike the cash-strapped federal government of the 1930s, the wealthy Bonfils had the money to spring for the bells and whistles. Thus the building was decked out with expensive travertine on the first floor and terra-cotta on the upper floors, which was nearly as costly. Shiny metal trim and glass blocks completed the look.

It may be hard to appreciate these architectural qualities given the building's current down-at-the-heels appearance. Times Mirror has allowed the structure to deteriorate seriously since the Post moved out in 1989. Not only has the building become coated with a thick layer of dirt, but the travertine panels that cover the first floor are turning up missing or broken, victims of vandals or thieves. The windows are meeting the same sad fate.

But if you look through the grime and past the missing parts, the building reveals itself as one of the region's finest examples of art moderne architecture. Despite Buell's handful of other local projects, the art moderne style, which ran its course from the mid-1930s to the 1950s, is quite scarce around here. In fact, there's only one other example in all of downtown: the old Chicago Title building of 1937 by Fisher and Fisher at 17th and Champa streets, now being restored into a luxury hotel. For this reason alone, the Post building is worth saving. Even more important is the pivotal role it played in Buell's career, anticipating his mature modern style of the 1950s and '60s, best exemplified by the formalist State Service building of 1960, at Colfax Avenue and Sherman Street. Just like the Post, the State Service building is covered with deluxe materials and is rigidly symmetrical. Both buildings thus manage to be crisply modern and vaguely traditional at the same time--no mean feat for an architect of any period.

Should the Post building fall, it wouldn't be the first time the city lost an important historic asset just to gain a few more parking spaces. But should Berger succeed in his plans, there may be another casualty heretofore overlooked: the credibility of Mayor Webb's planning department, whose vision for downtown was codified in the B-5 regulations.

On second thought, that was lost years ago.

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