Middle-Age Modern

Oh, the America of the 1950s. In the nostalgic mind's eye, the era is all poodle-skirts and roller skates, malt shops furnished with chrome dinettes and jukeboxes filled with Elvis. It was a time when, according to the late career civil servant W. Averill Harriman, the whole country "drank Coca-Cola and went to the movies."

But it was also a time when the United States established its worldwide dominance in economics and in military power--and in the realm of culture, too.

In the fine arts, abstract expressionism was in full flower, and it changed the nature of painting around the world. In design, organic modernists were reinventing furniture with a similar international influence. And in architecture, Fifties America saw the construction of modernist buildings that were the finest and most advanced on earth.

This period, in which modern art, design and architecture became widely established, marks the cultural high point of American civilization. But nearly a half-century later, the artifacts left by those groundbreaking artists, designers and architects have met with varying fates. Some are highly valued, some respected, some absolutely reviled. The work of the abstract expressionists falls into the first category; today when those paintings change hands, they bring millions, even tens of millions, of dollars. Fine organic furniture falls into the second classification; although some rare examples are valued in the tens of thousands of dollars, most are available for a few hundred.

And the buildings? All too often, they're seen to have no value whatsoever--and fall to the wrecking ball. That was the fate of Denver's fabulous 1958 Zeckendorf Plaza on the 16th Street Mall, a three-building complex that was the work of renowned architect I.M. Pei. Today only one element, the tower, survives; the rest has been replaced by an expanded Adam's Mark Hotel.

(Speaking of Zeckendorf Plaza, Susan Powers, director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, announced this month that she's stepping down after eleven too-long years at the agency's helm. More than anyone else, Powers is responsible for the chain of events that replaced Pei's hyperbolic paraboloid and department-store box with the formless pile of glass and stone that is Fred Kummer's hotel. Rather than making the monstrosity possible through a $25 million DURA subsidy, she could have nipped it in the bud, since DURA's guidelines proscribe making grants to projects that endanger "landmarks or potential landmarks." Instead, Powers went so far as to ridicule the historic Pei complex and its champions in the preservation community--right to their faces. But surprise, surprise: Today, as Powers sums up her DURA career, she seems to be suffering from amnesia concerning the key role she played in the loss of Zeckendorf.)

A few blocks away from Adam's Mark, Temple Buell's 1950 travertine, terra cotta and aluminum Denver Post building is being reduced to rubble. The structure, a rare downtown example of art moderne, has been sacrificed so that the property's current owner, Denver developer Bruce Berger, will have a cleared site to offer to someone--anyone--who might be interested in building a convention center hotel there. (Hey, wasn't that why Zeckendorf had to go?) In the meantime, a parking lot will grace the space, lined by a ludicrous "memory wall" made from salvage from the building and designed by local architecture firm Klipp Colussy Jencks DuBois.

And then last month, Sears announced that its buff-colored, brick-and-limestone 1954 International-style department store in Cherry Creek, another Temple Buell building, will soon be replaced by a new store and a shopping center that will include the city's first Whole Foods. (Just what we need, another gourmet grocery store.) Since Sears hasn't mentioned a timetable, there's a small hope that financing will fall through, as it did the last time this wonderful building was threatened.

After all, financing troubles saved Roger Musick's modernist 1958 Bankers Union Life Insurance Company building across Second Avenue from Sears that a Phoenix developer wanted to turn into a luxury hotel and shops. The deal fell through last year after the gray granite, concrete and aluminum building had been vacated by the Archdiocese of Denver; it's currently being remodeled by the local real estate company Sullivan Hayes to accommodate mixed use. So far, no major exterior changes have been made to this wonderful building: Keep your fingers crossed.

Other important Fifties buildings are endangered not by redevelopment, but neglect. The gorgeous 1959 Daly Insurance Building by Denver notable James Sudler is crumbling before our eyes. The empty structure, with its distinctive polka-dot sun-screens and Edgar Britton waterfall fountain, stands--for the time being, at least--at 16th Avenue and Sherman Street. In better shape, but also recently vacated, is another Sudler, the 1957 Columbine Building, just a couple of blocks up Sherman Street between 18th and 19th avenues. This avant-garde triumph features a front facade that zig-zags with alternating horizontal bands of glass and metal.

A few--too few--Fifties landmarks have been embraced. After a contentious political struggle, Burnham Hoyt's 1955 Central Library was preserved and the Denver Public Library built a new, Michael Graves-designed structure next door. More recently, a group of investors including architect Josh Comfort and businessman Ken Wolf has been breathing new life into the elegant 1958 Tremont Center on West Colfax Avenue at Tremont Place, a cream-colored aggregate and bright-yellow metal-clad International-style building by Alan Fisher of the famous Fisher and Fisher firm.

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