Blood on the Tracks

It's hardly unexpected to find art shows at museums--unless the museum is that funky Platte Valley landmark the Forney Transportation Museum. It is this unlikely venue that well-known contemporary artist Stephen Batura chose for his most recent, untitled show. In a sense, the Forney was a natural for this Denver artist, because his subject for the new series of monumental paintings is train wrecks, and the Forney includes in its large collection locomotives, passenger cars and even a caboose or two.

The Forney has built up tremendous historic equity with its collection, which deals with the important twentieth-century theme of human conveyance. In addition to trains, it includes horse-drawn carriages, horseless carriages, cars, motorcycles, bicycles and even a few small airplanes. All of these things, some of which are quite large--such as the behemoth of a steam engine called "Big Boy"--are displayed in and around the impressive red-brick building prominently sited near the intersection of Speer Boulevard and Interstate 25.

The museum, which opened in Fort Collins in 1961, was founded by Rachel and J.D. Forney, both of whom are now deceased. After a brief stint in the mid-Sixties on the lower level of Cinderella City mall in Englewood (which is now being demolished), the Forney moved into its current home in 1968. The museum has a broadly based transportation theme, but it originally comprised an automobile collection started by J.D. in the Forties. Even though the trains are larger, the cars are the real treasures of the Forney. Beyond the dirt, the dings, the flat tires and the goofy and distracting display techniques are some truly remarkable machines. The most important car here is surely the incredible 1923 Hispano-Suiza, which sports six wheels on its long, sleek body. Another gem is the black 1937 coffin-nosed Cord, an unbelievably chic monument to streamlining. The 1922 Kissel Gold Bug once owned by air ace Amelia Earhart has both design and historical appeal.

A few months ago, Jack Forney, the museum's president and the son of Rachel and J.D., sold the building to REI, the national chain of sporting-goods stores. REI intends to convert the impressive old structure into one of its so-called superstores, a type of enterprise that combines theme-park diversions such as kayak rides and rock-climbing walls with high-end retail sales of the gear necessary for such pursuits. Early indications are that REI will carry out a sensitive restoration of the historic building, which, frankly, is now in a severely declining condition and has suffered numerous, if minor, insensitive renovations over the years.

The building was constructed in 1901 by the engineering firm of Stearns-Rogers for the Denver Tramway Company--the largest of a number of trolley companies active in the region--to serve as its power plant. At the time, Denver had an extensive trolley system that not only linked the different parts of the city but connected to inter-urban lines that allowed turn-of-the-century Denverites to travel on public transport as far afield as Golden, Boulder and even Estes Park. The site itself is redolent of local history, since it was not far from the Denver spur of the transcontinental railroad line in Cheyenne, Wyoming (first run through the Platte Valley in 1870). So, considering its original intent and location, it's a real shame that the building will no longer serve as a transportation museum.

The architect who designed it is unknown but was most likely a staffer for Stearns-Rogers. It's a noteworthy example of the Romanesque revival style that by the turn of the century had been all the rage in America for twenty years. The form of the building, though at first glance reminiscent of a barn, is apparently based on medieval Italian and French ecclesiastical architecture. The prominent end facade, visible from the Speer Boulevard viaduct (though partly obscured by signage), and the street facade both feature submerged columns and a variety of arched windows that together bring down the scale of the gigantic edifice.

Just inside the entrance to the Forney is a conflagration of desks, chairs, file cabinets, old posters and racks of books and postcards--and that's just the gift shop. Also on display is a drawing of the Forney's new home, a nondescript warehouse on Brighton Boulevard near the Denver Coliseum (after some uncertainty as to whether the new location would work out, plans for the move are apparently back on track). Up a short flight of metal steps is the large room where Batura's paintings are exhibited. In this cavernous but crowded room, it's hard at first to even find Batura's mural-sized pieces. That's because the Forney is a visual riot, with almost every square inch covered with something, including an extensive collection of bad representational paintings, mostly of trains and planes, to which Batura's work begs comparison.

Batura, currently a member of the Pirate co-op, was born in Denver in 1961; he earned a BFA in painting at the University of Colorado in Boulder in 1985. Soon after graduation, he spent a year in Barcelona, Spain, honing his painting skills while earning a living as an English teacher. After a little more than a year abroad, Batura returned to his hometown, where he has made a formidable reputation for himself as an adventurous, unpredictable and influential painter.

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